The Resurrection Men
Hell has no benefits, only torture.
The path to paradise begins in hell.
John Milton, 1667.
Jesmond Old Cemetery was deserted. Its gates were firmly locked, a crude but effective length of thick chain was wrapped tightly around the handle, and a solid rusted padlock prevented any entrance. The piercing sharp, black spikes at the top of the gate and around the fenced perimeter discouraged any foolish attempt of entry by other means; only one light from the watch keeper’s cottage was showing.
The two men hiding in the shadows opposite, crouched low and silent, waited patiently for the light to be extinguished, indicating that the old watchkeeper had retired to his bed. They were in no hurry; they were well accustomed to a long wait.
The night was airless; nothing moved, the clear sky above provided the perfect canvas to display the full moon in all its beauty.
‘When will that old bastard take to his bed?’ Murmured Arthur Price, the leader of the two, the man supposedly with all of the brains.
‘Soon, soon. He will be having his little nip of the hard stuff now that he is all locked up,’ replied the man standing next to him, Owen Kelly, who was the brawn of the outfit. He stood at over 6 foot tall with solid broad shoulders and possessed fists like shovels? Many a man gave Owen Kelly a wide birth. Not that he cared in the slightest.
Arthur nodded at his colleague; he had to trust him, as it had been he who had stood rooted at this very same spot for the last two nights, making sure that all their planning and preparation was in order. In their game, you only ever made one mistake — your last.
It wasn’t that he didn’t trust Owen, they had worked well together as a team for long enough, it was just that Arthur was all too aware of Owen’s fondness for the ale and he would not put it past him to give in to the urge for a nice pint or two beside a nice warm fire.
Arthur and Owen had worked together for the last six months. Without messing about with fancy job titles, they were merely grave robbers working in a field where demand vastly outweighed supply. They had met in a graveyard in Northumberland by chance, both creeping up on the same target. They had frightened the life out of each other and decided that the sensible thing to do, rather than fight it out, was to share the work and share the fee.
The development of medical science had plateaued; Doctors and surgeons were struggling to find fresh bodies for them to experiment with or to run trials on. By law, they had to rely on executed criminals or bodies that had gone unclaimed by relatives. In the quieter areas of the country such as Newcastle, this resulted in low numbers being made available, much to the frustration of the doctors and surgeons.
Soon a fee had been offered, many people in these parts did not regard this act as a sin and quickly took up the offers, others, so desperate for money that they would undertake any foul task proposed to them without a moment’s hesitation.
Arthur and James had been successful in their chosen field and always delivered results. Because of this, they were the first choice for a lot of professionals in Newcastle and the surrounding area. Once the current season was over, Arthur planned to move on. He fancied Scotland, Where their laws were a lot more relaxed and their graveyards a lot less remote.
When Dr Rueben had contacted them at the Rose and Crown three nights ago, a price was quickly agreed, and a pint of ale had been shared, with the promise of two fresh bodies, delivered to him by the end of the working week, all ready for him to play with his specimens over the weekend.
Staring out onto the cemetery, both men were relieved when the light to the watch keeper’s cottage finally went out. They picked up their bags, checked that the streets were still clear and made their way to the far side of the cemetery trying not to make much noise and they crossed the cobbled stones underfoot.
Reaching the iron railings, hidden from view, Owen grasped two railings, one with each cumbersome hand and gently pulled them free. No resistance or sound was offered. He had sawed them both lose the previous night in preparation. He laid them quietly on the path and stepped through the gap, disappearing into the darkness. Arthur followed suit, bent down and lifted the railings from the floor and replaced them loosely back into position. To any passer-by, nothing would look out of place.
Arthur stood rooted to the spot, waiting for his eyesight to become accustomed to the darkness. There was a rustle in the bushes.
He held his breath.
Owen stepped through the bushes grinning. ‘Don’t worry, no one here tonight except you and me.’
As both men ventured into the cemetery, they were unaware of the thin wisp of grey and black fog, that had appeared from nowhere and snaked it’s way behind them, catching up with them and curling itself around their ankles.
