LAST week we had a feature on Bilston Wesleyan Methodist Church, perhaps better known as Swan Bank Methodist Church, with pictures taken from a book loaned to us by Alan Richards of Castlecroft, Wolverhampton.
The book was Bilston Wesleyan Methodism: Notes on its Origin and Progress by John Freeman, which was published as part of the church’s centenary celebrations in 1923.
Among the many interesting stories in the book are a couple of amusing anecdotes about the church’s caretaker in the 1830s, a man named Andrew Allen. In 1830 work began on laying out the graveyard of the church and Allen was given the task of guarding it from “resurrectionists”, the grimly humorous name given to bodysnatchers at that time.
John Freeman tells the stories as follows: “The Burke and Hare panic being at its height, it was deemed wise to make a special provision for the protection of the graveyard. Andrew Allen, the caretaker, was employed to watch it, and was furnished with a gun, but was cautioned not to fire, should intruders come, until he had said three times: ‘I’m going to shoot’.
“This led to a curious incident. The Trustees had held a prolonged meeting, and had been quite forgotten by Andrew, who had retired to rest for the night, having carefully fastened the gates. When ready to leave they tried them, and in doing so made some little noise which was quite enough to rouse watchful Andrew. To their surprise his bedroom window casement flew open, and out came his head and gun, and instantly in rapid and angry tones he shouted: ‘I’m going to shoot’. The dignified elders found cover with unusually quick movements, and shouted a quiet reassurance to Andrew.
“Andrew had nerves of steel, a quick, salty wit, and a whimsical way of his own, and we cannot forbear another story about him as the graveyard watchman.
“From the window of the old vestry he kept a keen eye on the burial ground, or sat in the late and early hours on a grave, with his heavy stick near, and his gun across his knee. This custom became known in the town, and some revellers at a Swan Bank tavern resolved to frighten him. For a wager one of them borrowed a white sheet from the landlady, and started forth to play the ghost. Appearing at midnight, he remained quiet until St Leonard’s chimes were heard marking the hour, when he walked towards Andrew, raising an unearthly moan as he went. Andrew sat quite still as the ghost drew near; presently he stealthily laid aside his gun and reached for his stick, saying: ‘I shanna waste powder on ghoses – I’ll try the stick,’ and before the intruder was aware of his movements he was soundly rapping his head and shoulders with his cudgel, and had snatched off the sheet and torn it into many pieces, saying: ‘I’ll gie thee playing ghoses on me.’
“The body-snatching scare was wide-spread, all the graveyards being closely watched. Many believed the rumour that the robbers bore away the bodies in carts with muffled wheels, and sealed up the rifled graves so cleverly that it was almost impossible to tell when they had paid a nefarious visit. Some owners of graves on the Wesley grounds were so perturbed, that they insisted upon the re-opening, and inspection of some of them to see if they were still inviolate.”
At that time the only legitimate supply to doctors and students of anatomy of human bodies for dissection was those of criminals executed for murder. By the early 19th century demand was growing, as medical science advanced, yet supply was dwindling, as fewer people were hanged. To make up the shortfall many doctors and students turned to bodysnatching, whereby recently deceased corpses were exhumed illegally. In common law stealing a body was a misdemeanour and not a felony and so was only punishable with a fine and imprisonment, rather than transportation or execution.
William Burke and William Hare will probably be remembered for all time as the most notorious of the bodysnatchers, yet, ironically, neither of them were grave-robbers, instead they murdered their victims.
In 1828 the two Ulstermen, who had gone to Edinburgh to work as navvies on the Union Canal, claimed 16 victims, luring most to the lodging house where Hare lived, and killing them; usually by getting them drunk and then suffocating them.
They then sold the bodies to the agents of the respected surgeon and teacher of anatomy Dr Robert Knox (1791-1862).
When their crimes were discovered Hare turned king’s evidence against his accomplice.
Burke was tried on Christmas Eve, 1828, convicted of murder and was hanged on 28th January, 1829, before a crowd of 25,000. His body was then dissected and his skeleton is still displayed at the University of Edinburgh’s Anatomy Museum.
Hare was allowed to go free but was hounded back to his native Ireland, where details of his later life were lost.
The government’s response to the widespread fear over bodysnatching was the Anatomy Act of 1832, which allowed doctors to dissect any unclaimed bodies from prisons or workhouses and also allowed people to donate bodies to medical science.
The body-snatching panic may have been exaggerated but there were many genuine cases of it across the Black Country and while the names of the perpetrators may not be as widely known as Burke and Hare they are remembered in the annals of Black Country folklore.
Among them were, “Ode Pick”, the sexton of Wednesbury church; “Brummajem Booth”, who operated from a farm in Rowley and robbed graves “from Dudley to Bilston”, selling the corpses to Birmingham medical men; and Daniel Stone who was convicted of “disturbing a grave at Over Gournal” in 1826 and was tied to a cart’s tail and taken along the road from Sedgley to Bilston, stopping at every burial ground along the way to receive 12 lashes. A mob waylaid the grim procession at Catchems Corner, dragged Stone from the parish constables and threw him into the canal.