Tuesday 30 April 2013

Head Snatching

In digging this depth and taking away the wood of these coffins, has it ever occurred to you that any bodies have fallen upon you?
I never had one in a deep grave, but I had one once; before I was there a man of the name of Fox had the ground; I succeeded him; he is now dead; he was a bad character; he is dead about three weeks. I dug a grave on a Sunday evening on purpose to get ready for Monday; that Sunday evening, and it rained, I was strange in the ground at that time; and when I went to work on Monday morning I finished my work, and I was trying the length of the grave to see if it was long enough and wide enough, so that I should not have to go down again, and while I was in there the ground gave way and a body turned right over, and the two arms came and clasped me round the neck; she had gloves on and stockings and white flannel inside, and what we call a shift, but no head.
The body came tumbling upon you?
Yes, just as I was kneeling down; it was a very stout body, and the force that she came with knnocked my head against a body underneath, and I was very much frightened at the time.
You were at the bottom of the grave, and as you were digging at the bottom, the body of this woman without a head fell upon you?
From the side?
Yes, from the side.
Out of the coffin?
It had never been in a coffin; it is supposed that they took the head off for the purpose of sale.
What depth were you down when this body fell upon you?

About nine feet.

Might they not have cut through the head as they dug down?

No, this body was taken out of the coffin before; she only lay just on the top of the earth, a little covered over; if she had been buried any depth at all, three or four feet, she could not have fell on me, the shoring of the earth would have kept it up.
You did not find the head anywhere?
You say that this body fell upon you; do you suppose that this body had been put in a leaden coffin, and that both the leaden coffin and the other had been stolen, and that the body was left there?
I cannot say that.
What do you suppose?
I suppose that she was buried in wood, in the green ground, and that something affected the head; and the man that I mention as dead, is the very man that did the deed, after the other men left the ground.
He took away the wood of the coffin?
He took away the wood of the coffin. and took away the head, it appears, and then covered the body over as well as he could.
Do you suppose that he took away the head for the purpose of conveying it to some surgeon?

I think so.

Select Committee on Interments, 1842

Burying the Dead

An undertaker gives evidence to a government select committee on the habits of the poor:

‘In many instances, people say “We cannot bury under a week;” that is from custom. Others have not the means of getting a black gown; and they cannot follow in a coloured one; that is their bit of pride; then it is put off, it may be two or three days on that account. They will not have their relatives buried by the parish; they would rather do anything than that, saying they wish them to be buried respectably; and then the end of it is that myself and other people like me often bury for nothing, not intending to do it. They cheat us; and if they would do away with their little pride, and let the parish do it, the bodies would be removed in a reasonable time, and such men as myself would not be imposed on as we frequently are.'

Select Committee, Effect of Interment of Bodies in Towns, 1842