'Horrible Murder in Norfolk!' and Body Snatching in Great Yarmouth

Two talks by members of the Martham Local History Group

Peter Lavender and Janet Edwards each presented an illustrated 30 minute talk to our meeting in the Methodist Church on 18th January. The audience had been tempted by titles which referred to “rogues, tyrants and ne'er do wells”. The title of the first talk is a headline from a local newspaper of the time.

‘Horrible Murder in Norfolk’

In 1858 a young unmarried woman from Martham was put on trial for the murder of her baby son. The local press described the alleged crime in detail, including the testimony of many local people. The baby was found by farm workers, naked and dying in a field off the Rollesby Road one summer evening. The story of Mary Ann Lowne and her three-week old baby raises many questions. She had no counsel to defend her and at no point do we hear the voice of the accused and her version of events. However, Mary Ann's case tells us about changing attitudes to illegitimacy in the nineteenth century as well as how the village responded to this tragic event. Peter Lavender shared the story of what we know from publicly available records about Mary Ann, her trial, and its impact. We know she walked to Martham from Great Yarmouth station carrying her child and we know that many people saw her along the way. There are several more details to be uncovered in this sad but puzzling story. We don’t know who the father was, nor what happened to Mary Ann after she left prison. But we do know that murdering your illegitimate child was a specific capital crime and that by 1858 attitudes to poor women were beginning to change. From 1800 to 1867 some 833 people were sentenced to death at the Norfolk assizes, although only 50 executions took place. Was Mary Ann lucky (as the judge suggested) or were public attitudes changing?

'18th & 19th Century Body Snatchers'

This curious, dark side of our social history horrified the general public of the time. The bereaved stood in cemeteries to bury their loved ones, perhaps unknowingly welcoming ‘Resurrectionists’ (also known as 'bodysnatchers') amongst the mourners. ‘Resurrectionists’ were waiting for their moment to steal the deceased in the dead of night, as was their habit, to put the unfortunate souls into a sack and then bundle them into a box transporting them to the burgeoning medical schools for dissection. They were paid for by some of the top surgeons of the day. This is what happened in Great Yarmouth in 1827.

St Nicholas churchyard was said to look like a ploughed field with wives looking for their husbands, husbands looking for their wives and parents looking for their children. At least 20 coffins had been opened and loved ones stolen. As advances in Medical science progressed, the need for freshly acquired cadavers needed for dissection became necessary for anatomists to perfect their skills. During the 19th century the study of human bodies was an integral part of medical students’ training. During this time surgeons discovered the miracles of the human body and were able to perform operations never possible in previous times. And so it was during the winter of 1827 when Thomas Vaughan with his accomplice rented a cottage in Row 3. On a Sunday night in November they went to the churchyard and Vaughan (alias Smith) raised the body of a female and another from a near tomb where there were palisades, put them in bags and carried them back to Row 3, when at 6am the following morning they were transported in boxes marked “Glass with Care” to London.

Thomas Vaughan was jailed for 6 months for his crime. It was later realised that Account books from the eminent surgeon Astley Cooper showed that he financially assisted Thomas Vaughan through those months spent in Norwich Gaol. Authorities of the 18th and 19th centuries were acutely aware of the importance of medical research in this area and therefore, more often than not ‘Turned a blind eye’. Ethically we find it hard to socially accept the fact that bodies were torn from their resting places in order to satisfy the advancement of medical science, but remember the words of Astley Cooper at the 1828 Parliamentary enquiry into grave robbing: “That without dissection there can be no anatomy and that anatomy is our polar star, for without anatomy a surgeon can do nothing, certainly nothing well” For the thousands of lives saved by surgical advance since those dark times, perhaps we should give thanks.

News headline

                  Nicholas Churchyard

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