A corpse that came to life, and a man who was buried alive...

John Arnold reflects on tales of grave robbers or Resurrectionists in his weekly column
A corpse that came to life, and a man who was buried alive...

DO NOT DISTURB: The vault built in Gortroe Cemetery in 1837 to stop the activities of grave-robbers

THE one item that’s necessary for the correct study of anatomy is a human body.

Anatomy sounds a bit gruesome to me, but I do understand perfectly that medicine and medical research of all kinds need to know exactly how the body functions and malfunctions.

With many, many years, the practise of persons donating their remains for Medical Research has been in vogue. Many of us will know of people who have made that very benevolent decision, and included it in their will, and told their next of kin while still in the full of their health.

In times gone by, such far-seeing and civic-minded obligations were seldom entered into. This situation gave rise to a gruesome ‘trade’ in many parts of Ireland, especially those situated close to colleges and universities, where anatomy was studied.

If you visit several cemeteries in Cork, you can still see vault-like structures built to try and thwart the unscrupulous exertions of grave-robbers. 

For anatomical research to be successful, very recently deceased bodies were required - often referred to as cadavers - and a ‘trade’ grew up where the grave robbers, or Resurrectionists, were able to supply the needed corpses.

It was often a case of ‘no questions asked’ when a fresh body was produced and a payment of maybe £5 nearly 200 years ago was a power of money.

In Gortroe, Kilquane and Ballinacurra cemeteries, one can gaze on well-built structures- usually with double iron gates - where bodies were placed for some days. When decomposition had set in - making them unsuitable for anatomical studies, the bodies were then buried in the family plot.

Only last Sunday, I met a man born in the 1920s who told me a story regarding the activities of a pair of grave robbers who ‘operated’ on the northern outskirts of Cork city.

Knowing a burial had taken place earlier that day, this duo proceeded in horse and trap to the cemetery under the cover of darkness - it may have been Ballyvinny or Templeisque cemetery, he wasn’t sure. Complete with shovels and lanterns, they approached the burial ground, but were surprised to see, near the entrance gate, a horse and tub-trap.

They ‘parked’ their horse-drawn vehicle in a bawn field some distance away. Slowly and silently, they tiptoed towards the graveyard. As they suspected, they had been ‘beaten to the draw’ and within the ivy-clad walls two other men had just completed their night’s work.

They had removed the recently buried male body from its erstwhile resting place. They placed a full length gabardine coat on the man and put a hat on his head. Then they lifted him to their tub trap outside the gates and off they went in a city direction, sitting at either side of the still stiff body.

The other two men had observed all the happenings from a vantage point some yards away - aided by the light of the moon. They got into their own horse-drawn means of locomotion and followed the ‘threesome’ at a safe distance.

After a hard night’s work, the two living men in the tub trap up ahead felt well pleased with the fruit of their labours, and more overjoyed with the prospects of a fine wad of cash in their hands shortly. Thirst overtook them and they stopped at a public house on the outskirts of the city - an establishment where opening and closing hours meant very little.

It was well after midnight when they rapped at the window and, sure enough, they were left in - they had no fears of their ‘friend’ in the tub-trap - he wasn’t going anywhere! That’s the mistake they made.

The motto, ‘where one man sows another often reaps’ was apt in this case!

The two lads following on saw their opportunity and took it. They worked quietly and quickly, removed the ‘passenger’ from the tub trap and carried him into a nearby field. They removed his full length coat and hat, and these items of clothing were then donned by one of the men. He took his seat then, sitting stiffly in the middle of the seat in the trap.

Sure enough, after slaking their thirsts with several pints, the graverobbers emerged to resume the most lucrative part of their journey, to a pre-arranged ‘drop off’ point in Cork city. With a ‘giddy up’ to their trusted horse they set off, sitting as earlier, at either side of their ‘guest’.

Both men were pipe smokers and one lit his smoke and then passed the match to the other. As he did, his hand just slightly brushed against the fingers of the ‘corpse’. 

“Oh Christ,” he roared, “he’s still warm!” 

And with that screech, he frightened the life out of his companion.

Both jumped from the horse and trap - they were last seen running at speed in the general direction of Blackpool!

Another variant of grave-robbing was recounted to me recently. In the graveyard at Kill Saint Anne, Castlelyons, stand two mausoleums. One belongs to the Peard family while the second is the resting place of many of the famous Barrymore family - the de Barris or Barrys, who had handy sized houses in Castlelyons, Barryroe, and at Barryscourt, Carrigtwohill.

Anyhow, in preparation for the interment of one of the Barrymores in the early years of the last century, the entrance to the mausoleum was open. A curious girl named Kate Ammer went down the steps and, with the aid of a candle, looked around. Coffins were to be seen everywhere. The lid of one was missing and the bould Kate proceeded to ‘borrow’ the thigh bone of a long-departed Barrymore!

Brandishing this weapon, Kate began to terrorise and chase the local children down the Main Street of the village - later she returned the bone to its rightful resting place.

By a strange and historical coincidence, Kate Ammer was from the town of Barry in South Wales - a place that gave its name to the clan that lived there and later came as invaders to Ireland - Kates mother was a Donovan from Castlelyons!

The Barrymore mausoleum was used right up until around the 1950s to house the remains of the Smith-Barry clan. We don’t know what became of Kate Ammer, though she was still in Castlelyons in 1918.

In July that year, Kate was present at the death of Anne O Sullivan of Main Street. Known as ‘Bun Annie’ because she sold buns at a ha’penny each, she was born in 1842 and had a small shop in the village. Relations of Annie emigrated to Plainfield, New Jersey, and several died during the ‘Spanish Flu’ epidemic in 1918, the same year as Annie died.

A burial in a vault near Tallow in Co. Waterford had an eerie sequel. This particular family vault was accessed by a series of steps. When an interment took place, the coffin was placed within the vault, then the gate was closed and locked. Often stone slabs were placed across the steps.

Well, many years had elapsed since this vault had been used for a burial. When the occasion arose, the stone slabs were removed and the heavy iron gate - bolted on the outside - was opened. Then a gruesome discovery was made.

Just inside the gate were the skeletal remains of the last person interred therein - perhaps a quarter of a century before. 

Nearby was the coffin of that person with the lid on the floor. It seems that a case of a person being ‘buried alive’ had occurred.

It was not unknown for a person to have had death-like symptoms, whereas in actual fact they were in a deep comatose state. In this case it looked as if the ‘dead’ person had recovered after the burial, managed to open the coffin but could not open the iron gate. Shouting and screaming in an underground vault was to no avail and death eventually happened behind the bars of the gate. There the remans laid until the vault was opened decades later.

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