Israel Chapman- Body Snatcher

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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Body snatching 1816; a bad year to be alive, or be dead.


During 1816, the Anatomy school of Great Marlborough Street would advertise their dissections of the human body “every Thursday, as usual”. These would be attended by medical students who needed the experience as part of their medical degree. Such human bodies were hard to come by; apart from the corpses of executed murderers; there was no other legal source.

Sarah Cook of Hertford was a legal source; she was executed in December 1816 for absconding with her newly born child and then drowning it in a local river. However, there were not enough corpses and it was generally known and accepted that surgeons bought fresh specimens from “resurrection men”. Grave robbery was in itself not an offence at this time, although stealing property associated with the burial was. There was very little sense of outrage about this activity in the papers of 1816. While the ghastly subject was not referred to very much, when it was it was often treated in a jocular and almost childish way. One paper announced that “the resurrection men have risen again” In one newspaper, it was sandwiched between an article about curing chilblains and a new bridge in Galashiels.

The two major news items concerned the breakdown in relations between the two sides. In February 1816, two bodies were found in Great Marlborough Street, propped up in the entrance to the offices of Mr Alderson and Mr Clapperton, both local surgeons. Both had been mutilated beyond use in dissection. They were designed as a warning to a nearby surgeon, Henry Brook. Brook was trying to manipulate the market in corpses by attempting to embalm them. As things stood, bodies would be of no use after a few days and this put the power of supply into the hands of the resurrectionists . Mr Brook had to be protected from a London mob who knew what Brook was doing and knew the rebuke was aimed at his methods.

The papers speculated that the incident arose after a dispute about payment for the two cadavers. It was really the Borough Gangs attempt to maintain their monopoly of supply. It seems that the surgeons were intent in paying no more than 4 guineas a body while the resurrection men themselves were looking for at least fifty percent more than that.

In November 1816 a group of resurrection men entered St Thomas’s hospital during a dissection. It may be that they had been organising a kind of strike to push the price of bodies up to 6 guineas and the surgeons had responded by encouraging others to enter the profession. As with other workers, Trade Unionism was illegal for employees in 1816. The Chester Courant, killing two birds with a ghastly pun and a reactionary attitude, announced that the “spirit of combination” had even spread to the grave robbers. They mutilated the corpses that were being dissected; they had a good attempt at turning the young doctors into future business too. The leader of the mob was Israel Chapman, a noted resurrectionist, according to the papers, although perhaps his Jewish background was the reason for his top billing. When they were finally apprehended they complained that they were badly treated by the surgeons, who could not survive without them. The judge asked them to find bail; the paper, in an aside, noted that “the sums that these men make is immense”

Chapman himself in a later trial claimed that his gang stole 50 bodies a week, although this may have been bravado. He once told a judge, should the judge die before him, Chapman would be” after him”. The law caught up with him on 14 January 1818, when he made the mistake of attacking property. He was transported for Highway, rather than graveside, robbery.

Private enterprise had a solution to the problem of grave robbery. Jarvis and Company of 139 Longacre had a range of Coffins including the patent “unopenable” Coffin at 3 ½ guineas available at a few hours notice. The Coffins were essential a set of steel and wooden boxes within boxes with no visible screws on the outside and no weak corners that could be prised open. This also made lead unnecessary- a real saving in itself and another disincentive to the grave robber, who would often sell the lead back to the person who built the coffin in the first place

Family and relatives realised that time was the key; a speedy burial, a watch on the graveyard and a coffin that could not be opened would make the grave robbers look elsewhere. After two weeks or so, the body would be unusable anyway

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