Body Snatchers of Dublin: A Report from the The Graveyard Shift


Body snatchers were everywhere in early Dublin. Rob Buchanan drops us into life as a bodysnatcher in Dublin, all those years ago…

We may feel brave by daylight. But once the early sundowns of December arrive, and the phantoms call, we realise things really do go bump in the night. And some even go bump on the inside of a coffin lid! Let’s take a spine-tingling journey to a bone-chilling December night in 1775.

The smell of rotting vegetation and the loathsome howl of distant guard dogs fills our senses. Breath smokes before us in the frigid darkness. Above us a howling wind parts the ragged clouds, revealing a sickly yellowish full moon. Suddenly an eerie lunar light illuminates our surroundings, revealing we are at the centre of a sprawling ancient graveyard.

There are crumbling gothic headstones, and crazily leaning gothic crosses. There are winged statue-topped tombs, which cast jagged shadows in the pale moonlight. Sinister twisted yew trees loom around us. Ivy seems to strangle the cemetery, hungrily eating the graves’ unspeakable nutrients. But I didn’t bring us here for the scenery. We’ve got work to do. Roll up your sleeves, you’re about to raise the dead!

Body Snatchers at Large

This gruesome act of body snatching was a fact of life for centuries in Dublin. The church prohibited body donation for medical purposes. Doctors and surgeons were desperate to learn the forbidden arts of anatomy. They were forced to pay unscrupulous “Resurrection Men” to dig up fresh corpses for study, practice and teaching. Despised for violating the dead, their trade necessitates utter secrecy.

You didn’t want to be unlucky enough to stumble upon these ghouls sneaking around graveyards, defiling the newly dead. These ruthless thieves would gladly add any witness to their body bags as a bonus. Luckily for us I’ve bribed some shady characters to give us a demonstration of their dirty deed…

Our employer tonight is an anonymous professor from the Royal College of Surgeons. He is frustrated the law only allows him to dissect 6 specimens a year – they must be murderers who’ve danced on the hangman’s noose. It’s never enough, so he looks to men like us to keep his teaching slabs full, and his apron bloody.

We find our gang standing around the fresh grave of a local man. Adult cadavers used to fetch £2, a princely sum. But in tough times like these your corpse is sold by the inch, kids too. Infant and child mortality rates sadly make dead children’s corpses far too common. Sometimes stiffs were stolen to order, say if there was a medical curiosity a doctor wanted to examine. Or, a particularly beautiful deceased maiden…

body snatchers

Body snatchers at work. A painting on the wall of a public house in Penicuik, Scotland

Dublin Locales

Graveyards like Bully’s Acre in Kilmainham, St. Andrew’s on Suffolk street and Kilgobbin churchyard were regularly raided. Resurrectionists hunted for cadavers to feed the hungry medical schools flourishing in Dublin. During a period of plague or disaster, it wasn’t unusual for a team of body snatchers to retrieve multiple freshly buried Dubliners in one night. The fear of your loved one’s remains being stolen was widespread. The construction of Glasnevin Cemetery included watchtowers. Upon them, you can still see along the impressive walls, and view the bloodhound shelters. Huge slabs of rock and metal cages, called mortsafes, also hampered many attempts. Luckily for us I’ve also paid off the sexton, who guards and maintains this graveyard. He gives tip-offs on new burials too. So we shouldn’t be disturbed… by anything living anyway.

The most infamous body snatchers of all, Burke and Hare, were both Irishmen. They plied their gruesome trade on the streets of 19th century Edinburgh. These villains were particularly notorious as they decided to streamline their gory business. They stopped digging up the already deceased and cut out the middleman. They murdered at least 16 people to give to the anatomist Doctor Robert Knox. In its day, Edinburgh was at the cutting-edge of anatomical science. Though undeniably a heinous crime, body snatching resulted in huge lifesaving advancements in medicine.

Let’s get back to the macabre act itself. Under the ghostly light of a specially opaqued lantern, we see the criminals grinning. The biggest bloke thrusts a short spade into your hands. Judging by his intimidating sneer and nod at the grave, he wants you to start digging. I’d do it if I were you, these lads aren’t messing about. That carcass ain’t gonna exhume itself! Don’t worry, this stealth spade is light and made entirely of wood to mute the noise of digging. He says you only need to tunnel down roughly around the corpse’s head area of the burial site. See that dark sheet they’ve just spread out on the ground beside you? You have to chuck the churned up soil on to it so they can easily refill the hole later.

body snatchers

Mortsafes at a church yard in Logierait, Perthshire, Scotland.


