Eighteenth century smugglers were known for the ingenious stratagems that they used to avoid detection of their contraband goods.  These included towing waterproof containers up rivers below the surface, and of course wrapping yards of silk round their bodies.  The following story illustrates the lengths to which they would go.

A most remarkabe seizure was lately made by Mr. Tankard, of Dartford.  The captain of a ship, whose wife died abroad, brought home a coffin, in which was supposed to be the remains of his once beloved wife.  It was suffered to be taken on shore without searching, and the lady lay in state for several days before she was interred;  however, at last, a hearse was prepared and two mourning coaches attended with the relations of the deceased, and the procession moved on slowly towards Stepney, where the coffin was deposited.  About twelve o’clock at night, Mr. Tankard and his man coming by the church-yard, observed some mean a-digging, and a cart standing by;  they watched the motions of those resurrection-men, and presently saw them open the coffin and take out the body, which consisted of upwards of 500 pieces of muslin and various other contraband articles.  Mr. Tankard suffered them to proceed to with their corpse till they came to Ratcliff-Cross, where he got assistance and seized the whole.
[The Times Jun 27, 1786]

This elaborate deceit raises in my enquiring mind a few questions:

Why did they not take the contraband out of the coffin while it was above ground?  They could surely have replaced it with any kind of rubbish of similar weight.  Instead they exposed themselves to discovery by digging it up after it had been buried.

Did the captain’s wife actually die abroad?  If so, was she buried there?  Unless they were also involved in the plot, the family must have believed that her body was in the coffin, in order to have gone through the mourning and funeral.  If they did not know, it must have come as something of a surprise to them.

Were the men then prosecuted for smuggling or grave-robbery (or both)?

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  1. Mike Rendell says:

    It reminds me of the story of the family who took their aged mother on holiday to France. She didn’t have a passport so when they got to the French side of the Channel she stayed out of view, in the caravan. Trouble was, when they stopped they found her dead in the caravan. Having parked up they went for a coffee to decide what to do, returned to where they had parked the car and caravan, and found that both had been stolen….Imagine trying to explain to the French authorities that you had smuggled someone in to France and had then lost both your vehicle and the body!(Sorry, this has nothing whatsoever to do with the 18th Century, so please feel free to delete!)

  2. Charles Bazalgette says:

    Funny story, Mike. I imagine they would never have got out of France after that; mired in bureaucracy for ever! And any comments (within reason) are always welcome. It shows that at least someone is reading this stuff. I recall a great grave-robbing story. The snatchers took the corpse and put a piece of sacking round its shoulders and sat it in the middle of the driving box. They then sat one each side to support it and make it look as if it were alive. A man who saw them do this once had a plan to teach them a lesson. After they had placed the corpse and had gone back to collect their tools, this man pulled the corpse off the seat, hid it and then sat himself there, wrapped in the sacking. On the way to their destination the robbers stopped and were arguing about which route to take. The joker raised his arm and said: "I want to go that way!". Imagine the fright.

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