One thing we have concluded about ourselves during our research over the years is, that we have an incredible propensity for being dragged, kicking and screaming off at tangents and this one is a case in point. How on earth is it possible to get from court dressmaker to body snatcher in a matter of a few steps? – well, with immense ease it appears.
Our research was actually about the renowned milliner and court dress maker of 32 Albemarle Street, Mrs. Charlotte Bean. She found fame as dress maker to ‘Her Royal Highness, The Duchess of Kent and also the Princess Charlotte of Saxe Coburg by special appointment’. It didn’t take us long to discover another story about one of her apprentices, a Miss Elizabeth Lane.
On July 18th, 1810, William Webb, a resurrection man who had been the grave digger for four years at the parish of St. George, Hanover Square, London was accused of stealing a dead body, that of a young lady Miss Elizabeth Lane. She was described as being aged between eighteen and twenty years of age when she died of measles.
Elizabeth was interred on the 21st June, at 8am. Mrs. Lane said that they left after the service before the grave was filled up, but within half an hour of returning home a boy called at their house to say that the corpse which had just been buried had been stolen from the grave. Mr and Mrs Lane immediately returned to the burying ground, accompanied by Mr. Adams, the church warden, Mr. McLaughlin, the sexton and Mr. Cater, the watchman. They went straight to the grave and near it they saw the grave digger, Webb.
He was instructed to open the grave, at first he hesitated, saying it was wasn’t right to do so, stepped back a few paces and let the spade fall out of his hand, again exclaiming that all was not right, he fainted and fell down near to a newly made grave. At first they thought he had died, but after a while he recovered. Once recovered, he was asked whether Elizabeth’s body was in the grave, he answered that it was. So, again he was ordered to open it. About a foot and a half below the surface a sack was found, which, on being examined, contained the dead body of Elizabeth, who had just been committed to the earth.
Everyone recognised her, but the body appeared to have mangled in different parts in a shocking manner, as if it had been struck with a spade or some instrument whilst breaking open the coffin. Her body had been tied at the neck and heels, with rope, as if to prevent it having the appearance of a corpse in the sack. The shroud lying in the bottom of the coffin, folded up.
At his trial which took place at Westminster Sessions on July 13th, 1810, Webb, in his defence, presented a ‘frightful picture of ignorance and depravity’. He told an incoherent story about a man whom he called Jack, assisting him and that he supposed some person would come at night and take the body over the church wall. He complained that his trial was hurried on sooner than he expected and persisted he was not guilty, it’s no clear why he thought this, but in any case the jury, unanimously agreed that he guilty. So far we have not been able to find out what his sentence was.
Kentish Gazette 17th July 1810
Perthshire Courier 19 July 1810
A Country Burial