Nineteenth century graves protected from body snatchers

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Archaeologists have found evidence of grave robbing while digging at a 19th Century burial ground in West Bromwich.

Nineteenth century graves protected from body snatchers
Archaeologists carried out the dig while work on the nearby A41 underpass and Providence Place was going on [Credit: BBC]

A team working at the former Providence Baptist Chapel site found a mortsafe – a metal cage fixed around a coffin to stop people stealing the body.

Empty coffins and one filled with scrap metal were also discovered which archaeologists said was evidence of attempts to deter body snatchers.

Sandwell Council museum staff are now planning an exhibition of the finds.

The site of the chapel and burial ground in Sandwell Road was excavated by Hereford-based Headland Archaeology while work on the A41 underpass and Providence Place was going on nearby.

Sandwell Council’s Museums Manager, Frank Caldwell said: “The body protected by the mortsafe belonged to a young woman who we found suffered from a disfiguring skin and bone disease.

“It meant that her remains would have fetched a premium for the body snatchers and that would be why her body was protected by the mortsafe – her family were concerned that it would be stolen.”
Baptist burial

Mr Caudwell said West Bromwich would have been a prime target for the grave robbers supplying the anatomy and medical schools that were being set up in Birmingham in the late 1700s. 

“The simplest method of protecting the graves was to employ a guard,” he said.

“However it appears from records in other towns that the money paid for a fresh body, which could be over £25, that these guards were often bribed to turn a blind eye. “

Archaeologists also found a brick coffin where the body at the top was hiding a false bottom with another person buried beneath.

Following the excavation, the remains from the 148 graves were removed and given a Baptist burial in Heath Lane cemetery.

“We were not able to put names to any of the skeletons as the name plates from all the coffins would have been made out of cheap thin tinplate and had all corroded to dust,” said Mr Caudwell.

“One intriguing find was a musket ball in one of the coffins – we presume it contributed to that person’s death but research has not helped us identify any shootings in West Bromwich at this period. Some secrets are literally taken to the grave.” 

Source: BBC News Website [January 17, 2013]

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