Thursday, June 30, 2011

July 18, 1882 --- A Body-Snatcher

After seven frantic months, the missing body of the recently deceased 25th Earl of Crawford and Balcarres is recovered, not 500 yards from his disturbed crypt. The previous December, workmen on the estate at Dunecht, near Aberdeen, found the crypt door ajar, a slab moved, the coffin skillfully opened, and the late Earl ("a spare man") carried off. The public reveled in ghoulish fascination for months as police crossed Scotland in an effort to solve "The Dunecht Outrage."

The Queen sent a pretty note to the Dowager Countess upon the return of her husband's remains. A scholarly and well-beloved peer, the Earl had gone to his eternal rest in Italy in 1880. The history of his corpse, however, had been anything but restful. His coffin had been carried by coach across the Alps, lashed to the deck of a North Sea steamer, and then, in the midst of one of Scotland's worst-ever snowstorms, the hearse was buried in a drift for weeks. And now this.

One popular theory as to the body's disappearance was that Edinburgh medical students took it to study the supposedly superior skills of Italian embalmers. In fact, the recovered body was described as being "in a wonderful state of preservation considering the vicissitudes through which it had passed." There were some fears that the body might be held for ransom; in 1878, an American millionaire's corpse vanished and $25,000 was demanded, in vain, for its return. The Spectator noted with bemusement: "The late Lord Crawford can take no harm, wherever his body is?"

Police had been led to the body by Charles Soutar, a local rat-catcher and poacher, who had drunkenly boasted in a pub that he knew where the Earl was buried. Not two feet below ground, the Earl's body is found in a blanket. Soutar insists that he came upon the actual grave-robbers who vowed to kill him if he talked. Unwilling or unable to name them, Soutar is placed under arrest.  The net soon tightens around the rat-catcher; police claim letters in his handwriting had been received by the Earl's widow demanding money for information.

Soutar receieves a five year prison sentence which some thought harsh; The Times approves, however, hoping to discourage "so revolting a form of brigandage."

Illustrated London News

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