Holidays, Hiroshima, Hangings and a little humour

Execution Yard, Bodmin Jail, Cornwall. Couldn’t have a week off to see the family, without doing a little bit of study.

Today I am 4 months, to the day, into my 3 year PhD and one of the things I have quickly realised about it is that every second counts. When you are working for yourself, you are constantly aware that the only time you’re wasting is your own. With that in mind, I have just spent a wonderful two week wasting my own time with my family in Cornwall and also getting paid to work on one of my comedy groups sitcom scripts in development with a television company. However, as promised last week, I managed to fit a small but nevertheless important study session into my South West sojourn, by attending Bodmin Jail. It is a fascinating building on a hugely imposing scale and boasts the UK’s only working execution pit (having had many a ‘backward’ Cornish joke thrown at me in my time, I am happy to report that while ‘working’ it is no longer ‘in use’ in Cornwall!).

Anyway, as promised, I will continue on from where we left of last week – with the anatomists, dissected bodies and the teaser of empty coffins and midnight burials. From further reading it appears that the fear of dissection and what happened to the body after death was not a peculiarly British thing. Popular riots about the misuse of dead bodies and dissection were happening as far afield as New York. Indeed, New York’s equivalent to the Anatomy legislation in England came about directly because of a popular riot against the surgeon’s: Namely, the ‘Doctor’s Mob’ of 1788.  The intention of the act was to quell public discontent, by putting the ignominious sentence of dissection exclusively onto those who were to be executed. However, even ten years after the act there was the extraordinary case of John Young, whose sentencing to execution and later dissection aroused such public consternation that the authorities had to take unprecedented measures to avoid another riot.

These measures included moving the site of execution to a field beside the anatomy hospital, arranging an armed Romanesque Phalanx around the scaffold and having a marching band play to drown out the condemned mans penitent hymns and potential cries of injustice. The authorities fear didn’t end at the scaffold, the anatomists who dissected the body eventually left the body in a sack and threw it in the river, for fear the dismembered remains would be dug up by protestors and spark another riot!¹ The whole sorry debacle was captured by many broadsides and ballads at the time.

Was I punished to avenge the dead? Or was it that the living might be taught to look upon the murder’s doom with dread

Margaretta V. Faugeres, The Ghost of John Young (New York: 1797) p.4 Taken from  Steven Wilf, Anatomy and Punishment in Late Eighteenth-Century New York, Journal of Social history, Vol. 22, No. 3 (Spring, 1989), p.519

The ignominy, shame and anger that was aroused by dissection and the 1752 Act was intended to disappear with the passing of the 1832 Anatomy Act. However, in its place a new and arguably more sinister fate awaited the condemned; Burial in prison. The act itself stated that bodies of the executed were to be either hung in chains or buried within the precincts of the last prison in which the deceased had been confined (hanging in chains/gibbeting was to be finally banned in 1834).

The Anatomy Act 1832. Courtesy of the Science Museum
The Anatomy Act 1832. Courtesy of the Science Museum

The first North-East execution, following the 1832 enactment, was that of William Jobling. Executed on 1st August, 1832, Jobling  was subjected to gibbeting rather than prison burial, but his execution reports illustrate perfectly the deep sentiments aroused by post death practices involving the body.

Jobling’s body will be suspended in the gibbet on Monday, at Jarrow, near South Shields, the spot where the murder was committed. It is supposed however, that his fellow workmen will very soon remove it, and bury it in some private place.

The Times 6th August 1832.

True to the prediction, Jobling’s body was swiftly removed, despite multiple newspaper articles warning that the sentence for removing a body from a gibbet is transportation to Australia for 7 years.

The first burial within North-East prison walls was not until 1839, in Durham, there being a seven year gap in executions following Joblings. The body was that of Jacob Frederick Ehlert, executed for the murder of Captain Berkholtz. His execution was attended by a very large crowd and surviving broadsides and reports suggest that Berkholtzs’ insistence of his innocence of the crime was undoubtedly the motivation for such a large crowd. Even the attendant priest was sent into a paroxysms of weeping. After giving the condemned man his final ‘God bless you’ he ‘fell backwards into the arms of the undersheriff and was led out of the room in a state of complete exhaustion.’³

Frederik Ehlert taken from the Newcastle Journal 17th August 1839 p.3
An artists impression of Frederik Ehlert, right, and his accuser taken from the Newcastle Journal 17th August 1839 p.3

The reports focus on the exciting atmosphere formed by the potentially incendiary combination of a man protesting his innocence and a big attendant crowd, but it is what happened to the body afterwards that interests me. As it turned out, Ehlert was buried within the prison walls, but only after he had been subjected to having his head shaved and a cast taken for the Newcastle Phrenological society (a practice that is largely unprecedented in reports I have read).

It is astonishing to me and something I intend to investigate in this PhD, how little public unrest there appears to be around the transition to burial in prison, especially given the historical unrest surrounding post death practices, such as dissection and gibbeting. Prison burial can be seen as a fundamental step change in the ownership of the body. Following the 1832 anatomy act, the body of the condemned effectively becomes the property of the state. This is an astonishing transmission given the importance of burial practice in society at the time.

Any and every means by which the poor could raise money was pressed into the service of a decent burial.

