The Body Snatchers

Community Historian Brendan Matthews snatching something eerie from Drogheda's past

On Monday evening, March 1st 1875, a group of Fishermen were hauling their nets in from the north bank of the River Boyne, just to the east or downstream of Green hills in Drogheda, when one of them tripped over a piece of wood that was protruding from the river bank.

The fisherman proceeded to pull the wood out from the bank and, finding it a little difficult to remove, he began to clear away some of the marl that surrounded it, only to find to his astonishment, that the outline of a coffin appeared.

With the help of the other fishermen the coffin was taken from the bank, which was described by the Drogheda Argus newspaper as being `very roughly made with thin boards and, presumably placed in this secret ghostly grave in haste.'

Sergeant Collum was at the scene in a short time and when the coffin was opened it was found to contain the skeletal remains of an adult.

Dr. T. J. Moore, Louth County Coroner, who later attended the scene, said that the remains were that of a young adult male, who had died within the last twenty years or so. The police began to make enquiries locally about the mysterious find and the following story emerged.

According to the people of Drogheda, the body was that of a local man who was highly suspected of being involved in Body Snatching back in the 1850`s and who suddenly disappeared from the town. They also said that this same man was shot whilst attempting to retrieve a body from a grave in Newtown cemetery, which is only a short distance from where the skeletal remains were found at Green Hills.

From the late 18th Century right through the 19th Century the interest in anatomy had grown and the number of bodies legally allowed to anatomists was insufficient and so dead bodies became a commodity, where people were paid to exhume them from their resting place in the dead of night.

Watchmen were frequently employed to guard the grave plots of loved ones who had recently passed away and, quite often; it was the poorer graves that were plundered, with many of them containing more than one body.

Women were often also paid to pose as relatives and claim bodies from the Workhouses, while vagrants and beggars also disappeared without trace.

The people who carried out the body snatching were hated and, if and when they were caught, they often met with horrific deaths themselves, particularly if they were caught by the relatives of the deceased. The body snatcher or snatchers would then be buried in a make-shift coffin and placed in unconsecrated ground, in the belief that they would never make it to the afterlife.

The remains of the man found at Green Hills, if indeed he was a body snatcher, did not necessitate an enquiry, according to Dr. Moore and it was subsequently interred in the Drogheda Workhouse burial ground.

Next time you pay a visit to some of the older cemeteries, take a look at some of the grave plots that are surrounded by high iron railings and perhaps a locked gate: the original reason for this may not necessarily have been for ornamental purposes!

Drogheda Museum
MillmountGovernor's House,

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