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monk fighting the demon
Monk protecting a corpse from a demon, 1804

© The Wellcome Trust
Bodysnatching for Cambridge anatomy

Sterne’s post-mortem journey

In 1768 Laurence Sterne, the author of Tristram Shandy, undertook a journey of a kind quite dissimilar to that in his last book, A Sentimental Journey, published that year. He died in London, and was carried to his grave in the “additional” burial ground of St George’s Hanover Square, near London’s Marble Arch. He had died deep in debt, and was probably buried by the parish.

Laurence Sterne
Engraving of Laurence Sterne by Henry Adlard
© Mary Evans Picture Library
The entrance to the graveyard – known as St George’s Field – faced the open pastures Hyde Park, and lay in view of the intersection of Oxford Street and Edgeware Road, infamous as Tyburn, the execution site for London. Although property developers had been contemplating the surrounding fields with interest for some time, the locality resonated with a gallows dread and was only sparsely inhabited. When the parish of St George’s had purchased the new graveyard (the original churchyard being full, and land near to the gallows being cheap) its lonely position had not gone unnoticed. A double wall was erected around the entire ground so as to protect the remains of the parish dead from the bodysnatchers.

Watchmen with dogs were supposed to patrol the churchyard at night, but they were ineffective or corrupt, for in Sterne’s case, no sooner was his body laid to rest than it was taken up again. At that time, paupers’ graves were pits left open to accommodate large numbers of dead. Bodysnatchers had virtually no digging to do, and parish sextons were not too officious about the disappearance of bodies, since it left more space for the high mortality with which urban parishes had to cope. Two days later, Sterne’s body was recognised when it turned up on a slab in Cambridge. It is said to have been swiftly reburied.

Words: Dr Ruth Richardson

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