“There’s been another one, sir.”
Cornelius Armstrong was sitting at his desk, deep in thought, when he looked up to see Sergeant Bill Townsend filling the doorway of his office.
“Where?” he asked.
“Dalston Road this time,” said Townsend.
Armstrong looked down at the plan of Stanwix Churchyard that lay on his desk and absentmindedly tapped the plot marked with an X.
“Brady and Gibson were in the area when the alarm was raised about an hour ago,” said Townsend, “they’re up there now.”
The Detective Inspector had been at his desk for less than twenty minutes reading the little information that was available regarding the disturbance of the grave in Stanwix three nights ago. Now he reached for his hat and coat, fearing what he first thought was a distasteful, isolated incident, could now possibly develop into a series of body snatching episodes that were so commonplace in the early nineteenth century.
Knowing that Carlisle was not exempt from the gruesome crimes, he instructed Townsend, “Get me any information you can on the grave robbing incidents of about sixty or seventy years ago. There should be something in the old ledgers in the back room. Failing that, speak with the Librarian Sydney Irvine at Tullie House – he will have the old newspapers of the day.”
He collared PC Harry Stokes on his way out, instructing him to get the horse-drawn police wagon and take him to Carlisle Cemetery, which was situated on the edge of the city on Dalston Road.
As Stokes drove under the arched entrance of the cemetery, it was immediately apparent where the desecration had taken place. Two hundred yards ahead on the right, in the paupers’ burial ground, a clutch of people had gathered. Necks strained, elbows nudged, and no doubt tongues wagged; the usual group of voyeurs and snoops were drawn like magnets towards misfortune or wrongdoing.
They were being marshalled by the two uniformed officers Townsend had referred to. Much to his chagrin Armstrong also saw Jack Dixon from the Journal there, no doubt keen to trample on someone’s feelings to get a story. Inevitably, it was Dixon who addressed the Inspector as he climbed down.
“What d’you think Inspector, are Burke and Hare back on the scene?”
The desultory chatter of the onlookers gave way to sniggers at the reporter’s interruption.
“I think we should have a little more respect for the situation,” said Armstrong, and then addressing the crowd through his constables, “Let’s clear this area.”
Gibson and Brady immediately started shepherding the now compliant onlookers back to a respectable distance. “You too, sir” Gibson said to Dixon who was less eager to move back. Once the crowd had retreated towards the entrance of the cemetery, some lost interest in the potential scandal and started to drift away.
Armstrong watched as the two constables returned to the graveside. They were followed by a man who emerged from the office beside the main entrance; he wore a black frock coat and a sombre expression. His awkward gait was compounded by his attempt to hurry along whilst balancing an opened leather bound ledger on one forearm and trying to steady it with his other hand.
As Gibson and Brady reached the graveside, the man had virtually caught them up. “Ah, Mr. East,” said Gibson, turning to discover the man behind him, “let me introduce to you Inspector Armstrong, who is investigating the matter.’ And then turning to his superior, “Sir, this is Mr. East, the Cemetery Manager. I asked him to establish whose grave it was.”
“Mr. East,” said the Inspector, half nodding and half inviting comment.
“Oh, a terrible business,” said East, almost to himself, “a terrible business. Nothing like this has ever happened before.”
“The grave?” prompted Armstrong.
“Oh yes,” said East, regaining a little composure. He ran his finger down and then across the page of the ledger. “The grave contained the body of one Elizabeth Meggs, a pauper from the workhouse who died on the 20th of January 1833.”
Cornelius looked into the dark gaping cavity: it was empty.
East, followed his gaze, “The burial appears to have been typical of the day. The body would have been wrapped in a hessian shroud and would have been covered in lime before the grave was filled in.”
Armstrong appeared to not hear: Why would someone be digging into graves that were over seventy years old? Something then caught his eye a couple of yards to the left of the grave. “What’s that?” he asked, pointing to what looked like a stone that had been painted red, although the paint had faded considerably.
“It’s a mark,” said East. “It means that this area has been desecrated before.”
“You mean other graves have been raided?”