R.Richardson, Death, Dissection and the Destitute (London, 2000). p.167-9

The deliberate ‘added terror’ of the Murder Act and other post death practices affected the families of the condemned as much as the condemned themselves.

There could be no careful washing of the corpse, no shrouding nor ‘chesting ready for the funeral. The family would not kiss the body goodbye….there would be no solemnity nor prayer book service; no promise of the resurrection to eternal life would be spoken over the grave….’

Carl Watkins, The Undiscovered Country: Journeys Among the Dead (London: Bodley Head, 2013), 162.

all of these practices were,

heavy with implications for the condemned man’s destiny….Disintegration, profane burial and non-burial all hinted at damnation, perhaps at annihilation and herein lay the chiefest ‘added terror’.

Ibid. p.164

As it turns out these fears may not have been misplaced, in respect to burial at Newcastle Prison.

Ownership and running of the prisons transferred to the government in 1877, under the provisions of the Prison Act of that year. Newcastle Gaol was finally closed on March 31st 1925 following an ‘economy decree by the Home Office.’ As part of the closure, the Home Office requested the bodies of the ‘several condemned men and women’ that lay buried inside the prison walls’ were to be exhumed and reinterred at All Saints’ Cemetery. The site was decreed for reinterment by reason of the fact that the prison lay within the parish of All Saints. However, the location of where to rebury the bodies was not the problem, the issue was where the bodies were currently buried – it appears no-one knew. The Home Office request appeared to cause great consternation amongst local officials as they appeared not to know the whereabouts of the bodies, writing ‘to London to ask if they can give any assistance in locating the remains.’²

HMP Newcastle Grave Plan 1922. Copy provided by B. Redfern, courtesy of Tyne and Wear Archives.
HMP Newcastle Grave Plan 1922. Copy provided by B. Redfern, courtesy of Tyne and Wear Archives.


Once located, the whereabouts of the bodies themselves were to create a further problem when digging began. They weren’t all there!

According to local newspaper reports, one of the coffins was found empty and another three bodies missing. Reports on the missing bodies had understandably scandalised headlines.Screen Shot 2014-09-02 at 13.23.30

Gaol Grave Secrets
Newspaper headlines on empty grave discovery.

What is most fascinating about this bizarre episode in North-East history is the clandestine nature in which the eventual reinterment was undertaken. The bodies were to be removed ‘in secret’ at ‘the dead of night.’ In certain reports this practice is deemed to be in a bid to ‘foil the morbid’. There was to be no explicit demarcation of the graves.

No headstone or cross will indicate the spot, and visitors to the cemetary, after the grim work is over, will find nothing except newly turned soil to betray it.

The nature of the actions undertaken illustrate the power that the notion of the body, and burial thereof, still held over the public imagination. This sorry state of interment for the condemned was best summarised by a prison official at the time.

It is strange, but in one custom we are more barbarous than our ancestors were in bygone days. It is the toll of the “Felon’s Plot.” When executions were public it was usual to allow the relatives to remove the corpse from the gallows to give it a Christian burial in consecrated ground. Occassionally the surgeons claimed it for public dissection; this could not be refused. But afterwards burial in any spot chosen by the relatives was allowed….(of contemporary prison burials) Those prison officials who have assisted in the last act of a murder drama will agree that it is a morunful business. The body lies in its plain shell-not naked and covered with quicklime as was the custom until recent years; it lies clad in the clothes worn at the trial so that no sensation-monger may exhibit them….When the grave is filled in, the ground is levelled with its extremities marked by small white stones. On the wall of the prison that is nearest to the plot, will be cut the initials of the dead and the date of execution.

This same official may also have solved the mystery of the empty coffins and also helped question my earlier assumption that the citizens of Newcastle took the transition to prison burial lying down (excuse the pun).

The fact that several bodies have not been accounted for in the Newcastle Gaol exhumations may have an explanation that robs it of mystery….executed persons were sometimes unclaimed by their relatives and in that case they were buried in the prison yard. Afterwards they may have been disinterred to meet the wish of some relative who could not bear the idea of the dead sleeping in unhallowed ground

An unnamed Prison Official


1. Steven Wilf, Anatomy and Punishment in Late Eighteenth-Century New York, Journal of Social history, Vol. 22, No. 3 (Spring, 1989)
2. Yorkshire Post, September 3rd, 1925. p.11
3. Newcastle Journal August 17th, 1839. p.3

Distraction 1: Side Gallery Hiroshima exhbition:

Before my holiday I went to the Side Gallery in Newcastle. I have mentioned it before and no doubt will again as it is my favourite place to visit. They never fail to put fascinating exhibitions on and the recent news that they have got funding to continue and expand is fantastic. The exhibition I saw was one that combined Hirsohima and the North-East war production effort for WW1. It was a fascinating juxtaposition of the military might and the industry that produced it and also the devastating effects the industry of war produces. Hiroma Tsuchida’s Hiroshima was devastating in its tiny details – photographing in close up individual items that had been left strewn by the deadly blast. Catch it before it goes.

One thought on “Holidays, Hiroshima, Hangings and a little humour

  1. Pingback: Cornwall, crime and conundrums. | lastdyingwords

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