Arthur had to stifle a cough; the fumes of the dead were strong. They attacked his throat and stomach, causing him to gag and retch, his body bent and shaking, as he tried to cover his sounds with a hand clasped over his mouth.
The decomposing bodies and recently exhumed corpses caused invisible toxic fumes to hover around. He withdrew his threadbare and soiled hankie from his pocket, pressed it firmly over his mouth and nose and continued.
The fog had danced ahead of them by now; they were unsure if they were on the right track. The once still air had been replaced with a chilled fresh breeze that picked up everything around, spinning them freely in the air. Neither Arthur nor Owen detected this as they blindly trundled along in search of their quarry.
In the misty darkness, Owen called out.
‘I can’t see a bloody thing with all of this dam fog.’
Before Arthur could reply, he heard a collision, and his friend cried out in pain.
Arthur was expecting the worse, he ran to his friend and located him lying down next to a fresh grave fitted with a Mort-safe.
He was rubbing his shins and cursing under his breath.
A Mort-safe was a crude and effective deterrent. An Iron frame encased around the grave to prevent grave robbers easy access… or if others were to have you believe, positioned to keep zombies inside. These were often only removed after the corpse had decomposed.
Bending down, he gently lifted the hem of Owen’s trouser, revealing a small but nasty gash. Owen took his own, equally as filthy hankie out from his pocket and wrapped it around the wound to stem the flow of blood.
He looked up, annoyed and hurt.
‘Nearly fucking crippled me that thing. The grave we want is next door.’
Arthur walked slowly over to the next grave while Owen struggled to get up and joined him; they both stood for a moment staring at the cheap, homemade cross, whose epitaph merely read.
Died 27th October 1844
Neither of the men experienced any remorse for the gross act they were about to commit. No sadness at the tragic loss of life at such a young age and no empathy for the grieving parents. Their only concern at this moment in time was how much their victim would weigh once recovered.
‘This is it. Time for us to get to work’, instructed Arthur.
He dropped the heavy bag of tools that he had been carrying over his shoulder onto the floor. He emptied the contents and selected the wooden shovels and length of rope.
Selecting their tools, they attacked the fresh grave with vigour. It hadn’t rained recently, and the soil was still soft and comfortable to remove. They were silent as they undertook the labour-intensive task, each lost within their own dream about how they would spend their well-earned bounty. Within twenty minutes, they had dug the required six inches to reveal the coffin lid. The removed earth was in a neat pile deposited onto an old sheet ready to be re-laid once their job was complete.
Jumping into the exposed grave, both men pulled the lid of the coffin free and laid it at the side of the opening.
Above, in the night sky, the moon slipped behind a dark rain cloud, reducing visibility in an instant. The chill in the air became colder. Arthur lifted the threadbare collar of his jacket tight around his neck, but it did not anything to waive off the impending cold.
The victim, lay motionless, eyes firmly shut, dressed in a plain but pleasant summer dress. A Single red rose had been lovingly placed in her hair, which had been swept back from her peaceful face.
Arthur and Owen each grabbed an ankle and attempted to slide her free of the coffin.
Nothing. She did not move an inch.
Cursing, Owen crawled further up the dead body.
‘Shit!’ he cursed. ‘She got a coffin collar fitted; she isn’t going anywhere.’
Arthur scrambled up beside Owen. Sure enough, a crudely fitted wooden collar was fitted around her slender neck. Heavy-duty bolts could be seen, no doubt securely installed to the coffin base.
Arthur was just about to tell his friend to leave it when the moon passed from the dark clouds and illuminated the grave below
The red rose turned black.
Both men sat stunned.
As they watched, the right eyelid of the small girl slowly opened, revealing an egg white orb crisscrossed with rich red veins.
The eye stared coldly ahead, Unmoving.
Arthur and Owen both felt their stomach turn, and their bowels turn to water.
The right eyelid of the little girl also started to open slowly.
As both men stared transfixed, the eyeball was fully revealed. Grey and dark, dried out, partially eaten away in places, rotting and decaying.
