Selling The Dead Paupers

In 1832 Parliament passed the Anatomy Act in an attempt to curb the activities of the bodysnatchers. Up until that point, the only legal source of bodies for dissection by anatomy schools, medical men and students was the public executioner.


But, by the early 19th century, the demand for corpses was far outstripping the supply and thus the ‘resurrectionists’ were able to earn a healthy (some might say unhealthy) income by either stealing the bodies of the dead, prior to their being buried, or else digging them up once they were buried.

Protecting the bodies of recently-departed loved ones became an important issue for the bereaved of the early 19th century, and all manner of ingenious devices, such as the patented iron coffin, were invented to try and deter the activities of bodysnatchers.

An Iron Coffin.
The Iron Coffin, St Bride’s Fleet Street.

A third option was that employed by the notorious Edinburgh resurrectionists, Burke and Hare, who actually murdered people in order to sell their bodies to the surgeons and physicians.

By the 1820’s, bodysnatching was a major problem, and all manner of means were employed to deter its practicioners and thus ensure the safety of the dead after burial.


Desperate to halt the nefarious trade in dead bodies – and to discourage extremists such as Burke and Hare – Parliament brought in the Anatomy Act with a view to ensuring a ready supply of legitimate bodies for the surgeons, and thus make bodysnatching unprofitable.

The Act allowed a relative to donate the corpse of a next of kin to an Anatomy School in return for burial, which would then be paid for by the school.

Section 7 of the Act stipulated that any person who was in legal possession of a body could allow it to be dissected, so long as no relative raised an objection.


Significantly, the “legal possession” clause could apply to hospitals, prisons and workhouses; and physicians, surgeons and students were allowed to lawfully claim the body of anyone – but mostly paupers – who died in one of these aforementioned institutions and whose body remained unclaimed after 48 hours.

This was one of the reasons why the Victorian poor came to fear the workhouses and the hospitals so much, since to die in such an institution would rob them of the only real dignity they had left, dignity in death.


Workhouses in particular became an important provider of dead bodies for medical students and practitioners to experiment on, and payment was made either in cash or by way way of barter in that the doctors of a particular school would then provide free medical facilities for a Workhouse.


Evidently, some workhouse officials saw any pauper who died under their charge as a means of supplementing their remuneration and so,  in 1844, Parliament passed the Poor Law Amendment Act, which made it illegal for any individual to profit personally from the sale of paupers bodies to the Anatomy Schools.


However, the practice continued in secret until, in 1858, a massive scandal broke, and exposed a dark underbelly to the Workhouse system when it was revealed that Alfred Feist, master of St Mary Newington Workhouse, was raking in a tidy sum by selling the bodies of paupers who died under his charge.

On Sunday 10th of January 1858, readers of Reynold’s Newspaper opened their latest edition to be confronted with the following disturbing story:-


On Wednesday, after the disposal of the ordinary charges, an inquiry of a very important public character relative to the scandalous sale of pauper bodies for anatomical purposes, by the late master of Newington workhouse, took place before Mr. Elliott, at the Lambeth Police-court.


Some days ago a summons was applied for by Mr. Chester, clerk and solicitor to the guardians of the parish of St. Mary’s, Newington, against Mr. Alfred Feist, the late master of the workhouse, for having “unlawfully taken away, the dead body of a certain female, named Mary Whitehead, with intent to sell and dispose of it for gain and profit,” and that summons having been returnable at one o’clock on Wednesday, the court at that hour was crowded to excess.


Mrs. Louisa Mixer was called and sworn.

She said she was the wife of John Mixer, and resided at No. 30, Pitts-street, St, George’s-road, Southwark.

On the 6th of October, 1855, she went with her mother, Mary Whitehead, to the Newington workhouse, where she remained up
to the time of her mother’s death, which took Place on the 30th January last.

She called at the workhouse on the day before her death and saw her mother, and on the day of her death she also saw her.

She then asked the defendant, Mr. Feist, if more than one person could follow her mother to the grave, and he replied that they could, on the payment of eighteen pence each. She also asked him when she would be buried, and he replied on the Saturday or Monday following, but referred her to Mr. Hogg, the parish undertaker, and that person said the funeral would take place on the Monday.

On the Monday she (witness) accompanied her sister to the workhouse, and seeing Mr. Feist, she told him she wished to see the body of her mother, Mrs. Whitehead.

She proceeded with her sister to the dead-house, where she found both Feist and Hogg.

Mr. Feist took the lid off one of the coffins there, and told us not to go too near, but we went near enough to see that it was mother in the coffin. Mr. Feist told us to withdraw to the waiting-room, and in about half-an-hour told us to come and get into the coach.

We did so, and followed the hearse to Mile-end, supposing at the time we were following the remains of mother.

At the burial-place, two coffins were taken from the hearse and buried, and I was under the impression all the time that one of these coffins contained the remains of mother.


