National Records of Scotland

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Bodysnatchers among prisoners in online records

Bodysnatchers among prisoners in online records

Tuesday, 9 May 2023
Photo showing Calton Prison

A trio convicted of snatching corpses from a Midlothian graveyard are among the thousands of prisoners whose records can now be searched on the ScotlandsPeople website. 

Searchable indexes to the registers of Edinburgh’s Bridewell and Calton Prisons and Largs Prison in North Ayrshire have now been added to Scotland's official genealogy website. 

The new records collectively cover a period of over 50 years from 1798 to 1853 with Bridewell the largest spanning 40 years and 40,000 entries. 

Among the records are a group accused of digging up the corpses of two adults and a young child from Lasswade Kirkyard south of Edinburgh in 1829. 

One of the three men found guilty of "violating the sepulchres of the dead", John Kerr, was made an example of and sentenced to ninth months hard labour. Two of his fellow "resurrection men" served six months but others involved in the crime were not prosecuted.

Archivist Stefanie Dempster from National Records of Scotland which runs the ScotlandsPeople website said: 

"These remarkable records are a fantastic resource for social researchers and those researching their own family tree. 

"Alongside many petty thefts and incidents of drunken behaviour, we see crimes that were of their time, like snatching corpses from graveyards to sell to surgeons teaching anatomy.

"The harsh lives lived by many are clear from cases like that of a woman who had requested the magistrate send her to prison with the records stating the reason 'being lame'. 

"These records offer a glimpse at the grittier side of life in early 19th century Scotland."

There are features on the prisons and some of the inmates on the ScotlandsPeople website news and features page.