Body snatching was a macabre but very lucrative business in eighteenth and nineteenth century Dublin. Dead bodies were essential for Dublin anatomy schools and the Royal College of Surgeons to carry out their medical research and training, and there was a roaring trade in corpses for Dublin’s less discerning or sensitive businessmen. Adult bodies fetched a fixed price, while children’s bodies were bought by the inch. The corpse was usually stripped of belongings (to steal belongings was considered a more serious offence than body snatching itself), bundled into a sack – hence body snatchers became known as ‘sack ‘em ups’ – and taken away on a cart in the dead of night. In his memoirs, Malachi Horan of Killinarden recalled that the horses wore leather shoes to muffle noise so as to avoid detection.
The ancient portion of Cruagh graveyard, on Cruagh lane behind the old Schoolhouse, is surrounded by a high wall and is now closed to burials. It contains the remains of a church and a small watchtower. The stones from the church were probably used in the construction of the watch tower, which is built partly on the site of the church, and is obviously of much later date. It is two stories high with a separate entrance on each level and like the watch towers in Glasnevin cemetery, was for the protection of new interments from the attentions of the body snatchers. According to local tradition Cruagh was many times the scene of violent conflicts between the relatives of the deceased and the ‘sack-em-ups’ and the marks of bullets could be seen on the doors of the tower as well as the gravestones. As well as watch towers, cemeteries employed a wide range of methods to stop the grave robbers including placing heavy stone slabs over graves, installing cages around them, and building high walls around graveyards.
The earliest reference to body snatching in Dublin was in Faulkner’s Dublin Journal in 1732 which reported that a grave digger in St. Andrew’s Churchyard on Suffolk Street was jailed for turning a blind eye to body snatchers. Several grave diggers were tried for similar charges over the years.
A bill to legalise the post-execution dissection of criminals’ bodies became law in 1791 and in some cases it became part of their sentence. It was seen as an extra punishment as it brought disgrace and humiliation upon the criminal. However, not all criminals were reluctant to undergo dissection. It was quite common for a malefactor to sell his body to a particular surgery school before death. With the proceeds he usually held a farewell party for himself and his friends, playing cards on the condemned man’s coffin. Usually he drank so heavily that the criminal was almost unconscious going to the scaffold.
However, the supply of bodies from the justice system was not enough to satisfy the needs of the anatomy schools. As well as the entrepreneurial ‘sack-em-ups’, the students and staff of Dublin’s medical schools also engaged in body snatching. Christopher Dixon, porter at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland in about 1805 was an active ‘resurrectionist’ who was caught by a mob on one occasion in the pauper’s graveyard at Kilmainham (also known as Bully’s Acre). After tying a rope around his waist the mob dragged him to the Liffey into which he was ducked repeatedly. He was lucky not to have met a more serious fate. John T. Kirby, son of the President of the College of Surgeons in 1823, was reported to have been killed in a ‘resurrection battle’ at Camden Row.
In his reminiscences, Malachi Horan claimed that the doctors at Dr. Steevens’ Hospital employed a man to watch the graveyard at Saggart and to tip them off when a burial was about to take place. According to Horan, on one occasion when the cemetery was being raided, a body snatcher was shot dead by an angry mob. There is no record of this event having taken place, but the older graves in Saggart cemetery, which is still in use, bear the heavy stone slabs which were used to deter the sack ‘em ups.
Eventually, public outrage forced government to pass the British 1832 Anatomy Act, which provided doctors and surgeons with a legal source of cadavers. Body snatching quickly declined after this.