Friday, April 30, 2010

Body Snatchers 1819

Essex Ancient Burial Ground

In the spring of 1819 the residents of Ipswich’s Chebacco Parish (now the town of Essex) saw lantern light in the graveyard at night. Soon they discovered that the graves had been disturbed, and several families discovered that their relative’s graves were empty. Eight graves, going back to 1811, were disturbed.

According to a book by Christopher Benedeto, the winter of 1817-1818 was mild and the weather conditions were perfect for body snatching. Two little boys died in the same week in October 1817 and this was probably too tempting to the local doctor. One of those boys was ten year old Isaac (not William as has been reported), son of Joseph Allen and Judith Burnham, my 4x great grandparents. I’m descended of little Isaac’s big brother, Joseph, Jr. My mother was the last Allen born in Ipswich, in the 1930s. Several descendants still live in Ipswich and Essex (the former Chebacco Parish).

The local minister, Robert Crowell, had eight empty coffins reinterred in the cemetery, and he delivered a sermon on this occasion. “Who can adequately conceive . . . the keen anguish, and almost inconsolable grief of those, who are thus inhumanely robbed of the body of a husband, or wife, of a parent, or child, of a brother, or sister?” It is hard to imagine Joseph and Judith’s grief at having to symbolically go through a child’s burial for a second time. They named two other children Isaac, the third survived childhood and lived until 1872 when he died, unmarried, of insanity.

A five hundred dollar award was announced on April 25, 1818 for the “Most daring and sacrilegious Robbery” by the committee at Chebacco Parish, Ipswich.

It was finally found out that Thomas Sewell (April 16, 1785 – April 10, 1845), the local doctor and Harvard graduate 1812, was found in possession of an “unsanctioned corpse.” His lawyer was the famous Daniel Webster, but he was still found guilty and fined $800, the largest fee ever for body snatching in Massachusetts. Sewell was run out of Chebacco, and went to Washington DC on Webster’s suggestion. He helped to found the medical school at Columbian College in 1825, which is today’s George Washington University.

What led to Sewall’s disgrace was an 1815 law making it a felony to rob a grave. It was previously not considered theft. However, by 1831 a new law was passed allowing for anatomical studies of bodies, and permitted courts to surrender corpses that would have been buried at public expense (paupers, convicts, etc.) Doctors were able to legally study bodies (they had been doing so anyways for centuries) and the public no longer associated dissection with a crime.

For more information:

“History of Ipswich, Essex, and Hamilton” by Joseph B. Felt, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Charles Folsom, 1834

“History of the town of Essex from 1634 to 1700” by Egbert Crowell, Boston, Moody Printer, 1853

Harvard Medical School website

“A Most Daring and Sacrilegious Robbery” by Christopher Benedeto (in the NEGHS publication “New England Ancestors” Spring 2005, Volume 6, No. 2)


To Cite/Link to this blog post: Heather Wilkinson Rojo, "Body Snatchers 1819", Nutfield Genealogy, posted April 30, 2010, ( accessed [access date]). 


  1. Wow. That's awful! Glad to hear that Sewell was eventually found guilty of the same crime (even if he was not specifically prosecuted for the 1817 incident).

  2. Another interesting post, Heather. Great story!


  3. Interesting and very sad. Unfortunately very common for the times. Medicine still being so new, they got their subjects wherever they could. If you haven't hear before, the Benjamin Franklin papers shows that he was involved with the first open heart surgery, performed on a dog. They hung the dog upside down and removed his heard and installed another one. Sad to say it was unsuccessful too, but a huge part of modern medicine.

  4. Wow! Now that's chilling. I've heard of body snatching before, but never thought about the trauma it would cause the family to undergo. The sermon text adds to the drama.