Throughout the novel the terrifying, heartless body-snatcher known as the Resurrection Man appears again and again, but it is not until the one hundred and sixth chapter — “The Grave-Digger” — that G. W. M. Reynolds describes the conditions in this villain’s working place — London cemeteries whose hideous conditions led to the creation of Highgate, Kensal Green, the City of London, and many other cemeteries. The Mysteries of London, one of the most widely read novels of the nineteenth century, has many descriptions of London slums and darker sides of the city that many middle- and upper-class readers would have never encountered, and these descriptions often emphasize foul odors, slime, and layers of filth. His description of the cemetery adds rotting corpses and scattered bones.

The soil was damp; and a nauseous odour, emanating from it, impregnated the air. When the sun lay for several days upon the place, even in the depth of winter, — and invariably throughout the summer, — the stench was so intolerable that not a dwelling in the neighbourhood was seen with a window open. Nevertheless, that sickly, fetid odour penetrated into every house, and every room, and every inhabited nook or corner, in that vicinity; and the clothes of the poor inmates smelt, and their food tasted, of the damp grave!

The cemetery was crowded with the remains of mortality. The proprietors of the ground had only one aim in view — namely, to crowd the greatest possible quantity of corpses into the smallest space. But even this economy of room did not prevent the place from being so filled with the dead, that in a given quantity of the soil it was difficult to say whether earth or decayed human remains predominated. Still the cemetery was kept open for interments; and when there was no room for a new-comer, some recently-buried tenant of a grave was exhumed to afford the required space.

In one part of the ground was a rude brick-building, denominated a Bone-House. This hovel was provided with a large fire-place; and seldom did a day pass without smoke being seen to issue from the chimney. On those occasions, — when the furnace was lighted, — the stench from the cemetery was always more powerful than at other times.

This novelist, a political radical who repeatedly dramatizes the way the upper classes, government, and police treat the poor with tyrannic cruelty, not surprisingly emphasizes their role in these disgusting patches of London, pointing out that when “some of the poor inhabitants of the adjoining houses had remonstrated with the parochial authorities,” they were told “‘Well, prefer an indictment at the sessions, if you don't like it!’” at which point Reynolds’ narrator launches into the following well-justified tirade:

The idea of men in the receipt of eight or ten shillings a week preferring an indictment! Such a process is only accessible to those possessed of ample means; for the legislature has purposely rendered law, — that is, the power of obtaining justice, enforcing rights, or suppressing nuisances, — a luxury attainable only by money. The poor, indeed! who ever thought of legislating for the poor? Legislate against them, and it is all well and good: heap statute upon statute — pile act upon act — accumulate measure upon measure — encumber the most simple forms with the most intricate technicalities — diversify readings and expand in verbiage until the sense becomes unintelligible — convert the whole legal scheme into a cunning web, so that the poor man cannot walk three steps without entangling his foot in one of those meshes of whose very existence he was previously unaware, and whose nature he cannot comprehend even when involved therein; — do all this, and you are a wise and sound statesman; for this is legislating against the poor — and who, we repeat, would ever think of legislating for them?

Immediately after this passionate political address to the audience, comes the jarring, “But to continue” as Reynolds abruptly returns to his narrative and tells us about the grave digger, who asks himself, "Whose grave must I disturb now to make room for the new one?" after which he uses “a long flexible iron rod similar to those which we have already described as being used by the body-snatchers” to test how many layers of coffins he will encounter while digging a new grave. Satisfied, he digs down two feet

when his spade encountered a coffin. He immediately took his pickaxe, broke the coffin to pieces, and then separated with his shovel the pieces of wood and the human bones from the damp earth. The coffin was already so soft with decay that the iron rod had penetrated through it without much difficulty; and it therefore required but little exertion to break it up altogether.

But the odour which came from the grave was now of the most nauseating kind--fetid, sickly, pestiferous--making the atmosphere heavy, and the human breath thick and clammy, as it were--and causing even that experienced grave-digger to retch as if he were about to vomit.

He carries the broken wood from the coffin and “and the putrid remains of mortality” into the Bone-House, where he throws both into a roaring fire. “The flesh had not completely decayed all away from the bones; a thick, black, fatty-looking substance still covered those human relics; and the fire was thus fed with a material which made the flames roar and play half up the chimney.” Emphasizing the putrid stink that permeates the neighborhood, Reynolds heaps on grotesque details, such as black object the grave-digger finds half buried in the dirt —

it was the upper part of the skull, with the long, dark hair of a woman still remaining attached to it. The grave-digger coolly took up the relic by that long hair which perhaps had once been a valued ornament; and, carrying it in this manner into the Bone-House, threw it upon the fire. The hair hissed for a moment as it burnt, for it was damp and clogged with clay; then the voracious flames licked up the thin coat of blackened flesh which had still remained on the skull; and lastly devoured the bone itself.

Continuing his digging, he encounters a second coffin, and “another decomposing, but not entirely decomposed, corpse was hacked, and hewed, and rent to pieces.” At this point Reynolds again turns from narrative and description to what is essentially an address to the audience. which he salts heavily with italics:

And then fond, surviving relations and friends speak of the last home and the quiet resting-place of the deceased: they talk with affectionate reverence of those who sleep in the grave, and they grow pathetic in their eulogies of the tranquil slumber of the tomb!

Poor deluded creatures! While they are thus engaged in innocent discourse,--a discourse that affords them solace when they ponder upon the loss which they have sustained,--the last home is invaded--t he quiet resting-place is rudely awakened with sacrilegious echoes--the sleep of the grave is disturbed by the thunder of a pickaxe--and the corpse is snatched from the tranquil slumber of the tomb to be cast into the all-devouring furnace of the Bone-House.

After working two hours the grave-digger takes a break, sits down inside the Bone-House, and warms himself with the fire that continues to consume old corpses while he enjoys his coffee and a chunk of bread. This being a graveyard and graveyards being where the Resurrection Man plies his trade, we are not at all surprised when Mr. Banks, an undertaker in league with the body snatcher, bribes the grave-digger not to bury the next arriving corpse sixteen feet deep (as the proprietors of the graveyard want) but close to the surface so the body make be more easily retrieved.

But the surprise is on them, since the body — that of the self-sacrificing bank clerk, Michael Martin — is not dead after all, just in a trance. This is a sensation novel that pulls out all the stops!

Related material


Reynolds, George W. M. The Mysteries of London. vol 1. Project Gutenberg EBook #47312 produced by Chuck Greif and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team from images available at Google Books. Web. 2 August 2016.

Last modified 29 July 2016