Body Snatchers

I shall now give you an account of a very lively affair which happened in St. Movee’s cemetery over a hundred years ago -my grandfather and some of his brothers were active participants.

During the period with which I am dealing (say about 1840) body-snatching was very common around County Dublin. The bodies were wanted by medical doctors for study and good prices were paid for them. Hence a new vocation came into being – that of the body-snatcher.

Now for my story – my family lived about a hundred yards from the graveyard and were generally assigned the job of guarding the grave where a fresh burial occurred. The grave was guarded for probably a week or less after a burial. Whether the person buried on this occasion was a member of the Duff family or not I cannot say.

It was a winter’s night and the watchers were on the alert. The midnight hour had passed when some of the watchers thought they heard a noise of an approaching horse and cart. The watchmen took up their positions, already arranged, behind those immense trees of which I spoke.

I must state that the horse’s feet and the wheels of the cart were muffled by clothes being tied on them, so a cart would get fairly near before being heard. The men (I think there were four) tethered their horse and at once got into the graveyard.

The custom was for the raiders to mark the grave selected for attack some days before the raid – as the raiding would have to be done in the dark or on a moonlight night.

The raiders set to their work expeditiously and were, by arrangement among the watchers, allowed to proceed with their gruesome and nefarious work for about five minutes.

Suddenly, at a given signal, the robbers were set upon with a wild shout and a terrible ferocity by the guards who were all very good wrestlers and athletes generally. The element of surprise and a few wild shouts bewildered the grave robbers. Three were caught and I believe one escaped.

Each of the robbers got a desperate beating and howled for mercy. It is related that my grandfather, James Duff, was most reluctant to abate his fury and show any mercy. He apparently intended killing the particular man whom he had caught. It is said that the snatchers who were caught never again tried robbing a grave – certainly not in St. Movee’s graveyard.

It is believed these body-snatchers were from Balbriggan – but I cannot affirm this. This story was told me by a native of the Milverton area and was verified in detail by an old step-brother of mine, James Duff who was born in Milverton in 1867 and who had all the details from both his father and grandfather.

R. S. Duff [SHS, 1955]