Haslar Heritage Group

1825 Body Snatching

WINCHESTER – Saturday March 5th

John Johnson, Henry Andrews, and William Seymour were charged with entering the burial-ground of the Royal Hospital at Haslar, and stealing the Corpse of Thomas Brookland1 from his grave.

Sarah Mathews, the nurse of ward 35, in the Royal Hospital at Haslar, attended Thomas Brookland, a mariner, during his illness, and was present at his funeral at the hospital burial-ground, on the 1st January. Someday afterwards she saw his corpse again in Colewort2 burial-ground, after it had been taken from same persons who had stolen it from the grave.

Richard Tipper, the overseer of the labourers at the hospital, stated that Seymour, one of the defendants, was employed as a sexton by the contractors for interring the dead from the hospital.

John Angel, a porter was employed by Johnson, on the 6th of January, to carry an empty trunk to Seymour, who lived in a house close to the burial-ground3 at Haslar.

John Hall, another porter, was engaged on the same day by Johnson, to fetch a trunk that weighed about one hundred weight and a half, from Seymour’s. Johnson was waiting in Portsmouth, and when the trunk was obtained, he and another man assisted in its conveyance to the Star Inn at Portsea. Three weeks after he was employed on a similar job by Johnson, and took the trunk as before.

Lewis, a constable, went to the burial-ground in the beginning of January, and inquired if there had not been a body stolen from the ground. Seymour said ‘he did not think there had’ and inquired how he (Lewis) knew he had. Lewis told him that he had the body at Portsmouth, and Seymour then asked ‘if the corpse was cut about much?’ As it was customary for them to be cut up before they were buried4.

Seymour admitted that he had received a trunk within an hour of the time they were speaking. He was taken into custody, and said, ‘it was a bad job that he had ever had the box.’

Edward Hunt, a constable, apprehended Johnson and Andrews at the Star Inn, at Portsea, on the 7th January. He desired Johnson’s trunk to be brought from the tap room, which was done; but Johnson said ‘for God’s sake, don’t open it, there’s a dead body, and I shall be torn to pieces by the people’.

Andrews disclaimed all knowledge of the trunk. At the gaol the box was opened, and a body taken out, trussed up like a fowl. The corpse was interred in the burial-ground at Colewort Gardens.

Cox, another constable, took from Johnson two strong screw drivers, and an awl, with a piece of cord attached to it. Some tow was also taken from him, which was precisely of the same description as some found stuffed into the mouth of the deceased when it was taken from the trunk.

Mr Hill, the under-keeper of the gaol at Portsmouth, detailed a confession which Seymour had made of the transaction; he said that on the 3rd and 4th December last, a person came to his (Seymour’s) house, near the burying-ground, who took him to a public house5, and made him quite drunk. As they were returning, and when they were close to the ground, that man said ‘I want a body’ and while he (Seymour) was entreating, the person not to ruin him by doing anything of that kind, the man got over the wall6, and in a minute or two, return with the dead body of a man in his arms, which was deposited in Seymour’s stable, in a small square trunk that had been left there. A day or two later he received a London letter from that man, containing half a sovereign. On the 22nd December, the same individual came again, and had another body; on the 29th he repeated his visit and took away a third from the same place7, for which he received another letter from that man, containing half a sovereign. On the 6th January, the same person, with another man with him, again came to the house in the evening, and went to the deceased grave by climbing over a wall.8 In less than five minutes he saw the two men in the grave, and the first person he had alluded to came out of the grave, and ran under the wall, with the dead body of a tall man, and threw it over to him (Seymour). It was packed up, and carried away. The first thing the men did after the bodies were taken from the grave was to take their teeth from their head. They then…

Mr Justice Burrough – Well, well, don’t let us enter into this dreadful detail.

Mr Justice Burrough said there was no evidence to implicate Andrews in this transaction. The circumstances against other two prisoners were fully confirmatory of a conspiracy between them, and as there was no reason to doubt the veracity of either of the witness, his Lordship thought the jury could not do otherwise than find them guilty.

The jury acquitted Andrews, and found Johnson and Seymour Guilty.

Mr Justice Burrough9 said that the crime of which the prisoners had been convicted was so disgusting and distressing to the feelings, that he was sorry to find that there could be persons found who could act so inhumanly as to follow such abominable practices.

He well knew that it was a most valuable and profitable concern to the persons who supported it, but he would do his best to put a stop to it. It was a crime of the foulest character, and he called it so, because a parent could never be satisfied, while it was suffered, that his child lay quietly in its grave, or a child have the consolation of knowing that the remains of its parent had not been disturbed, for the purpose of being mangled, or cut to pieces. It is an abomination not to be endured, and if certain persons must have bodies for scientific uses, they must be satisfied with such legal measures as the law allowed, which was by executions. Such an outrage on our feelings could not be suffered, and if the persons for whose use they were obtained could not be punished care must be taken that those who committed the crimes must be made too smart for it.

The offence of Seymour was greatly aggravated by his having betrayed the confidence that was placed in him by the situation which he held and his punishment would be measured accordingly.

The sentence of the court was that Johnson should pay a fine of £50 to the King and be imprisoned for six months. Seymour being too poor to pay a fine was sentenced to twelve months prison.

Eric C Birbeck MVO


PRO Kew ADM 102/304

1Thomas Brookland – Marine Admitted to RH Haslar 26th December 1824 from HMS Semarang (6th       Rate 28 Guns) suffering from Hepatitis. Brookland died on the 26th December 1824 his funeral cost 7/4d (37p).
2National Gazeteer 1868 refers to Colwort Old cemetery close by Colewort Barracks in Portsmouth.
3Note the word Burial Ground. As of 1826 the word Haslar Cemetery is used.
4Could this be a reference to Anatomy or Autopsy?
5The Pub could have been the Fighting Cocks which was then the closest being only some two hundred yards from the burial area and is still open!
6The wall at the rear of Haslar is smaller in height than the main hospital wall.
7So are we up to 3 bodies being snatched from Haslar?
8So is this makes 4 bodies snatched from Haslar of which only one is named?
9One week later on the 4th April 1825 at the Assizes at Salisbury Mr Justice Burroughs sentenced one James Smith to death for stealing a Grey Mare.

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