Rest in peace? Not likely with grave-robbers on the prowl...

Rest in peace? Not likely with grave-robbers on the prowl...

DO NOT DISTURB: But even in recent years grave-robbers have struck. Picture: Istock

I WAS doing some research into grave-robbing last week and I came across a strange piece written by Ailin Quinlan.

She told a story about a lady by the name of Margorie McCall, who was buried in Belfast in 1705. Just a few hours after her funeral, grave- robbers exhumed her body and tried to cut off one of her fingers to steal a ring.

But as they made the first cut, Margorie woke up from the coma-like state into which she had fallen. The terrified body-snatchers fled, Margorie returned home, and when her grieving husband opened the door to the sight of his ‘dead’ wife clad in her grave shroud, he fainted on the spot.

Margorie lived for some years after this event and when she finally died, she was once again interred in Belfast, where to this day her gravestone bears the inscription: “Margorie McCall, Lived Once, Buried Twice.” Make of that what you will.

Body-snatching in those days was common because there was money to be made from it. Anatomy schools needed bodies and were prepared to pay for them. Adult remains were sold for £2 each, while children, for some strange reason, were sold by the inch.

It was such a problem throughout Europe that relatives often stood guard over a new grave for the first three days. After that, bodies were no longer considered to be fresh enough and were of little value to the robbers.

Other methods of protecting graves were also used such as placing large stone slabs over them or erecting cages around them.

I thought this only happened in the middle ages, so I was surprised to learn that there are some recent cases too. It’s possible these guys still walk among us.

Stephanie Pappas, writing for Live Science, has some examples. In 1978, Charlie Chaplin, the star of the silent movies, died at the age of 88. He was a famous comedian, noted for his antics with his top hat and walking stick. He was buried in Geneva in Switzerland and rested peacefully there until thieves dug up his body and removed him from his final resting place just three months after he died.

The thieves soon contacted the family and demanded a ransom for the safe return of the corpse. His wife, however, had other ideas and she told the robbers that they could keep Charlie. As far as she was concerned, Charlie lived on in her heart and the carcass was of little use to her, so she told them to get lost.

But the police got involved and because they were anxious to catch the thieves, they asked her to play along. She agreed to help. They tapped her phone and monitored her calls waiting for the thieves to get in touch. The police also kept a watch on 200 other public phones in the area.

Their efforts eventually paid off and two mechanics from eastern Europe took the bait. They were arrested and led the police to a temporary grave where they had been hiding Charlie.

He was then returned to his original resting place and his grave was covered in concrete to prevent further interference. That was only 40 years ago.

But there is an even more recent case that that. The former Cypriot president, Tassos Papadopoulos, died at the end of 2008. His body rested in peace in the Deftera village cemetery in the capital city, Nicosia, for almost a year, until the day before the first anniversary of his death in 2009.

One of Papadopoulos’s former bodyguards went to light a candle at the grave, as was his custom each morning. Instead of undisturbed grass, however, the bodyguard found an empty hole and a pile of dirt.

Overnight, grave robbers had shifted a heavy marble slab encasing the tomb and dug through several feet of earth to reach the corpse before covering their tracks with lime.

There had been many theories circulating about the identity of the grave robbers, and whether they may have been politically or ethnically motivated.

The authorities tried to dampen speculation though, and had been working on the assumption that the body-snatchers were seeking a ransom.

An anonymous caller informed police that the body was buried in a cemetery in another part of the city. Family members, including Papadopoulos’s adult children, were taken to the grave amid heavy security and recovered the body.

This incident turned out to have a bizarre motive. A man imprisoned for murder asked his brother to dig up the former president’s corpse, hoping that he could negotiate to secure his release from prison.

But the third accomplice, an Indian national, eventually called Papadopoulos’ family and asked for money instead.

All three were sentenced to less than two years in jail apiece, as violating a grave is only a misdemeanour in Cyprus.

During the Middle Ages, the body parts of saints attracted pilgrims from all over with their supposed abilities to perform miracles. Because no town would willingly part with such an obvious cash cow, villages often hired gangs of thieves to steal relics.

One of the most famous thefts was that of St Nicholas, the original Santa Claus. St Nick’s remains were said to exude myrrh, making him a particularly valuable bag of bones.

In 1087, the Italian town of Bari hired men to steal St Nicholas from Myra, a town in present-day Turkey. The theft of Santa’s bones is still celebrated in Bari with an annual parade and fireworks.

In the 1820s, the corpse trade developed an Irish dimension to it when Burke and Hare, two Irishmen who happened to meet each other after emigrating to Scotland, went into business together. They called themselves ‘Resurrectionists’.

Next week, I’ll tell you what they got up to.

More in this section

Sponsored Content