Since we are nothing if not topical here, I excuse this slight supernatural story involving tooth-snatching on the grounds of enfeeblement from a recent root canal. Ouch.
“The Rev. Mr. Perring, Vicar of a parish which is now a component part of London, though, about forty-five years ago it had the appearance of a village at the outskirts, had to encounter the sad affliction of losing his eldest Son at an age when parents are encouraged to believe their children are to become their survivors; the youth dying in his seventeenth year. He was buried in the vaults of the church.
“Two nights subsequently to that interment, the father dreamed that he saw his Son habited in a shroud spotted with blood, the expression of his countenance being that of a person enduring some paroxysm of acute pain: ‘Father, father! come and defend me!’ were the words he distinctly heard, as he gazed on this awe-inspiring apparition; ‘they will not let me rest quiet in my coffin.’
“The venerable man awoke with terror and trembling; but after a brief interval of painful reflection concluded himself to be labouring under the influence of his sad day-thoughts, and the depression of past sufferings; and with these rational assurances commended himself to the All-Merciful, and slumbered again and slept.
“He saw his Son again beseeching him to protect his remains from outrage, ‘For,’ said the apparently surviving dead one, ‘they are mangling my body at this moment.’ The unhappy Father rose at once, being now unable to banish the fearful image from his mind, and determined when day should dawn to satisfy himself of the delusiveness or verity of the revelation conveyed through this seeming voice from the grave.
“At an early hour, accordingly, he repaired to the Clerk’s house, where the keys of the church and of the vaults were kept. The Clerk after considerable delay, came down-stairs, saying it was very unfortunate he should want them just on that very day, as his son over the way had taken them to the smith’s for repair,—one of the largest of the bunch of keys having been broken off short in the main door of the vault, so as to render it impracticable for anybody to enter till the lock had been picked and taken off.
“Impelled by the worst misgivings, the Vicar loudly insisted on the Clerk’s accompanying him to the blacksmith’s—not for a key but for a crowbar, it being his resolute determination to enter the vault and see his Son’s coffin without a moment’s delay.
“The recollections of the dream were now becoming more and more vivid, and the scrutiny about to be made assumed a solemnity mingled with awe, which the agitation of the father rendered terrible to the agents in this forcible interruption into the resting-place of the dead. But the hinges were speedily wrenched asunder—the bar and bolts were beaten in and bent beneath the heavy hammer of the smith,—and at length with tottering and outstretched hands, the maddened parent stumbled and fell: his son’s coffin had been lifted from the recess at the vault’s side and deposited on the brick floor; the lid, released from every screw, lay loose at top, and the body, enveloped in its shroud, on which were several dark spots below the chin, lay exposed to view; the head had been raised, the broad riband had been removed from under the jaw, which now hung down with the most ghastly horror of expression, as if to tell with more terrific certainty the truth of the preceding night’s vision. Every tooth in the head had been drawn.
“The young man had when living a beautiful set of sound teeth. The Clerk’s Son, who was a barber, cupper, and dentist, had possessed himself of the keys, and eventually of the teeth, for the purpose of profitable employment of so excellent a set in his line of business. The feelings of the Rev. Mr. Perring can be easily conceived. The event affected his mind through the remaining term of his existence; but what became of the delinquent whose sacrilegious hand had thus rifled the tomb was never afterwards correctly ascertained. He decamped the same day, and was supposed to have enlisted as a soldier. The Clerk was ignominiously displaced, and did not long survive the transaction. Some years afterwards, his house was pulled down to afford room for extensive improvements and new buildings in the village.
“As regards the occurrence itself, few persons were apprised of it; as the Vicar—shunning public talk and excitement on the subject of any member of his family—exerted himself in concealing the circumstances as much as possible. The above facts, however, may be strictly relied on as accurate.”
Glimpses of the Supernatural, Frederick George Lee, 1875
Editor’s note: A friend who provided the above example writes to the Editor:—”I knew the family, and the circumstance of Mr. Perring’s singular dream; and can certainly testify to its truth.”
A minor point, but while this was published in Spiritualist journals and Lee’s book, in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the language suggests eighteenth century.
While the body-snatchers’ primary goal was corpses for the anatomist market, teeth were also prized merchandise. Dentures were frequently made from post-mortem pearly-whites, also known today as “Waterloo teeth,” after the wholesale tooth-snatching that occurred after that battle. This article tells the history of the practice, which did not begin with Waterloo, and suggests that many people did not realize the source of their false teeth.
Ben Crouch, described in the following squib, was said to be the leader of “the most expert gang of resurrectionists ever known.” He specialized in corpse teeth, and even got the proper credentials to facilitate his dental acquisitions.
[Crouch] was a big, powerful man, quite famous as a prize-fighter. His father was employed as a carpenter at Guy’s Hospital, which probably explains the way in which he first became attracted to resurrectioning… In 1817 he and Jack Harnett, another of the gang, gave up resurrectioning and began the business of supplying dentists with human teeth. They got sutlers’ licenses and followed the English army to France and Spain. After a battle they would get as many teeth as possible from the dead, likewise stealing any money or valuables that might be found on the corpses. The Medical News, Vol. 81, 1902
Other toothsome Spiritualist tales? Send with a warm salt-water rinse to chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.