I left my last post with four men in custody on 10 November 1831, pending investigations into the discovery of an unidentified body on its way to Edinburgh via the Newcastle-bound Leeds coach. The suspicion was the youth had been murdered as part of the underground trade to supply medical schools with dead bodies for dissection. On display in Leeds Court House, the body remained unidentified despite extensive publicity and being viewed by thousands.
The tale took a new twist on Saturday 12 November. A friend recognised the body as that of Robert Hudson, a collier from East Ardsley. Other friends and family were summoned to corroborate the identification. Brothers Joseph and John confirmed it, even explaining that the damaged missing fourth fingernail on the right hand resulted from him trapping his finger a fortnight before. John’s wife Permelia also identified her brother-in-law.
Immediately after this identification a party was despatched to open Robert’s grave at East Ardsley. They found holes born into the coffin to allow the use of a saw. The lid was sawn open from head to breast. The coffin contained only a glove and an iron bludgeon which had been left behind by the body snatching gang. The body had gone.
Robert Hudson was born in around 1814 and baptised on 31 July 1814 at St Michaels, East Ardsley. He was the youngest child of miner Matthew Hudson and his wife Grace. At the time of his baptism the family lived at Outwood, just over two miles from East Ardsley. When Matthew died in December 1827 the family address was given as near-by Lawns, in the Township of Stanley-cum-Wrenthorpe in Wakefield Parish.
On Sunday 30 October 1831, 17-year-old Robert left his widowed mother’s home in Lawns at around 11am. His body was discovered between 3-4pm that day. He had hung himself by a his neck handkerchief from a spar in a coal pit cabin belonging to his employers, Messrs Charlesworth. The inquest on 31 October recorded a verdict “that the deceased hung himself when in a state of unsound mind”.
Robert’s burial took place at St Michael’s East Ardsley on 1 November. The burial register notes he “hung himself in the coal pit cabin”. Burial in a churchyard of someone who had committed suicide had been legalised by the 1823 Burial of Suicide Act. However the burial of the body of a suicide was conducted without Church rites and at nighttime between the hours of 9pm and 12pm. If the inquest verdict was that the suicide had been committed whilst the individual was of unsound mind, then a churchyard burial was permissible.In the light of this new information the Leeds inquest jury, suspended the previous Thursday, was reconvened first thing on Monday morning, 14 November. It found that the body was indeed that of Robert Hudson, who had hanged himself on 30 October, and afterwards was brought to Leeds and discovered in a box on the Courier coach.
This at least removed any potential murder charges against those rounded up in connection with the case.
Within an hour of the inquest jury reaching its decision, the Magistrates examined the case against those charged: in addition to Hodgson, Pickering, Norman and Wood four other men were now in custody. William Germain, packer; William Henry Bradley, joiner; Thomas Pearson, cloth weaver; and Henry Teale, gentleman’s servant. All were from the Leeds area. The latter broke ranks, providing full details of events.
The lengthy examination involving statements from Teale and numerous witnesses lasted from around 10.30am on 14 November until 2.30pm on 16 November.
It revealed Hodgson as the ringleader. Obviously undeterred by his previous sentence, less than three months ago, he recruited his gang over a period of several weeks. For instance he made initial contact with Teale on 22 September.
On 2 November Hodgson gave Teale a list of graveyards to check for recent burials: Hanging Heaton, Dewsbury and East Ardsley. There was also a list for Bradley. His too included the East Ardsley one. So, that afternoon, the pair went there together and discovered two fresh graves, one large and one small.
Robert’s was the large grave. The small one belonged to four-year-old Joseph Longley Fielding of Churwell, who died on 31 October and was buried on the day Teale and Bradley visited the churchyard.
After reporting their finds to Hodgson, arrangements were made for Hodgson, Bradley, Germain & Teal to set off for East Ardsley in two hired gigs late that night, between 9-10pm. Hodgson was armed with two pistols which he produced upon hearing a noise when at the church yard, an indication as to the high stakes at play. All four took it in turns to stand watch or dig.
Once the coffins were reached and entries made, the bodies were drawn out of by means of a rope around the neck. The corpses were stripped, and all linen thrown back – the gang did not wish to run the risk of more serious theft charges. The graves were re-filled. The bodies were put in separate sacks, placed on the gigs and driven back into town, arriving back in Leeds in the pre-dawn hours.
The bodies were stored in an out-building belonging to Norman’s father. Early on the morning of 3 November, at around 5.30am, a failed attempt was made by Germain, Bradley and Teale to dispatch Robert’s body on the Times coach. Too late, they missed it and were forced to return the package to Norman’s garden-house.
