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Region’s murky bodysnatching past

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By Fiona Reid
Region’s murky bodysnatching past

A LIST of Dumfriesshire sites linked to historic episodes of body snatching has been highlighted on the Digging Up 1800 website.

It’s known for ‘travels into the macabre’ and a contributor named as Suzie had the job of investigating this region.

She started her journey in Dumfries and noted that: “The job of getting cadavers from Dumfries to the dissecting tables of Edinburgh or Glasgow would have required careful planning.

“Coaches disembarking from Dumfries left on a fairly regular basis, although Georgian travel was exceptionally slow. The coach from Dumfries to Glasgow, for example, took nearly 14 hours for a one-way trip, imagine the state of the cadaver after that!”

Indeed, many corpses were found at the sides of roads around the country having not survived the journey to the cities.

However, it didn’t seem to put off grave robbers in this area and Dumfries, having a large population, would have provided a lucrative business.

Suzie highlights the graveyard at St Michael’s & South as a spot for body snatching ‘fans’ as it has two watch houses at either side of the entrance steps.

She also notes the town’s connection to the notorious William Hare in the 19th century and the fact it was the last place he was seen, heading east on the Annan Road.

Meanwhile, Dumfries Museum also houses a mort-safe, designed to be buried along with the coffin and clamped on it to ensure the occupant could not be stolen.

Suzie said: “Consisting of just a few rudimentary iron bars, this device literally did clamp around the coffin, the owner having every intention of staying put.

“This mort-safe was most likely discovered during the excavation of a new grave, the coffin by then would have been completely rotten, having left only the frame, skeleton and any coffin furniture behind.”

Two mort-safes were also found in Lockerbie in 1892, but dating from 1812, according to a reference in the British Newspaper Archive.

And Suzie believes this shows snatchers were active in the area, probably in the Dryfesdale churchyard. Furthermore, there’s another watch house up the road at Tundergarth.

The next spot mentioned on the website is Canonbie graveyard, one of the largest in Scotland.

It too has a watch house and Suzie said: “Being on the banks of the river would have meant an easier and quieter removal of cadavers, a similar situation to Peterculter in Aberdeenshire, and I suspect that this was a preferred access point, especially with the watch house being at this end of the graveyard.”

There’s rumours about Hoddam too, which is said to have had 16 graves emptied, with the corpses sold to anatomists in 1824. Middlebie is also said to have been targeted in the same year.

Finally, there are reports of an attempted snatching in Annan in 1852, carried out in the darkness with the assistance of the gravedigger.

To read more, go to

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