Liverpool City Police

Liverpool Body Snatchers

by peter dellius Retd.

Liverpool Body Snatchers

There cannot be many people who have not heard of the infamous pair of murderers, Burke and Hare, who operated in 1829 Edinburgh. The story can be briefly told thus; William Burke was an associate of William Hare, who owned a flop house in the Haymarket area of Edinburgh. A tramp residing in the house died owing Hare a small amount of rent money, to recoup which Hare enlisted the help of Burke and they conveyed the body to the home of a Dr. Knox, who was a Surgeon and also taught anatomy for which purpose he needed cadavers to dissect.

The pair were paid in the region of £8.00; the amount startled the pair who had expected to receive a small sum to cover the arrears of rent. The pair lost no time in looking for another body, but people do not die to order and so they murdered a resident by suffocation and duly took the body to Dr.Knox who paid the princely sum of £10.00 and unfortunately made the remark “It is nice to have a fresh specimen” Burke and Hare then launched into a full time business of murder and more than twenty souls paid the price of their greed, until they were caught. Hare turned Kings Evidence and was spared the noose, he died a blind beggar on the streets of London, Burke was hanged, his body dissected and his skeleton put on display. This was the end of their business and the beginning of the end for the grave robbing industry

Although Burke and Hare are always linked to grave robbing, they were not in the true sense grave robbers or “Sack em up men” as they were known.
The true grave robber, as the name implies had been resurrecting buried bodies and supplying them to the anatomist’s table for many years, particularly in the Edinburgh area but so guarded were the graves of loved ones that the anatomist was being illegally supplied from further afield.

The Liverpool connection (or the Tale of the Redoubtable Liverpool Detective)

One cold and gloomy October morning in 1826, Sailors were engaged in loading three barrels of salt/brine aboard a fishing smack at Georges Dock, Liverpool, for transportation to the Port of Leith near Edinburgh. Such a stench was emitting from the kegs that the master of the vessel removed a bung to investigate and was horrified to encounter therein a number of human bodies, pickled in brine. In all eleven bodies were in the three barrels, men women and children. The Police were informed.

The Borough of Liverpool at that time had a Dock and Town watch Police, the Liverpool Borough (Later City) Police not being formed until 1836; many of the Constables of the watch were veterans of the peninsula wars and of the battle of Waterloo.

The officer tasked with the investigation, was a “Police Officer” named Robert Boughey and he immediately set about tracing the carter who had delivered the barrels to the docks. It was not long before the carter was traced and gave his story, he had been plying his trade on the Dock road when approached by a man who asked the carter to call at a house in Hope Street and collect three barrels and transport them to a certain smack on Georges Dock. This the carter did and that was all he was able to relate.

Detective Boughey made to the house in Hope Street, now long gone, a large house with area and cellars situated opposite what is now the Everyman theatre. The occupier of the house was a Reverend James McGowan who ran a school at the premises. In reply to the officer’s questions, McGowan said that he had rented his cellar to a John Henderson, a Scotsman from Greenock who was a cooper by trade and a dealer in fish oil. The officer requested the key to the cellar, McGowan stated it was not in his possession, thereupon Boughey stated his intention of forcing entry. The Reverend became excited and threatened the officer with legal action and threats, he had not reckoned on the tenacity and determination of Detective Boughey and the door of the cellar was knocked down. Nothing could have prepared the Detective for the scene that greeted him. Lying about in barrels and sacks were twenty two dead bodies of men and women. There was also a barrel of babies soaked in brine. The police established that the bodies had come from the cemetery in nearby Cambridge Street near Myrtle Street. There is also the possibility that some of the bodies were from the Cambridge Street work house and may never have made it to a cemetery but had been sold by an official or porter of that establishment.

Henderson was never traced but two men were arrested, one of them by the name of Gillespie was discharged but the other by the name of Donaldson was sentenced to a year in Kirkdale Prison.

Little is known of Detective Robert Boughey other than he resided at 24 Gilbert Street off Duke Street and later at 20 Mount Pleasant. He later transferred across the water to the newly formed Birkenhead Borough Police in 1833 which had been set up on the lines of Sir Robert Peel’s Metropolitan Force, where in 1839 he is described as a Detective but is a Superintendent by 1845 residing at 68 Chester Street, Birkenhead.

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