As a result of a comment made by Norman’s father, on Saturday 5 November the gang were forced into making hasty, new arrangements. The child’s body was successfully dispatched to Edinburgh via the Rose and Crown evening Courier coach. Robert’s was taken to the White House being rented by Pickering on Tobacco-Mill-Lane.
A second early-morning attempt, on 7 November, was made to send Robert’s body on its way via the Times coach. The coach would not take the package. Back it went to Tobacco-Mill-Lane, where it was locked in the closet due to the scheduled house viewing.
On the evening of 7 November the foiled Rose and Crown Courier coach attempt occurred, resulting in the discovery of the body and subsequent arrests.
After hearing the evidence the Magistrates found no case against Pearson and Wood on this particular charge and discharged them, although they remained in custody. The other six, (Hodgson, Pickering, Germain, Bradley, Norman and Teale), were ordered to appear before the next Yorkshire Assizes.
At the Yorkshire Lent Assizes 1832, held in York, they were indicted with “severally, wickedly, willingly, and unlawfully conspire, combine, confederate and agree together to disinter a dead body, and afterwards, to wit, in the night of the 2nd of November aforesaid, in pursuance of such conspiracy and agreement, severally enter a church yard, situate at East Ardsley, in the West Riding, and did then and there unlawfully dig up, and disinter from and out of a grave the body of one Robert Hudson” and Joseph Longley Fielding, with intent to sell and dispose of the same.
After hearing the evidence and consulting for a full two minutes the jury found Hodgson, Germain, Norman and Bradley guilty. Pickering was acquitted, as no proof existed that he was connected with the body prior to its exhumation. Hodgson was jailed for one year; Bradley, Germain and Norman received three month sentences; Teale, who turned King’s evidence, was discharged.
Those convicted were sent to Wakefield House of Correction to serve their sentences, much to the annoyance of Hodgson who wished to remain in York Castle which was more conducive to the pursuit of his studies.
I mentioned the sympathy with which body snatching could be viewed by the judiciary, given the acknowledged need to further medical science. This, accompanied by petitioning from anatomists and medical schools and the public revulsion at the work of body snatchers, led to the 1832 Anatomy Act, effectively ending the trade in stolen corpses. The Act allowed licensed anatomists and medical schools to use for dissection unclaimed bodies from institutions such as workhouses and prisons.
At around the time the Act was passed, in July-August 1832 Hodgson launched an unsuccessful petition for clemency. The National Archives Discovery summary describes his crime as:
“Disinterring the dead body of a male pauper for the purposes of dissection in churchyard near Leeds, together with four others, anatomy students from Edinburgh”.
The grounds for the petition were that the:
“…officers of the township who bore the expense of the burial refused to prosecute; the prisoner’s health is impaired by six months confinement and cholera is prevalent in the prison; he is willing to leave the country”.
Interestingly Hodgson focused on the pauper element at this time.
In 2015 York Dungeons featured John Hodgson in its Halloween show. It describes it as follows:
“The popular attraction’s new hair-raising show will see one of the most intimidating, darkest, characters ever introduced. John Hodgson, the local body snatcher is morbid, cruel and gruesome has no remorse for digging up the dead!”
- Ancestry UK: Criminal Registers, Reference HO 27; Piece: 44; Page: 434
- Find My Past: HO 13 Home Office Criminal Entry Books of out-letter, warrants and pardons; and HO 19 Home Office Registers of Criminal Petitions
- Find My Past Newspapers: “Leeds Intelligencer” – 10 & 17 November 1831 and 5 April 1832; “Leeds Mercury” – 12 & 19 November 1831; “Leeds Patriot & Yorkshire Advertiser” – 9 July 1831, 12 & 19 November 1831 and 7 April 1832; “Yorkshire Gazette” – 7 April 1832
- Pharos Tutors Course: Victorian Crime and Punishment, Courts, Police and Prisons http://www.pharostutors.com/
- Photographs – taken by me
- St Michael’s East Ardsley Parish Registers (also available via West Yorkshire Archives on Ancestry UK)
- The National Archives Criminal Petitions Series I, Reference HO 17/36/159
- York Dungeons: http://www.thedungeons.com/york/en/plan-your-visit/halloween.aspx
 Robert had brothers named both Joseph and John. Some reports named Joseph, others John. So they could both have played a part in identification and the law process. Or it could be a name confusion in reports.
 In reports she is named as Pamela.
 The 7 April 1832 “Yorkshire Gazette” trial report is at odds with other reports, indicating the child’s body was sent via the Golden Lion coach office.
 Some reports indicate this attempt was made on Sunday morning (6 November)
 “Leeds Intelligencer” – 5 April 1832.