Robert Hogg, having been sworn, said he was an undertaker, and lived at 89, St. George’s-road, Southwark, and had been engaged as undertaker for the parish of St Mary, Newington. The bill produced was in his handwriting, and was his quarterly account in the beginning of the year, for the burial done by him for the parish of Newington.

In that bill there was a charge for the burial of Mary Whitehead, though he had removed the body of that person from Newington workhouse to Guy’s Hospital. He charged for the burial of bodies taken to the hospital the same as if they had really been interred, because he never knew or had been told that he was not to do so.

The body of Mary Whitehead was taken to the hospital on the 2nd of February.


Mr. Elliott: That is the day on which you charge for the burial. Would you have made the same charge if the body had been buried or taken to the hospital?

Hogg: I should.

Mr. Elliott: Do you invariably charge the same under such circumstances ?

Witness: Invariably.

The witness proceeded to say, that from instructions he received from the defendant, he received the necessary account from the inspector under the Anatomy Act for the removal of the body of Mary Whitehead to Guy’s Hospital, having first carried the necessary certificates from, Mr. Feist to the inspector. The papers produced were the same he had received.

Mr. Robinson: Now, seeing these documents, and supposing it was a sham funeral, and after taking the body to Guy’s Hospital, cannot you tell the court what was in the coffin ?

Hogg: I cannot. There might have been two bodies in the hearse when there ought to have been three. It was my duty to see the right number of coffins come out of the dead-house.

Mr. Robinson: What do you mean by telling us that there might have been three bodies to come out, when only two really came, and that the third was left for anatomical purposes?

Witness: I never go to the cemetery with parochial funerals. I leave it to my men, who get the names of the out-door paupers from me; those of the in-door paupers come from the master of the workhouse. When I have gone down of a morning, and found four or five to be buried, Mr. Feist has told me to leave certain of them.

Mr. Robinson: Have you ever known an instance when some body has been substituted for another in the dead house?

Witness: I have, but I cannot say in how many instances.

Mr. Robinson: You know of the substitution of bodies, or parts of bodies, for others – how often?

Witness: Ten or fifteen times within the last twelve months.

Mr. Robinson: On these occasions has Mr. Feist been with you?

Witness: Yes, it was done by direction of Mr. Feist; but these were bodies, or parts of bodies, brought from the hospital for the purpose of interment.

Mr. Robinson here remarked, that it was the duty of the hospital to send the remains of bodies dissected direct to the place of interment, and not to the workhouse.

Mr. Elliott: Then, I suppose, the bodies, or parts of bodies, taken from the hospital to the workhouse are substituted for other bodies there, and the latter kept at the workhouse to be disposed of by the master of the workhouse or the undertaker or both ?

The witness admitted that it was so.

Mr. Robinson: Then there was a substitution of a body, coffin and all, at the workhouse, instead of a body only ?

Witness: Yes.

Mr. Robinson: And instead of relations following the body of a friend, as they supposed, they followed the dissected remains of some other person?

Witness: Yes; but Mr. Feist often told me that the persons in attendance were no relations of the deceased, but merely came there for a ride.


Mr. Alfred Polland, one of the teachers of anatomy at Guy’s Hospital, produced a return of the reception of the body at the hospital, the time at which it was received, and the warrant of its removal, obtained from Feist.


Mr. Mark Shaddock, an accountant, of Guy’s Hospital, said that in the year 1856 he had paid the defendant £19 10s. and in 1857, £26. for his trouble in making out certificates and returns.

Mr. Robinson: Is that in relation to bodies?

Witness: No; I know nothing about bodies. That’s not in my department. I paid him these amounts for the reports that are made to me. I cannot say how many bodies these amounts refer to. The amount is made up of something under 10s. for each certificate. I am not prepared to say it is 10s. for each body sent, for I know nothing about bodies.

In cross-examination, the witness said he had made the payments to Feist as a gratuity in the same way as he had paid previous masters since 1849.


Mr. Itlif deposed to Feist being a servant of the parish, and having no authority whatever from the officers to dispose of the bodies, after which Mr. Robinson applied for a remand, which Mr. Elliott acceded to, admitting the defendant to bail, himself in 40 shillings, and two sureties in 20 shillings each to appear on a future day.”


On Sunday 24th January 1858 Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper provided its readers with an update on the case thus far:-

On Wednesday, Alfred Feist, late master of St. Mary Newington workhouse, again surrendered on his bail, at the Lambeth police-court, for further examination, on the charge of disposing of the bodies of inmates who died in the workhouse, for anatomical purposes.

One or two other cases similar to that of Mary Whitehead, which was investigated at the former hearing, were now gone into.

The undertaker, Hogg, deposed that in cases when bodies were intended for anatomical purposes he generally received the necessary certificate from the defendant to send to the inspector under the Anatomy bill. The practice in the workhouse was, when paupers died there, to have them carried down to the dead-house and place them in a shell, and the undertaker had no means of learning the names of such persons, except from the master of the workhouse.

Evidence was also given by Mr. William Bull, a clerk in the master’s office, as to the practice followed in case no friends of the deceased applied to be allowed to follow the body to the grave, and also as to the disposal of unclaimed bodies.


