Robert and the Resurrectionists, a tale of Yorkshire body snatchers – Part 1

“A Young Man, about 18 Years of Age, Five Feet Six Inches high[1], Face slightly round, Brown Hair, cut short behind, and long before, slightly calf licked on the right side of the Head, very short down Beard, with scarcely any Whiskers; the left Incisor Tooth stands backward, and the left Canine Tooth forwards; Blue Eyes, of which the left is somewhat injected with Blood; rather fair Complexion, well made and somewhat muscular; the Nail of the ring Finger of the right Hand has been destroyed, and a new Nail partially formed; a slight graze on the right shin nearly healed; there is dirt on the Legs set into the Skin, and the Body exhibits no appearance of illness”.

So read the description of Robert Hudson, my 4x great grandad’s youngest brother, in the “Leeds Patriot and Yorkshire Advertiser” of 12 November 1831. Great to have such an early description. More noteworthy perhaps is the fact it is post-mortem of an, at this point, unidentified body. The press circulated the description and the corpse was placed on public display in Leeds Court House in the hope of putting a name to it.

The discovery of the body in Leeds on 7 November 1831 was triggered by something as innocuous as the prospective sale of a house on Tobacco-Mill-Lane in the Sheepscar area.

In late October the house-owner, Mr William Peniston rented the property to school master James Crabtree Pickering. However at the beginning of November a permanent buyer came forward via a friend of Peniston, Mr William Myers. Viewing though proved problematical. Pickering, who was not occupying the property, procrastinated. He claimed not to have the keys. When they did finally materialise on 7 November Mrs Evans, the buyer’s wife, was available, but not her husband. A locked upstairs closet also proved a minor inconvenience.[2].

Arrangements were made for Pickering to show the house again at 7pm that evening. Peniston and Myers arrived first.[3] Yet again Pickering proved elusive. But Peniston and Myers became aware people were in the property. Suddenly, as they watched, three men left the residence wheeling a box in the direction of Leeds. The pair followed all the way to the Rose and Crown Coaching Inn on Briggate.

Blue Plaque at Queens Arcade, Briggate, Leeds - the site of the Rose and Crown Coaching Inn

Blue Plaque at Queens Arcade, Briggate, Leeds – the site of the Rose and Crown Coaching Inn

The package was in the process of being placed onto the Courier coach heading north, when Peniston drew its suspicious nature to the attention of William Halton, the constable. He seized butcher James Norman, one of the men helping to load the package. The others involved melted away into the crowd. The package was addressed at one end to “Hon. Ben Thompson, Mail-Office, Edinbro’. To be kept until called for. Per Courier, Nov 7th 1831” and at the other “Hon Benjamin Thompson, Mail Office, Carlisle”. Opening it revealed the body of a young man.

July 1831 advert for the Courier Coach from the Rose and Crown Inn, Briggate

July 1831 advert for the Courier Coach from the Rose and Crown Inn, Briggate

Pickering was tentatively identified by some as one of the individuals who had brought the box to the Coach Office and paid for its transportation. So Halton went round to his Bond-Street rooms. Pickering was there with John Craig Hodgson and the pair were brought in to the Chief Constable. The room was also found to contain paraphernalia associated with body snatchers including wet, muddy clothing (obviously used), rope, spades, a saw, a gimlet and an implement that could be used for breaking coffin lids.

And Hodgson, an attorney’s clerk, did have history in this area. As recently as July 1831 he appeared before Leeds Borough Sessions, receiving a six week jail sentence for stealing a dead body.[4] At his trial he argued he too would be involved in its dissection to further his anatomical knowledge, which would be useful in his law employment; he had no intention of selling the body on. The leniency of his sentence owed something to the persuasiveness of the defence put forward, including that by Leeds surgeons, about the need for dead bodies for anatomical purposes to advance medicine. Solicitors also testified on his behalf.[5]

The increase in medical schools in this period combined with the reduction in supply of cadavers with the decrease in capital punishment sentencing[6] resulted in a growing shortfall of bodies for anatomical dissection. This in turn led to a criminal black-market trade in freshly-buried corpses. Providing only the body and no other grave contents were taken, including the burial garments, the crime was treated as a misdemeanour so would entail a lesser sentence.

Some did take it a step further and resorted to murder in order to supply the need. Burke and Hare are the most famous exponents of this. And in November 1831 the so-called “Italian Boy” case was hitting the headlines nationally. A teenage boy was murdered in London and an attempt was made to sell his body to an Anatomical School. On 8 November, a coroners’ jury found a verdict of “wilful murder against some person or persons unknown“.[7] This then was the backdrop to the Leeds find and, as such, it added to the feverish excitement of the town’s populace.

The fascination only increased in the following days. Speculation mounted that foul means also accounted for the demise of the Leeds body, which was put on public display for identification purposes. Despite being seen by thousands this proved fruitless and on 10 November, as the suspicion of murder increased, an inquest was held. By this stage four individuals were in custody: Hodgson, Pickering, Norman and shoemaker John Wood.

The body was moved to Leeds Infirmary for a post-mortem prior to the inquest at the Griffin Inn. Leeds surgeon Thomas Chorley found that there was no sign of illness or disease in the body; the cause of death was strangulation; he also said that, due to its unwashed state, it did not appear the body had been buried. Suddenly things were getting very serious indeed for those suspected of involvement in the crime. Body snatching was one thing; murder took it to a whole new level…..

With his legal background Hodgson’s almost two-hour long questioning of Chorley, in an effort to prove there was no certainty about cause of death, demonstrated he was fully aware of the stakes.

The inquest was suspended until the following Wednesday and the body returned to the Court House for public viewing in the hope that identification would shed more light on the case.

To be continued…….

Sources:

  • Ancestry UK: Criminal Registers, HO 27 series
  • Find My Past Newspapers: “Leeds Intelligencer” – 10 & 17 November 1831 and 5 April 1832; “Leeds Mercury” – 12 & 19 November 1831; “Leeds Patriot & Yorkshire Advertiser” – 9 July 1831, 12 & 19 November 1831 and 7 April 1832; “Yorkshire Gazette” – 7 April 1832.
  • Pharos Tutors Course: Victorian Crime and Punishment, Courts, Police and Prisons http://www.pharostutors.com/

[1] Other reports suggest 5’3”
[2] Later that week when the cupboard was accessible, blood stains were visible on the floor.
[3] Some reports indicate the purchaser was due to view.
[4] Ancestry UK Criminal Registers: HO 27; Piece: 42; Page: 438
[5] “Leeds Patriot and Yorkshire Advertiser” 9 July 1831
[6] The bodies of those executed were given over for anatomical dissection.
[7] In December 1831 John Bishop and Thomas Williams were hung for the offence

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