“Yes, although not in my time here.” He consulted the ledger again. “Yes, here: that grave appears to have been disturbed also in 1833. I seem to recall reading somewhere that there was a spate of body snatching around that time.” He looked again and added as an afterthought, “Adam Cosgrove – coincidentally, both he and Elizabeth Meggs were buried at six o’clock in the morning on the same day.”
I’m sure Stanwix Churchyard was also involved then, thought Armstrong. His instinct suggested it was worth eliminating any connection between the recent grave disturbances and the incidents that took place several decades earlier.
The Inspector addressed one of his men, “Brady, you and Stokes get yourselves up to Stanwix and double check the site of the disturbance a few days ago,” and then pointing to the worn stone, “see if there are any of these painted stones in the surrounding area.”
He thanked Mr. East for his help and instructed Gibson to remain on site until the crowd dispersed.
Seth Graham ran his little carter’s business in Shaddongate. He had four carts of various sizes and six horses that he used personally, when commissioned to do so, but also hired out for use by other self-employed carters.
Cornelius Armstrong assumed that whoever dug into the two graves would need something to transport the remains away. As Seth was a well-known character around the city of many years standing, he didn’t suspect him of any wrongdoing, but thought it was worth paying him a visit on his way back to the station to see if he had encountered any unusual business recently.
“Yes, I’ve been really busy lately, Mr. Armstrong,” said Seth once the Inspector had outlined the purpose of his visit.
“Has anyone actually hired a cart from you recently?”
“Yes, there’s been three or four jobs in the last week or so.”
“Can you tell me who?”
Graham looked a little sheepish, “Well, I’ve not been as good at keeping the books since the missus died last year.”
Armstrong was sympathetic towards the elderly man but was keen to establish any possible areas of enquiry. “It could be important, Seth. I’m looking for strangers or an unusual hiring.”
The carter started sifting among some papers that were scattered on a table in his back kitchen, “There was one that was a bit queer,” he said, finally retrieving the grubby piece of paper he was looking for, “Ah here it is. A bloke said he might need a cart for a week. Needed it to carry some tools he said. Paid up front but then came back and said he didn’t need it after all. Never asked for any money back – best job I ever had!”
“What was his name?” asked Cornelius.
Seth referred to the paper and squinted at his own appalling handwriting. “Gridley… Mr. Gridley, no first name.”
The name sounded strangely familiar to Armstrong as he walked back toward the station, but upon his arrival, his attention was taken by the amount of information Bill Townsend had obtained regarding the grave robbing of the early part of the previous century. On his desk were battered old note books, newspapers and loose leafs, all referring to the scandal that had terrified the city some seventy years earlier.
Three graves were disturbed in 1833 in Carlisle: one each at Stanwix and St Cuthbert’s churchyards and one at Carlisle Cemetery. The guilty parties were two brothers – John Henry Turn and Jacob Turn – who were arrested and tried for the removal of bodies from the three graves. The newspapers of the day took great delight in labelling them ‘Carlisle’s own Resurrection Men.’
One of the stories Armstrong read went to great lengths to liken the crimes and the trial to that of William Burke, whose accomplice William Hare, was known to have lived in Carlisle at the time of Burke’s trial. Hare survived by turning King’s Evidence against his former partner, who was hanged in 1929. The same fate awaited eighteen-year-old John Henry Turn four years later: he was tried, found guilty of body snatching and publicly executed at Hangman’s Close near the castle. His fourteen-year-old brother Jacob was also found guilty but as he was too young to be hanged, he was deported to Australia instead.
Armstrong noted that although the two were found guilty of body snatching, no bodies were actually recovered. What did they do with them? What’s more, why would they be raiding tombs at all when – as one of the reports stated – the Anatomy Act which made it possible for bodies to be donated to science for dissection was passed the previous year?
After leaving their superior at the cemetery, PCs Joe Brady and Harry Stokes took the Police Wagon up to Stanwix Churchyard to inspect the site of the first disturbance. Unlike the main burial ground on the edge of the city, the churchyard was neglected and consequently overgrown.
