Does this curious 18th-century coffin, filled with sand and covered with heavy stones, represent an attempt to ward off bodysnatchers in London’s New Churchyard? (Image: Crossrail)
Archaeological work under the Crossrail project has uncovered evidence of bodysnatching in the City of London.
Construction of the capital’s new Elizabeth Line has created one of the most extensive archaeological programmes ever undertaken in the UK (see CA 313 and 327), and work on the Broadgate entrance to the new Crossrail station at Liverpool Street has allowed MOLA archaeologists to explore the remains of a burial ground known as the New Churchyard.
This was a municipal, non-parochial graveyard established in 1569 to relieve other, older burial sites. People from all walks of life were laid to rest there – though historical records suggest that it had been used primarily by people on the margins of society, such as religious dissenters, the poor, and victims of plague – and by the time the site closed in 1739, some 25,000 people had been interred there.
The early 18th century was also a time that saw the rise of bodysnatching; before 1752, very few dead bodies could be legally obtained for medical dissection, and surgeons were restricted to using those of executed criminals for their research. The resulting conflict between supply and demand led to a lucrative and flourishing trade in illegally exhumed corpses.
Popular panic about these bodysnatchers, or ‘Resurrection Men’, is reflected in a letter published in the Original Weekly Journal on 15 February 1718. Its author, a Londoner, writes: ‘The sudden resurrection of the Dead in Southwark is become the general Subject of Conversation, and has render’d Death far more frightful and Terrible to some people neither common Humanity or strongest Elm, nor even the Grave are capable of Protecting the most Pious Mortal from falling into the Hands of some Galenian Butcher or other.’
These concerns led to increasingly creative attempts to protect the bodies of deceased loved ones – one of which may be represented by MOLA’s discoveries at the New Churchyard. While excavating the graveyard, the team uncovered a skeleton buried in sand-filled coffin topped with heavy stones. This unusual burial was probably designed to thwart bodysnatchers – an idea given further credence by dating evidence that places the grave in 1720-1739, when fears about illegal ‘resurrections’ are recorded in London.
Full findings from the investigation are set to be published in The New Churchyard: from Moorfields marsh to Bethlem burial ground, Brokers Row and Liverpool Street later this year.
This article was published in CA 331.