Israel Chapman was born in about 1794, in Chelsea, London and died in the Jewish poor house in Australia on 4th July 1868. Little can be worked out from his early life- the lack of compulsory state records and the fact that his Jewish background put him outside the normal system makes that difficult. However, he had a young brother, Noel, born 1809 in Chelsea, and Israel was a coach driver- a job that could put you in contact with body snatchers. At some point he married a women called Catherine.
Israel Chapman was well known to the legal establishment. In the mid 1810s he was living first in Haymarket, and later at Vine Street, Covent Garden. The Morning Post of 27 August 1816 reported that the “well known character Israel Chapman” had been indicted for stealing a watch at Hatton Garden magistrates’ court. In April of the same year, it was reported by the papers that the “Jew resurrection man” was accused of carrying of a wounded man from a site of attempted murder in Newton’s Court, Queens Court. He clearly was not doing this to administer first aid.
He was exceptionally well known to the magistrate John Nares. Nares worked at both Bow Street and Covent Garden as a judge. It seems that Chapman once told him that, should Nares die first, he would be after his dead body. Indeed this happened- the esteemed magistrate died on 16 December 1816, and the Bow Street Patrole guarded his body for three weeks. There was no sign of Israel at this time- he was at war with the London anatomy hospitals at the time, who he believed that they were employing non gang members to procure bodies and reduce the price- there are more details here.
By November 1817 the Borough Street Gang seems to be led by Chapman rather than Ben Couch.The Morning Post reported that a “ T Vaughan” had been apprehended at St Luke’s burial ground stealing dead bodies and was recognised as one of Israel’s man. Unusually, there were no sureties available for the arrested man- usually there would be somebody from the medical schools to help extricate the grave robbers. It was very much a joint enterprise.
There is an interesting but problematical reference to Chapman in “Blackwoods Magazine”, Volume 17, in 1825. In the text he is referred to as “ Izzy” or” Easy” but at the beginning he is referred to as “ J Chapman”. It correctly gives his location as Haymarket/ Covent Garden and gives apparently accurate details of his modus operandi- in a similar manner to the way he ran off with an injured person at Newton’s Court in 1816, he seems to have tried to escape with a live specimen “ a dozen years ago”- i.e. about 1813. They seem to be different incidents; however some of the later details are wrong. As will be shown later, he was not convicted of burglary and did not die in 1819, as the article suggests. Despite the errors this seems to be an accurate portrayal of Israel.
Some historians have claimed that Chapman only stole Jewish bodies.The evidence is weak; and we have to be careful that an anti Semitic element does not creep in. Joseph Naples makes two references to Jews in the resurrection trade on two consecutive days in August 1811. This may have been the same person and may have been Chapman; Chapman was very much known to Naples by c 1815 but there is no hard evidence that it might be him, although some commentators have claimed that it had to be Chapman-however, if it had to be a particular person, this hardly suggests a massive Jewish presence in the body snatching trade.
There is other (very) circumstantial evidence. Ben Couch gate crashed a Jewish wedding reception in January 1810 at the London Hospital public house, assaulting a Jewish man. This may be linked with an individual taking his trade, and could even be Chapman. However it is not evidence of a massive Jewish involvement –it may just be anti-Semitism and general resentment. So, when the press refer to “Jew resurrection men” – they seem to be making two comments rather than one.
Chapman also specifically denied that he had been involved in the robbery of Jewish bodies. The Inverness Courier 9 April 1818 and many other papers reported that Chapman had told the Jewish religious figure Dr Herschel that he had a hand in the removal of one Jewish body and had not laid his hands on it. He particularly refuted the accusation that he had looted the Jewish cemetery at Mile End. These denials sound convincing. Chapman goes on to say that he has stolen up to 40 bodies a week; and that the Borough Gang had reached up to 30 members under his leadership. He also told the rabbi that part of his efficient operations was to bribe grave diggers to produce shallow graves that could be pillaged easily; although Jewish corpses would always be fresh- believers are ordered by Deuteronomy to bury their dead on the same day- it seems unlikely that it was a major part of Chapman’s work; he did not need to do this even if his morals are deeply suspect. There were enough easy pickings, and relatively few Jewish corpses.
In December 1817, Israel’s life changed forever. Chapman and his partner George Scott were accused of the Highway Robbery of James Palmer of a half sovereign and four shillings in silver . Palmer was from Southall, had been drinking in the Seven Stars public house in Star Court, Whitechapel and had been violently beaten and robbed by a gang, of whom only Scott and Chapman were captured by the Watchmen. Scott- a “tall athletic type”, probably in contradistinction to the “Jew Chapman” was also convicted of a similar crime committed the same day- waiting around in pubs for people to leave drunk, although Chapman’s victim claimed to have only had two pints of porter and some tea. This was the turning point of Chapman’s life in England; this attack on the property of a gentlemen was much more serious than taking dead bodies
Scott and Chapman were given the death penalty on January 14th 1818. Previous to this he was incarcerated on the prison Hulk “Retribution” moored either Sheerness or Greenwich.
He arrived in New South Wales on September 14th 1818. His life improved almost immediately-he became a poacher turned gamekeeper in a very profound way. His success is a ringing condemnation of the life of the poor in Regency England. For details, see
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