Times Past: Bodysnatching in the centre of Barnstaple

St Peter's Churchyard in the centre of Barnstaple at around 1860, the scene for crimes of bodysnatching in times past

St Peter's Churchyard in the centre of Barnstaple at around 1860, the scene for crimes of bodysnatching in times past - Credit: Contributed

Today medical schools have ample supplies of human bodies to train their students with as attitudes towards religion and death and the 'sanctity' of the body have changed.  

In the past, however, surgeons could legally only dissect the bodies of hanged murderers – and there were never enough of these to meet the demand.  

Criminals realised there was money to be made and disinterment of the newly buried dead from graveyards (bodysnatching) became a lucrative 'trade'. 

Here in North Devon, we were not immune, as in February 1831 a man called Bishop who lived in Torrington fell ill and was taken to the North Devon Infirmary in Barnstaple where he died.  

He was quickly buried in St Peter's churchyard in the centre of Barnstaple and that should have been the end of the story. 

But a few days later his widow received an anonymous note telling her 'the remains of her husband were still in the Infirmary’. 

She went to see the Torrington Overseer of the Poor (an elected official who was in charge of payments to the poor) and after listening to her story, he took her over to Barnstaple where they had her husband's coffin dug up - only to find it full of earth!  

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The pair then went to the Infirmary where 'after some little delay the body was surrendered to them, having been disembowelled and exhibiting signs of the commencement of dissection’. 

His distraught widow put the body into a new coffin and returned to Torrington where it was reburied in the churchyard. 

The Governors of the Infirmary discussed the case at their next meeting, but in a curiously feeble statement merely expressed 'the most marked reprehension of the conduct exhibited on this occasion’. 

No-one was ever brought to book over this, although as a human body has never had a value under English law one might wonder what the offenders could be charged with. 

The next year the government passed the Anatomy Act which allowed the unclaimed bodies of workhouse inmates to be passed to surgeons – hence the fear of 'dying in the workhouse' and the prevalence of 'penny a week' burial clubs to ensure a decent funeral. 

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