He stood on the edge of the mob at Tyburn while the human vultures descended upon the corpse of the executed.
He waited as the family fought to claim the body of the condemned from the sporting crowd. Not far from him, the undertakers fought each other to gain the attention of the deceased’s family. Less prominent surgeons fought to buy off the family and purchase the corpse, hoping to cut out the middleman – him - Joseph Naples, resurrection man.
As we shift into full gear for the Charles Dickens bicentennial, the Hunterian Museum recently hosted Kirsty Chilton’s lecture on a bicentennial of a different sort: The account of a man who two hundred years ago kept a diary of his life as one of the busiest resurrectionists of his time. A rare, grave, thing.
Naples’ career began ten years before his first diary entry in 1811. He was unlucky in his young professional life and made silly mistakes. He approached the wrong undertaker who turned him over to the authorities when he tried to sell him a corpse in 1801. Sent to Coldbath Fields House of Correction to serve a two-year sentence, he scrambled over the wall in a successful escape during the 1802 riots behind the prison.
As one of The Borough Gang, Naples worked in a team of eight who supplied London’s leading hospitals with corpses. In clear handwriting he recorded places, names, buying, selling, and prices. He wrote of the bodies of children and babies.
A typical entry:
“At 2 a.m. got up, the Party went to Harps, got 4 adults and 1 small, took 4 to St. Thomas. Came home, went to Mr. Wilson and Brookes. Dan got paid £8/8/0 from Mr. Wilson. I received £9/9/0402 from Mr. Brookes. Came over to the borough, sold small for £1/10. Received £4/4/0 for adult. At home al night”
In 1813 he was arrested again, but by this time his connections to prominent surgeons were so strong that he easily got bail. Arrested for the last time in 1819, it was believed he either finally became cleverer, or changed his name. As a colleague of his once said, “It’s safer to be in teeth.”
The diary reveals his body snatching duties and we come to understand more than a glimpse of his daily work life. Naples kept tabs on other grave robbers; there was in-fighting and fierce competition. His figure haunted funerals where he made notes of the locations of the freshest graves.
The gang also made up the shortfall in other cities in England and Scotland. Naples nonchalantly recorded the task of packaging bodies and preparing them for delivery to Edinburgh as if he were about to post a letter.
It was a seasonal occupation. The heat and overwhelming odours associated with the profession made it impossible to hold anatomy classes in the summer. Naples worked hard throughout the winter, stealing sixty bodies a month, or more. I thought how my undertaker father worried about the icy Southern ground of winter and constantly checked with his gravediggers, concerned he would have to delay a burial. I wondered if, when Naples’ shovel struck the earth, it was ever met with a fierce resistance.
Naples drew a simple, basic moon chart in his diary. Knowing when the moon was waxing and waning was important to his work; he wished to avoid the glare of a full moon, which would have clearly exposed him.
There are few references to his personal life, but here’s one: "Went to the pub, got drunk."
In the 1820’s work became more dangerous and difficult. Cemetery watchers planted in burial grounds with dogs and guns were a new fear for resurrectionists. And in an ironic and bitter turn, Naples and others were horrified to witness their colleagues stolen from their graves upon their death. Terrified they would suffer the same fate of those they had stolen, the resurrection men begged their relatives to promise they would be left undisturbed. They paid off surgeons, clergy and family to safeguard their own graves.
The 1832 Anatomy Act opened the way for body dealing rather than body snatching. The Act gave the surgeons and students legal access to corpses that were unclaimed after death.
It had been a lucrative career for most resurrectionists. One year Naples’ receipts totalled £1,394 8s and one of his associates was worth nearly £6,000 when he died. But many of the body snatchers threw their money away on alcohol, women and gambling. Naples fell into this group.
By the 1830’s, his grave robbing days behind him, Naples worked as a porter, little more than a servant, in the dissecting room at St. Thomas’s Hospital.
Joseph Naples died in 1843 of an alcohol related illness.