The grave that had been disturbed contained the remains of one Margaret Bateson. Like Elizabeth Meggs, she was a pauper from the workhouse who died in March 1833. A makeshift cordon had been erected around the plot: it consisted of four metal stakes inserted at each corner of the grave. Between each stake drooped a thin rope at waist height.
Brady and Stokes set about clearing the long tangled grass from the plots adjacent to the Bateson grave. After twenty minutes of barehanded tugging at greenery, and Joe listening to Harry’s complaining about “…not having the right tools for a job like this,” and asking “…are we supposed to be coppers or gardeners?” the two found what they were looking for. A few yards away from the open grave, and under a comingled clump of grass, weeds, and moss, was a stone that had been painted red.
“That’s it,” said Brady.
“What does it mean?” asked Stokes, who had not been party to Mr East’s explanation as to the significance of the mark.
“It means that this one was tampered with as well, a few years ago,” said Joe.
Stokes went into the church and referred to the burial register which confirmed that the grave marked with the red stone had been desecrated in 1833.
He and Brady returned to the Police Station to update the Inspector. They found him sitting at his desk deep in thought, tweaking the horns of his moustache.
“We went to Stanwix, sir,” said Brady, “and sure enough, the grave that was disturbed the other night was beside another one that had a red stone. It had been dug up-”
“In 1833,” interrupted Armstrong.
“That’s right, sir,” said Stokes, “How did you know that?”
Cornelius gestured towards the papers on his desk “Gentlemen, I’m not sure if I’m investigating a crime from the 1900s or one from the 1830s.”
The following day, Cornelius arrived to find a hand-written note addressed to him inviting him to inspect the records of the St Mary’s Workhouse, claiming that it would help in resolving the case of the ‘grave disturbers.’ The note was signed by a Charles Darnay. Again, Armstrong was puzzled by the note and another name that somehow rang a bell with him. “Who delivered this?” he asked Bill Townsend.
“I don’t know, sir. It was here when I arrived.
The Inspector went through the other papers on his desk that related to the case before deciding to follow the annoyingly vague line of enquiry.
The austere St Mary’s Workhouse was built to house the handloom weavers that had fallen below the poverty line as technology forced them out of employment decades earlier.
The only thing that had changed in the seventy or so intervening years was its condition. It was crumbled and rotten in places yet retained its imposing presence in the impoverished Irish quarter of the city.
The large, double doors housed a smaller single access point. The Gatekeeper responded to Armstrong’s banging and the policeman stepped over the large timber lip and crossed the cobbled courtyard to the office. Explaining the purpose of his visit, he was welcomed into the office by the Warden Peter Fletcher, who had some records to hand.
“I was told that you might pay us a call, Inspector,” said Fletcher, much to Armstrong’s surprise.
“By who?” he asked.
“Mr. Darnay, the chap that came here a few days ago looking at these records.”
“Did he say why he wanted to see them?”
“He claimed he was doing some family research. Before he left he said I might be receiving a visit from the police but didn’t explain why. He was gone before I had a chance to ask him.”
“Where was he from?” ask the Inspector.
“He didn’t say, but he didn’t sound local.”
“Can I see the records he looked at, please?”
Fletcher leafed through the papers and produced a document headed ‘1833.’ “He didn’t say very much, or even who he was looking for, but once he studied this document, he seemed satisfied that his investigations were over.”
The Warden handed the sheet to Armstrong who studied it from the top. It was a list of ‘residents’ from the year in question. The sixth name on the list was that of Lizzie Meggs. Beside her name was simply written ‘Deceased.’ Elizabeth Meggs.
Further down the page Armstrong observed five other names – Maggie Bateson, Adam Cosgrove, Geoffrey Park, John Rydal and Isobel Potter – also died in the same year. He instinctively reached for his pocket book and turned to the page on which he took some notes at the cemetery. Mr East had told him that the grave beside Elizabeth Meggs that had been disturbed in 1833 was that of Adam Cosgrove; flicking back two pages he saw that it was Margaret Bateson’s grave that had been disturbed in Stanwix a few nights ago.
“Thank you, Mr. Fletcher, that has been very helpful,” he said, handing back the document.
