Grave robbers through the centuries

Grave robbers have been with us for a very long time. From Ancient Egypt to the 20th century. But their motives have often differed. Some were looking for treasure while others simply wanted to desecrate the last resting place of a hated individual.

GRAVE ROBBERS: Ancient Egypt

The looting of ancient Egyptian tombs occurred frequently in ancient Egypt. Indeed, going right back to the early dynastic period when the pyramids were being built.

Everybody knew that wealthy elite Egyptians were buried with treasures they could take to the afterlife. It was just far too tempting to leave all that gold and those jewels locked away in a tomb with a decaying mummy.

The rich tried to ensure that theft of their belongings wouldn’t happen by placing blood curdling curses above the door to their tombs or constructing elaborate ways of protecting their grave. But it just didn’t seem to work.

Because many of the robbers – were the tomb builders themselves!

In 1115BC, a man called Amenpanefer and his mates went on trial for being grave robbers. He was a quarry worker and knew the tombs well. The ideal person to lead the operation. Unfortunately he was caught and more than likely executed in a particularly barbaric way. I suspect impalement may have been involved.

Sadly, looting of ancient Egyptian graves is happening on a pandemic scale today. And grave robbers are also systematically stripping archaeological sites from Latin America to China.

In Italy, tombs from the pre-Roman Etruscan civilisation have been plundered for so long, it’s almost a family business passed down through the generations.

One group of looters chanced upon an Etruscan tomb while building a garage for their home – and somehow neglected to tell the authorities of their good fortune.

But the forces of law and order caught up with them when they tried to sell their ill-gotten Etruscan gains on the black market.

DISCOVER: Gruesome body of a saint on display

GRAVE ROBBERS: A revolutionary act

Smashing up graves is not always about financial gain. Some grave robbers snatch the skeletons and artefacts of the dead to denigrate them. This is pretty much what happened to the kings of France after the 1789 French Revolution.

They were buried in the basilica of St Denis for centuries – but up they came and out the door their bones went in the revolution. I visited the basilica earlier this year to see what was left of the royal tombs after the revolutionary grave robbers had finished. This is a short film I made below.

GRAVE ROBBERS: To advance the cause of medicine (and make money)

The most infamous examples of grave robbers are those early 19th century ghouls who sold cadavers to dissecting rooms in London, Edinburgh and other cities.

All in the cause of science and getting their palms crossed with silver!

This was at a time when London’s graveyards were full to capacity. So much so that the dead were buried on top of each other and the most recent burials weren’t that far from the surface.

Two enterprising rogues in Edinburgh – William Burke and William Hare – took to selling corpses to the anatomist Robert Knox. Realising that fresher bodies sold for more, they started to murder their subjects. Eventually, they were both arrested and put on trial.

Hare gave evidence against Burke who was hanged and then submitted to the indignity of being publicly dissected in front of an audience of paying medical students. Gruesomely, the anatomist Professor Munro wrote a note confirming the dissection with Burke’s own blood drawn into a quill from the dead man’s head!

His skeleton is still on display plus death mask and a book bound with leather made from Burke’s own skin. Nice! Unsurprisingly, the tale of Burke and Hare has inspired movie makers.

GRAVE ROBBERS: Twentieth century celebrities

Grave robbers are still very active in the 20th and 21st centuries. Celebrities have been targeted in recent decades in the hope of securing a quick cash windfall. As was the case of the legendary comedian Charlie Chaplin whose coffin was stolen in 1978 and then ransomed.

His widow Oona refused to cough up the six-figure sum demanded and the two robbers were apprehended not long afterwards. They were two jobless car mechanics – Roman Wardas and Gantscho Ganev – who reportedly wanted to use the money to open a garage!

Another 20th century comedian to be exhumed by grave robbers was the British celebrity Benny Hill. He died in 1992 and not long after his funeral, grave robbers got it into their heads that his coffin included some of his personal jewellery.

He was re-interred but this time with a slab of concrete on top and the grave robbers did not attempt a second break-in.

The London of the The Frankenstein Chronicles

If you’ve watched the Netflix horror series The Frankenstein Chronicles you might be wondering what part of London were all those sordid and foul alley ways and run down houses? Well, it might surprise you to know that it was a district very close to Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament.

Frankenstein Chronicles

I’m a latecomer to The Frankenstein Chronicles so you have to excuse my belated interest. But watching it, I was keen to know where all those squalid slums were set. And it turns out to have been an area of Westminster that Charles Dickens referred to as the Devil’s Acre. Those of you who have watched The Frankenstein Chronicles will recall that Dickens appears in the TV series (seasons one and two) as a young journalist using his pen name “Boz”.

FIND OUT MORE: How to talk like a Victorian Londoner

The Devil’s Acre is very near where I worked for a few years at the Home Office (equivalent of the US Department for Homeland Security). And that’s ironic because the Home Office is all about law and order while the Devil’s Acre was notorious for its thieves and beggars. In the early 19th century, it was a part of London that you entered at your peril – at the very least, you would be robbed blind.

