You may know of Burke and Hare – the notorious body snatchers of Victorian Edinburgh - but have you heard the stories of Manchester’s very own body snatchers? In this article, Historian and Genealogist Michala Hulme (author of A Grim Almanac of Manchester and Bloody British History: Manchester) delves into two terrifying examples from Manchester in the nineteenth century… 

Joseph Jordan (1787-1873)

The Manchester context 

In the 1820’s, Manchester’s governing officials faced a serious problem with urban burials that extended beyond the state of overcrowded churchyards and into the criminal underworld. Resurrectionists or body snatchers, as they were otherwise known, made their trade in towns and villages up and down the country, and their work proved to be a lucrative business, especially in towns that had anatomy schools. In Manchester, a body could earn a ‘snatcher’ as much as £10.  As the number of anatomy schools grew in the 1820s, the demand for corpses intensified. This was primarily because only bodies from executed prisoners were offered for dissection. This created a shortage of supply and anatomists turned to the black market.  

Manchester’s leading figure in anatomy during the 1820s was Dr Joseph Jordan. He had a school on Bridge Street. It was said that every student he sent to the Royal College of Surgeons never failed in anatomy. When another anatomist named Thomas Turner opened a second school on Pine Street in 1824, the price of bodies in Manchester reached an all-time high.

Resurrection Men, by Thomas Rowlandson

The Shocking Case of Harrison and Johnson 

As the gas lamps went out over the Manchester skyline, two well-dressed men from outside of Manchester were waiting at an office in Back King Street. The men named William Johnson and William Harrison were about to commit an audacious crime. Under the cover of darkness, the two men loaded their gig and headed out along the winding streets to the Catholic Granby Row Cemetery. After checking the coast was clear, the two men began digging up one of the newly occupied graves. Once the two men reached the coffin, they opened the lid and removed the corpse. They then placed the empty coffin back in the ground and covered it with earth. Throughout January and February of 1824, the men made several trips to various burial grounds throughout the town. They were only caught after an inquisitive neighbour - who witnessed the men packing cases throughout the night and thought they were thieves - called the police.  

Constable Lavender and his beagles searched the office of the men and made the grim discovery of several bodies that had been stuffed into cases, ready for shipment to London. After being unable to identify the corpses, the constable took an advertisement out in the local newspaper stating that the bodies would be on public display the following day, and viewing would require a ticket. After a fairly lengthy process, all the bodies were claimed and re-interred. Johnson and Harrison were later found guilty of stealing bodies and sentenced to fifteen months at Lancaster Castle.

Resurrectionists (1847), by Hablot Knight Browne

The Deansgate Body Snatchers 

On the evening of the 2nd May 1828, John Massey and three accomplices left their lodgings on Deansgate and walked into the Quaker burial ground at Jackson’s Row. Working at speed, the men quickly dug up and removed the body of a lady named Mary Howcroft, placing it in a trunk. Once the men returned to Massey’s house, they loaded the trunk onto a horse and cart and left for the Star Coach Office, where they were planning to send the body to London. A worker employed at the office became concerned that there was something amiss with the contents of the trunk and decided to open it and inspect the contents. After making the grim discovery of Howcroft’s body, he alerted the police who apprehended Massey. He was later sentenced to three months imprisonment. 

By Michala Hulme.

Michala is a member of the Manchester Centre for Public History & Heritage at Manchester Metropolitan University.