“You’re welcome sir,” said the Warden, a little bemused by the whole thing.
Back at his desk, Inspector Armstrong compared the names with the information he had gathered. He gave a half smile when he confirmed his instincts: the bodies stolen in 1833 were those of Adam Cosgrove from Carlisle Cemetery, Isobel Potter from St Cuthbert’s Churchyard, and John Rydal from Stanwix Graveyard.
He grabbed his hat and coat to leave once more and instructed Sergeant Townsend, “Put a guard on St Cuthbert’s Churchyard, there’s going to be an attempted grave-robbing there in the next night or two.” Before a dumbfounded Townsend could respond, Armstrong added, “I’m going up to Stanwix Church.” With that, he was gone.
Cornelius followed the steps trodden by his Police Constables and arrived at the graveside of Maggie Bateson; he looked just beyond it and saw how Brady and Stokes had removed the overgrowth to reveal the red stone of the adjacent plot.
One thing the two officers had not done was to note the name of the unfortunate who had once occupied it, not believing it to be significant. Armstrong now thought otherwise and entered the church already knowing the name in his own mind.
The church was empty and dark. Armstrong saw two books on a shelf under some notices to the right of the entrance. One was marked ‘Burial Records’, the other ‘Visitors.’ Looking through the first, Cornelius flicked through a few pages to the year 1833: sure enough, beside the grave of Margaret Bateson was listed the name John Rydal. Both the deceased were listed as dying of ‘natural causes’ and both were buried at six o’clock in the morning on the 13th March.
Absentmindedly, Cornelius then opened the second book and read quizzically the last entry. Someone had entered the words ‘A Dickens reader’ and given an address of 37 Howard Place, Carlisle.’ Armstrong gave a half smile at the strange entry and left.
On his way back to the station he mulled over the various pieces of information and evidence. Were the cases split by seventy years linked or just coincidence? What use would the skeletal remains of someone be to anyone today? He interrupted his own thought process when the reference to Dickens popped into his mind. He suddenly recalled the name ‘Charles Darnay’ being a character from A Tale of Two Cities. This led him to refer to his notebook once more and study the name of Gridley, the name Seth Graham had given him. Gridley was another Dickensian character in one of his favourite books, Bleak House.
“There’s coincidence and coincidence,” he mumbled out loud, and then self-consciously looked round to see if anyone had heard him.
Armstrong walked the half-mile through the city centre and down Warwick Road to the elegant tree-lined Howard Place. On one side of the avenue were large detached villas while on the other, stood beautiful red-bricked town houses, whose bay windows stood out from their respective buildings in regimental fashion.
Cornelius didn’t need to consult his pocket book – he wandered along the pavement until he stood in front of the stained glass panelled door of number 37.
Looking up and down at the front elevation of the house, he admired its elegance: the door was flanked by inset columns, while above was an ornate canopy. The red brick fascia led the eye up three floors, all facilitated by twin sash windows, to what appeared to be an attic room that nestled under a steep dormer pitch that protruded at right angles from the main roof.
The policeman now wondered if this was an ill-judged decision that would only result in another member of the gentry tearing a strip off him for wasting their time. He knew however that it would niggle away at him if he didn’t follow up this line of enquiry, no matter how tenuous it seemed. He took a deep breath and pushed the white button at the centre of the large bell that was mounted on the right hand side of the door.
After a few seconds, he saw a distorted figure approaching through the stain glass. The door opened and Armstrong immediately thought he had been mistaken for someone else, as the butler casually said, “Good afternoon, sir, please come in, you are expected.”
The butler stood aside to allow the bemused Inspector through the vestibule and into the hall; he then showed the visitor along the passageway and through the final door on the right hand side. Before Cornelius had even followed him across the threshold, the butler announced, “Inspector Armstrong, sir,” to whoever was inside.
Cornelius entered to see an old man sitting in a blue, wing-backed chair at the far end of the otherwise sparsely furnished reception room.“Come in, Inspector,” he said. “I take it you read a bit of Dickens?” He gestured for his guest to take the other seat opposite him.
