With Halloween upon us and all things turning macabre, Oxfordshire historian and author Julie Ann Godson recalls the imfamous tale of the Bodysnatcher of Bodicote. Here is her account of the gruesome incident.
Business was brisk at the sign of the Red Lion in Banbury on the morning of 20th October 1831. Banbury Fair was in full swing, and landlords John and Edward Churchill looked forward to one of their best days of the year. Customers spilled out into the yard of the medieval coaching inn, and serving girls dashed to and fro with trays of frothing ale.
But after a while, the happy atmosphere was sullied by a strong smell. When the customers could bear it no longer, the search was on, and the source was eventually tracked down to the cart of one Joseph Tyrrell, a 35-year-old agricultural labourer from Bodicote. The box on the back of Tyrrell's cart was opened and, to everyone's horror, inside was the corpse of a young female.
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Twelve-year-old Mary Ann Roberts from Broughton had been at the fair on the previous Thursday, then died suddenly on Sunday. On the 18th October, she was buried in the lonely churchyard at Broughton Castle, but her body was disinterred under cover of darkness by a gang of bodysnatchers planning to sell her corpse for dissection. Perhaps understandably after the ghastly activities of the night, in the morning the gang's driver, Tyrrell, had stopped off at the Red Lion for a stiffener on his way to despatch his box via the Union Coach to the buyer in London – probably one of the medical schools.
So at 7.30am on the morning of the 20th, Joseph Tyrrell, a man with a wife and four children, was committed to Banbury gaol in the Market Place. He was charged, according to the deputy keeper's records, with 'bringing a box containing a Corpse, to go to London'.
The next day, Tyrrell was taken before the magistrate and informed that, if he failed to find securities by 2pm on Monday to guarantee that he would not abscond, he would be committed to Oxford gaol. Needless to say Tyrrell, a penniless labourer, failed to find the money. So, at 4am on 25th October, he was put in a coach for Oxford, escorted by Constable Claridge.
Joseph Tyrrell's wife Mary had to wait ten weeks to learn her husband's fate. At the Epiphany Sessions in Oxford on 3rd January, Joseph was sentenced to 12 months in the castle gaol. Tyrrell refused to give up his accomplices, though back in Bodicote the names 'Walton' and 'Chilton' were whispered. Probably, in return for his loyalty, Joseph's co-conspirators kept an eye on the Tyrrell family while he was absent. Even so, Mary must have felt very alone when her baby boy died at the beginning of March.
After Joseph's release, things quickly returned to normal in Bodicote. Four more children were born to the Tyrrells, and Joseph lived a long and apparently law-abiding life, dying aged 85 in 1878.
And let's not forget the Roberts family in Broughton. Five years after the sensational discovery that little Mary Ann's grave had been desecrated, her father James died. Her mother Sarah was left alone to support a ten-year-old son and five-year-old twins.
• Julie Ann Godson's books on the history of Oxfordshire are available at Amazon.co.uk. You can read about her research at www.julieanngodson.com, and follow her on Facebook at @julieanngodson