Joseph Crouch was fortunate in his timing when he was finally found guilty of stealing dead bodies. His career was over anyway; the new Anatomy Act of 1832 was to provide the anatomy schools with a regular supply of bodies and body snatching as an organised, lucrative trade was about to come to an end. He and his accomplice David Baker were found guilty of stealing the shroud from one of the bodies that they had stolen from St John’s, Horsley down in Southwark. They were intercepted with two bodies still lying on the ground, one without a shroud, on 8 April. Crouch’s last words before arrest were “Don’t hurt me. I will go with you quietly; this way I have got my living for the last twenty years”
There is no reason to doubt the claim. Joseph was a relative of Ben Crouch, a famous resurrectionist and the leader of the Borough gang; and Joseph himself had made headlines on at least three occasions. In January 1832 he and a David Baker were accused by a William Dunelly of stealing his rope and ladders. Dunelly was away from the weekend and found his equipment missing. Crouch had a solid defence. Dunnelly was, like him, a body snatcher. It was by no means a coincidence that Dunnelly’s lodging had a view of St George’s Burial grounds in Southwark. They worked in a gang of six- a plausible number. Two to carefully remove the body (without disturbing any property, which would be a crime) and four to take them away to a teaching hospital. The rope and ladders were owned in common, according to the defendant. Crouch was dismissive. Dunnelly was such a bad character that “ne’er a decent body snatcher would ‘sociate with him”. ( Morning Post, May 1832)
Joseph appears in the newspapers twice in 1832 but before that had 10 years of what we must presume to be a decade of not getting caught. There are a few possible reasons for this; it seems that he was a professional, full time body snatcher rather than an occasional one, as his admission in January 1832 proves .He was a relative of Ben Crouch and a known associate of Patrick Murphy, who took over the Borough Gang when Ben Crouch retired to run a hotel in Margate. This was hard core criminality, and well organised.
It was also very easy to evade arrest. The graveyard watch was more designed to deter than to catch; in a gang of six it would take only two to remove the body; the rest could scarper. Grave diggers and deacons were poor and could be bribed. At the worst, a surgeon at the anatomical hospital could give them bail. Unless property was damaged or stolen they were safe from serious punishment.
Joseph Crouch appears in the newspapers again in 1828 with an abortive attempt at raiding the mortuary of St Mary’s church workhouse Newington. They had forced an entrance into the building and removed two male and four female bodies. An Irishman called Fitzgerald seems to have been sub- contracted to move the bodies to St Bartholomew’s and Guys in his pea green cart. He claimed to have no idea about the possible contents of the six unwieldy sacks. Even his admission that he had dropped the two sacks off at the famous anatomical hospital had not given him any clues. By the time the authorities has tracked down the bodies they had been dissected to the point of not being recognised. The police tried to use Kent to point the finger at Crouch, which he duly did. The judge was not impressed by the police admission that Kent was certainly drunk when he implicated Crouch. The judge asked them to find bail.
Grave robbing was a treacherous world, with little loyalty. When Joseph Crouch reappears in the newspapers again it is as a witness for the prosecution. In the Morning Chronicle in February 1820, Crouch explained that he had seen Patrick Murphy, Michael Wood and a man named Wild, remove three bodies from the St Clement Danes burial ground near Portugal Street. Notice the different ways that Crouch uses to suggest his high level of knowledge.
The defence case was simple. Crouch had been a body snatcher “since being a child” He was presenting this evidence due to motives of revenge. This all sounds very plausible- perhaps the gang had fallen out over the distribution of money, or Crouch had been cut out of a deal. It could have been that Murphy supplanting his relative as the leader of Borough Gang was the problem.
They were told to by the judge find bail
Whatever the situation, it is clear that Crouch was a major criminal (he would need to be very brave to take on Patrick Murphy), he was associated with the leading resurrection gang, and was able to act with near-impunity in Regency England.
An extended version of this blog is part of my new book – The Dark Years of Georgian Britain
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Other blogs by me on the same subject