“Mr. Gridley?” asked Armstrong with a hesitant smile.
“No, not really,” said the old man, “but, like dear old Gridley, no one would listen to me.” He spoke with a croaky voice that clearly had a Carlisle foundation to it, but was occasionally betrayed by an incongruous lilt. “I hoped you wouldn’t deny me a little bit of fun in my old age, Inspector.”
Cornelius was both satisfied that he had worked the sobriquet out and yet confused at the need for deception. He took a more serious tone, “That depends on whether you’ve been involved in the recent disturbances of various graves in the city recently.”
The man looked hard at the policeman. “Two, I believe,” he said at last.
“With a third to come?” Cornelius finally sat down opposite the man, his instinct telling him that his investigation was coming to a conclusion. He looked closely at the man, who had a tanned, almost leathery face; his white, wiry hair blended into the starched antimacassar that hung behind his head. His hands had the same brownish hue as his face but were peppered with liver spots. He looked the man in the eye. “Tell me what you know.”
“I think you are a very clever man, Inspector. I’m hoping that you will turn out to be a very fair one too. The operative word there of course is ‘turn’. You see that is my name. Jacob Turn.”
“Well blow me down!” Armstrong was incredulous, “The brother of John Henry Turn.”
“Ah, I see it’s not just fiction you read,” said Jacob. “The very same; John and me were ordinary lads from an ordinary Carlisle family but if Dickens ever wrote our story, no one would believe it. Very deliberately, Jacob took a drink of water from a glass that sat on a small table beside his chair. He then took a deep breath and began his narrative.
“John was my older brother. He was born in 1815, when Britain was still at war with Napoleon. I came along four years later. Our mum and dad lived in Caldewgate, they were both handloom weavers – I don’t think there was much else to do in those days, and sure enough, when we were old enough, we took up the same profession. We lost them both to the cholera epidemic in the early 1830s. John was eighteen, I was only fourteen. There was no chance of anybody employing a couple of kids so we ended up in the workhouse.” Jacob looked aimlessly past Armstrong, “If we felt hard done by beforehand, little did we know that our troubles were just beginning.
“The workhouse was run by a so-called gentleman by the grand name of Mr. Jeremiah Wednesbury and his wife Elizabeth.” He spat the words out. “Two more villainous creatures you could not have the misfortune of meeting.”
Armstrong looked at Turn with surprise, prompting the man to continue.
“John Henry was a good lad and used to look out for me. When we ended up in that horrible place, it was John who tried to keep my spirits up by telling me that this was just a temporary arrangement. The poor lad was proved right, but he could never have predicted our eventual destiny.
“Despite our humble upbringing, our parents did their best to give us an education, teaching us to read and write. John in particular was a good scholar and when we started in the workhouse, Wednesbury cottoned on to John’s skills and employed him as a sort of book-keeper.
“All was well for the first six months or so, but then John stumbled upon some discrepancies in the registers of the poor souls unfortunate enough to be housed in that God-forsaken place… I can’t remember the gist exactly – something about the number of people who were there and the number who should have been there.
“Being a young inquisitive lad, John looked deeper into in and found that records had not been properly altered following the deaths of people in the workhouse for a period of years. When he discovered that some of those people were young and relatively fit, his suspicions were aroused sufficiently to ask Wednesbury about the anomaly. This was his big mistake.
“Wednesbury first tried to fob him off with some cock and bull story and then, after seeing that the lad wasn’t easily to be discouraged, sent me and John on an errand early one morning to the cemetery. He said he had promised the Watchman use of some spades and shovels for grave digging. It was our job to deliver the tools, where the Watchman would meet us at the paupers’ burial site.
“I remember it if it were yesterday. It was a sharp autumn morning with thick dew covering any greenery; when we got there we found no one about, but our attention was drawn to a grave that lay empty beside a mound of earth that had been displaced.
“As if right on cue, just as we were looking into the grave, a Constable appeared and claimed that we must have removed the body.”
Cornelius Armstrong had listened patiently to that point. “How could he claim that when you didn’t have the body?”