Pye Street, Duck Lane, Anne Street and Stretton Grounds were full of ramshackle buildings that were overcrowded and insanitary. As early as the 18th century, the area was getting a disagreeable reputation. One member of parliament, Lord Tyrconnel, said in 1741 that it was an embarrassment to have this seething den of iniquity so close to parliament where foreign visitors couldn’t fail to note the “herd of barbarians” who lived there.

At the state opening of parliament, the king’s coach had to whip through the area – no doubt His Majesty holding a perfumed hanky to his nose! So deep were the ruts in the muddy road that piles of wood had to be thrown into the holes to stop the king’s coach toppling over and ejecting the monarch into the mud.

The buildings in this massive slum district were often made of wood and illegally constructed. They might once have been ground houses in the 17th century but now reduced to tenements where people slept on the floors and several to a bed.

Much of the area was below the level of the nearby river Thames and so was prone to flooding. And the unhappy folk lived by their wits providing cabs by day then counterfeiting money and possibly picking pockets by night. This is a description by the journalist Thomas Beames in 1852:

Wherever you turned, the inhabitants were to be seen, in groups of half-dressed, unwashed men and women, loitering at doors, windows, and at the end of narrow courts, smoking, swearing, and occasionally fighting; and swarms of filthy, naked, and neglected children, who seemed well trained to use languages as profane, and do deeds as dark as those of their parents.

The problem of the Devil’s Acre was solved in a familiar way by the Victorians. Firstly, they rammed a massive road through it – Victoria Street – which is still there today. Then having sliced through the slums, they began redeveloping the area piecemeal. But it took a long time.

To wander those streets, get out at Victoria Station and meander behind Westminster Cathedral (the centre of British Roman Catholicism) up to Westminster Abbey. Very different today but see if you can spot any London Ghosts!

Victorian slang for beginners!

Have you ever wanted to talk like a Victorian Londoner – not a posh one, but a street kid with plenty of 19th century attitude? Maybe a character in a Charles Dickens novel like the Artful Dodger? Here is the guide to Victorian slang!

Now let’s talk Victorian slang!

Well, I’m now going to teach you how to talk like a London urchin circa 1851. I’m using various sources but Mayhew’s London published that year is where I’ve picked up most of the terrible language that follows!

If I said you were flatch kanurd – I’d have meant you were half-drunk. I might also add that you’re kennetseeno – which means stinking, but it was a word normally applied to rotten fish. There could be a police officer passing by and I’d tell you to cool the esclop (look at the policeman).

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“Cool the” or “Cool ta” seems to have been a way of saying “look at that” – so if I was getting you to stare at an old woman, I’d say: “Cool ta the dillo nemo”. Or just to say “look at him” would be “cool him”.

The word for NO was “On” and the word for YES was “Say” – that’s just reversing those words. Often saying words backwards or messing with the letter order was a way of talking to avoid being understood by the police or people outside your group.

If you were warning your mates that somebody was a bad sort, you’d call them a “regular trosseno”. They might then respond that they understood you – “tumble to your barrikin”.

FIND OUT MORE: Freakish street performers in 17th century London

Victorian slang terms for money

Expressions for money were:

Flatch = halfpenny (remember, flatch kanurd is half drunk)

Yenep = Penny (messing round with letter order there)

Exis Yenep = Sixpence

Couter – Sovereign (big gold coin)

Flatch ynork = Half-Crown

Then to conclude, I might say I’m on to the deb (I’m off to bed) or I was going to do the tightner (go to dinner).

During the Victorian period, Londoners soaked up Jewish expressions from new immigrants, foreign words they came across on the docks and made up stuff. London slang is still evolving today incorporating Jamaican, Bengali and words from other languages. I was told this week by a Londoner that I was “on fleek” – turns out I’m dressed well. Good to know.

Here is a young Londoner today teaching an American girl slang!

Victorian movies from the 19th century!

The idea of Victorian movies may seem weird – people in the 19th century able to watch films – and yet it actually happened!

We’ve grown up with TV and film so the idea of living in a world were there are no recorded motion pictures would seem bizarre – even more so with our smart phones and social media.

But up until the 1880s, film had never been experienced. There had been crude motion pictures using a series of slides projected on to a screen but movies were unknown. However, once the Victorians discovered the technology – there was no going back!

The dawn of Victorian movies!

Victorian movies became a staple of popular entertainment by the turn of the 20th century.

DISCOVER: Victorian slang for beginners!

Documentary and drama in primitive form developed pretty quickly. Many of the Victorian movies were purely observational – pointing a camera at people and just marvelling in the ability to capture them moving.

Here is a heap of footage of industrial workers leaving factories and mills at the turn of the 20th century, which I find fascinating. Note the youngsters who just stare at the camera as if they’re about to experience something.

London traffic seems to have mesmerised film makers with its hustle and bustle. As a Londoner myself, the presence of so many horses and what seems to be smog (fossil fuel pollution) is really striking.

Royalty got in the act and Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 was the subject of a very long film circulated around the empire. Here is Victoria attending a garden party. She loved being the obvious star of Victorian movies.