Mr. Mathews, on behalf of the prisoner, admitted that his client was not free from blame, in the lax – he might say the scandalous -manner in which the bodies of paupers had been treated, but contended that no sale of the bodies for profit had been made out, and that Hogg, the undertaker, who had access to the dead-house, ought to be placed at the bar rather than his client.


Mr. Elliott said there could not be the slightest doubt that in the first case before him the prisoner knew that the deceased had friends, and he had been guilty of a fraud of a most revolting description, that of substituting the body of one for another, and making the friends believe they were following to the grave the body of their own relative. This was an offence against decency of the worst description.

The case must go before a higher tribunal.

It also appeared to him most culpable on the part of the board of guardians to allow bodies to be brought back from the hospital to the workhouse for interment.

Mr. Robinson assured the magistrate that that which had been so justly condemned by his worship was entirely unknown to the respectable gentlemen who formed the board; and a number of the guardians present confirmed this assertion.


The evidence in the case of Phoebe Clark, a pauper, who had been in the workhouse, and who died on the 19th of February last, was then gone through.

In this case the body was sent to Guy’s and another substituted, and two of the sisters of Clark followed the strange body, in the belief it was their relative, to Victoria park, and saw the coffin interred there.

Mr. Elliott, was of opinion that this and the case taken on the former day would be abundant for the purposes of prosecution, and Mr. Robinson having undertaken that if indictments in other of the ten or twelve cases should be preferred, the solicitor for the defence should be furnished with the evidence in them, the prisoner was fully committed to take his trial on both charges.

On an application by his counsel the prisoner was, however, admitted to bail in two sureties in 40 shillings, and himself in 80 shillings to appear on the day of trial.”


The case against Alfred Feist was heard at the Central Criminal Court (Old Bailey) on Wednesday 23rd February 1858.

On the following Saturday The Salisbury and Winchester Journal reported on the case:-

“At the Central Criminal Court on Wednesday, Alfred Feist, the late master of the Newington Workhouse, surrendered to take his trial upon a charge of misdemeanour.


Mr. Robinson conducted the prosecution, and in opening the case to the Jury said that the substantial charge against the defendant would be found to be that he, holding the position of master of the Newington Workhouse, and it being part of his duty, in that capacity, to superintend the burial of the paupers who die in that establishment, neglected that duty, and disposed of the bodies of such persons for the purpose of being dissected, for his own profit and advantage.


The Jury were, no doubt, aware that, under certain conditions, the bodies of persons dying in workhouses were allowed to be made available for scientific purposes; but according to the evidence in the present case he believed it would be made to appear that none of the bodies that had been disposed of by the defendant could legally have been so disposed of, and it appeared that the remains of one dissected body were substituted for a body that was supposed to be about to be interred, and the latter was then sent to be dissected, and afterwards made use of in the same manner so that mourners, instead of following the remains of their own relations to the grave, followed those of some other person; and a regular system of fraud and deception in these respects had been carried on by the defendant.


The learned counsel then proceeded to state that it had been laid down that any dealing with a dead body, other than to decently inter it, was an offence at common law; but he said it appeared to him that the case would clearly come within one of the sections of the Anatomy Act, which declared it to be an offence for any one to dispose of a dead body for the purposes of dissection where the party during life had objected to this being done, or where the husband or wife, or any known relative of the deceased, made the same objection; and this section also enacted that no undertaker or person entrusted with the duty of burying the deceased should, under any circumstances, have the power to dispose of it for the purposes of dissection; and also that it should not be done in any case where the relatives of the deceased required the body to be buried without being dissected; and this section at the same time required that there should be certain certificates obtained, and other formalities gone through, as an additional protection against the possibility of dead bodies being improperly used for dissection.


He was bound to admit that the defendant had complied with all the forms required by the statute; but the charge against him was that he had fraudulently obtained possession of the remains of a great number of deceased persons, and had disposed of them for the purposes of dissection for his own advantage and profit.


He then proceeded to give a brief outline of the facts, and said it appeared to him that it would clearly establish the charge against the defendant.


The evidence was then proceeded with, and considerable discussion took place between the learned Judge and Counsel on both sides, but ultimately the jury returned a verdict of guilty; that the defendant, with Hogg, had delayed the burial of these bodies in order that they might be disposed of for anatomical examination, for his own profit; that the pretended arrangements for the funeral prevented the relatives from making a formal request that the bodies should be buried without anatomical examination, and that if they had not been deceived in this manner they would have made such a request.

A verdict of guilty was then recorded, but no sentence passed, and the defendant was allowed to be at large upon his procuring sureties, to appear and receive judgement in case the points of law that are reserved should be decided against him.”


However, in April 1858, the guilty verdict was quashed on appeal on the grounds that Alfred Feist had not actually broken the law since, in the words of the Derby Mercury:- “what he did he was warranted by law in doing.”


You can read the full trial transcript at the Old Bailey online site here.