“That’s a good question Inspector – a question that was conveniently ignored along with several others at our trial. We were accused of robbing not only that grave, but also others at Stanwix and St Cuthbert’s.
“It was following a period when grave robbing and body snatching was quite wide-spread, especially in Scotland and the north of England. Villains would raid the graves of recently deceased persons and sell their bodies to scientists and doctors for dissection. Poor John and me never knew any of this of course at the time. We were just a couple of innocent kids who were taken advantage of. They wouldn’t listen to any of our arguments.
“We were found guilty in no time and my beautiful brother who never harmed anyone in his short life was hanged. Because I was only fourteen at the time, I was deported to Australia for seven years’ hard labour. Hard labour? It’s well named – by God it was hard!” Turn was full of bitterness. “Within twelve months I had lost my mum, dad and brother, and then found myself on the other side of the world in a penal colony, smashing up rocks in the hot barren wastelands of Australia: baking sun by day, armies of mosquitoes by night. I vowed every day and every night during that hell on earth to clear the names of John Henry Turn and his young brother Jacob.
“Fate then looked kindly upon me, Mr. Armstrong. When my seven years were up, I landed a job with a mining company who – within months of me starting – discovered gold in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales. Many have read about the gold rush of 1851 but for those of us lucky enough to be there already, it was a case of getting as rich as you can as quick as you can. The stuff was dripping from the mountains like honey from a hive.
“I made enough money to start my own mining business – went from being a child criminal at fourteen to being a dollar millionaire at thirty with a large mansion near the Bell River. Along the way, I expanded my modest education, gorging on Shakespeare and Dickens, collecting fine art and learning about Mozart and Beethoven.
“I was blessed with a beautiful wife, but alas we didn’t have any children. When Rosalind was taken from me five years ago, I decided to concentrate on the one unresolved issue that had niggled away at me for a lifetime – my desire for justice regarding my brother and myself.
“It may seem like a waste of time to most people, trying to right a wrong from seventy years earlier, twelve thousand miles away, when everyone had forgotten who was involved. But we all have our little demons, Mr. Armstrong, and mine kept telling me that I owed it to John Henry and myself to do whatever I could to clear our names before my own time was up.
“My wife Rosalind had relatives in London who were solicitors and I approached them first to see if they could commission an investigation on my behalf. It took quite a while for my various agents to complete their enquiries. I must confess, Inspector, one of their instructions was to identify a good trustworthy officer of the law who would carry out his own investigation – perhaps with a little help – and corroborate my version of events. Forgive me, Inspector, but they found out a lot about you too, including your own taste in literature.
“I don’t have long left, Inspector so I decided to return to England myself last year in order to expose – or should I say unearth – the truth. Without ever knowing it, you haven’t let me down yet, Mr. Armstrong. I hope you won’t now.
Armstrong was more impressed than offended by the work done by Turn’s people. He knew that his next thought was moot but decided to ask anyway, “Do you know if anyone attempted to find the bodies you were accused of stealing?”
Jacob threw his head back and gave a cackling laugh that dissolved into a throaty cough, “There were no bodies Inspector, at least not in the graves! You see, John Henry and me weren’t the guilty parties,” – his tone was even – “Wednesbury and his wife were.
“John had the misfortune of stumbling on their little sideline of poisoning young single occupants of the workhouse – with no relatives, who wouldn’t be missed. Wednesbury then had the bodies transported up to Edinburgh where they were sold on the black market. He then bribed the appropriate people to falsify the records at the various graveyards. We didn’t steal any bodies because there were no bodies to steal, neither in 1833 or today. I would invite you to dig up the remaining grave at St Cuthbert’s to prove my claims.
“Now that there is a Court of Appeal in this wonderful country I have spent the last few months with my solicitors preparing my case – it will be heard before the year is out. Having investigated the case yourself, Inspector, I was rather hoping a man of your standing would support it.”
Cornelius was full of admiration for the old man’s tenacity. “I always pride myself on doing the right thing,” he said after some thought, “and the right thing to do on this occasion is to restore the good names of John and Jacob Turn.”
Martin Daley asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work