Whether it’s your puny arms or you are terrified shaking, it’s obvious gardening isn’t your thing. Mocking your pathetic attempt at excavation, the littlest resurrection man snatches the shovel back and gets cracking. Before long we hear that muted thud of wood on wood, telling us we’ve struck gold. They’ve reached the coffin. Now stand back and watch as they use two iron slash hooks to pull off the head section of coffin lid. The sickening crack of splintering wood echoes through the cemetery, sending an extra chill through the already eerie scene. We nervously look around for witnesses, both living and ectoplasmic. We only see the silent marble monoliths and expressionless stone angels rising from the corpse-rich soil. We’ve made it halfway through!

Leaning on a nearby mausoleum, the middle body snatcher takes out a grimy-looking bottle of poitín. He gulps a sloppy mossy-toothed swig from it and passes the vile moonshine to us. Relaxed now, our buddies tell us that sometimes the notoriously rowdy medical students do their own dirty work. They bring home the decomposing bacon themselves. One ingenious and extremely gruesome type of heist, involves the students disguising themselves in peasants clothes and carrying a coffin full of rocks to the graveyard. They would then locate their target, a real funeral which their sources informed them would only have a few mourners. The fake mourner-students would strike up conversation and offer them whiskey laced with laudanum or opium. With the victims are incapacitated by drugs, the students swap the contents of the coffins and leg it. As insane and cartoonish as this sounds to our 21st century ears, these things were a regular occurrence! This method was used frequently at The Cabbage Garden burial ground near Kevin Street.

As if that wasn’t spooky enough, sometimes if trouble started with the drugged-up mourners, the bodysnatchers would strip the corpse on the ground and redress it wearing fancy clothes. Then with one resurrection man on either side drag the body home through the streets as if it was a drunk.

Body Snatchers: Coffin Wood

With a groan the bodysnatchers recommence their gruesome deed. That smashed section of coffin wood is removed. A draft of befouled fetid air is released. Exposed in the moonlit hole is the ghastly sight of the grey gaunt deceased man’s face. The shroud has parted to display waxy translucent skin, already shrivelling from its time in the earth. Retracting lips expose teeth. Sunken flesh accentuates the round hollowing sockets of dead deflated eyes. The corpse seems to grimace at us menacingly for disturbing its slumber. The reality of what we are about to do hits home like a shower of ice cubes.

Before we lose our nerve the bodysnatchers swiftly use a long rope. It has a hook noose at the business end, to secure their rotting quarry around the neck. Sometimes if a larger hole for a big corpse is used then the rope goes under the arms. They start to pull; the deceased’s jaw drops open with a sickening wet clack. There’s a disturbing silent scream on its face as we heave up the blasphemous bounty. With some grunts of effort, the cadaver is unceremoniously heaved up through the hole. It is deposited at our feet like a monstrous catch on a fishing line.

The next step is vital. The resurrection men must remove the shroud and the clothes from the corpse. Due to a legal gray-area nobody owns a dead body, but the shroud and burial attire is property and they could be arrested for theft if they took that too! These are dropped back down the hole, which is back-filled with the soil on the sheet.

Alarmingly we notice the grave robbers are staring strangely at us, whispering to each other whilst rubbing their grimy hands together. The ghost of a greedy grin is on their faces, just as the largest one takes out a tape measure. Our own organs are mostly still intact. So we make a polite, but brisk, exit back in our Irish time machine.


Click here for another spooky story!

Author bio:

Rob Buchanan was one of the winners of 2015 Poetry Ireland Introductions series. His debut poetry collection “The Cost of Living” sold out. He has won national and international awards for his writing, and has been published in a number of poetry journals and magazines including The Stinging Fly, Flare, Live Encounters and Pendemic. Rob was a winner of the Young Ireland Award in Glasgow for his lectures on the Dangers of Democracy. He has written popular current affairs columns for, and been published, in DublinLive, The Outmost, Eile, An Phoblacht , Rukkle, Headspace and The Journal. Rob lives in Dublin and is working on his first novel and a Dublin history anthology.





About Author