The eyelid fully opened to reveal the small sack of a spiders nest secreted within the far corner of the eye, entwined in a fine silk web.
To their horror, a small black spider exited the nest, paused, looked up at them and opened its tiny jaws, revealing two rows of sharpened, serrated teeth.
Both men screamed.
Arthur and Owen both jumped back in shock, hearts beating through their chests like a brass band.
Arthur gazed upon the corpse. She was lying peacefully with her eyes closed.
The single rose was once again red.
‘We need to get her filled back in,’ he whispered to his ashen friend. Fear evident in his stutterer’s tone.
Arthur turned and went to exit the grave. He was just about to lift himself above ground when he checked behind him.
Owen was bent over the fixed corpse pulling madly at the young girl’s arms.
‘What are you doing you fool, we need to leave.’
Without turning his head, Owen replied.
‘I’m not leaving here empty-handed.’
Arthur leant forward for a closer inspection as to what his friend was doing.
He shook his head in disgust when he saw that he was trying to unclasp a small bracelet from the dead girl’s wrists. Cheap and worthless, yet probably the most prized possession of the deceased. Fumbling around in the semi-darkness, he was not finding this an easy task.
‘You must have an urge to feel the hangman’s rope around your neck, my friend.’
‘Eh. What do you mean? Leave me be.’
‘You will swing if they catch you, you must know theft is a capital offence.’
‘They catch us tonight, and we will both hang.’
‘That is where you are wrong. What we are doing is a misdemeanour, what your doing is a felon my friend…punishable by death.’
Both men were silent for a moment as they weighed up the options.
Arthur was about to abandon his friend and call everything off for the night when Owen cursed and released the girl’s wrist. It fell limply back into her coffin.
‘OK. Ok. Let us get a move on then. There is still a profit to be gained from this night.’
They clambered from the grave and picked up their shovels. Scooping up the soft earth, they quickly re-filled the grave. Hopefully, it would be a few days before any mourners returned; by this time, Mother Nature would have taken over and hidden any signs of their presence.
Both men had a sense of urgency about them this time. The earth needed merely scooped up not dug out this time. They finished the job in ten minutes and stood looking for any signs that they may have missed that could give them away.
The air had become cold and still once more. Nothing moved in the cemetery. The mist that had followed them on their journey all night started to rise. Soon it entrapped both men and visibility was reduced as it swirled around freely in front of their eyes. They could barely see past the length of their arms.
Owen tugged Arthurs’ arm and pulled him in close.
‘Follow me. The next grave is just around the corner. I want to be out of here as quick as I can.’
‘Ok, Don’t worry, I will be by your side, something feels wrong tonight.’
Arm in arm they blindly stepped deeper into the foggy cemetery.
They had taken no more than a dozen paces when Arthur realised he had lost grip of Owen. He panicked and spun around.
Nothing. Nothing anywhere, just swirls of blinding fog.
He wanted to cry out Owen’s name, but he knew to do so, would be at risk of waking the watchkeeper.
Arthur took one step forward. From nowhere a giant winged skull loomed in front of him, hovering in the still air, silhouetted against a blanket of a grey.
Tonight it was his turn. He had been chosen.
Arthur closed his eyes tightly shut and flung up his arms in front of his face in an attempt to avert the inevitable.
A firm hand clasped his shoulder and pulled him back to safety.
Laughing Owen whispered ‘Watch where you are going, old man. You will hurt yourself.’
The mist shifted position, and the winged skull was revealed in all its glory, encased in a concrete gravestone.
Arthur shook his head. He was getting too old for this game. He had seen enough of the dark side to ensure he would have nightmares for the rest of his days.
Owen tugged him again on the shoulder and directed him to the next grave, the next victim that had been selected for them to plunder. This was five meters away from them, and they quickly covered the ground together.
Removing the shovels and rope from their bags, they started to dig again.
Arthur did not look at the gravestone or his colleague beside; he just battled on. Inside he just prayed for this night to be over.
The earth here was thick, more compact and harder to dig into. After five minutes, both men were sweating profusely and removed their jackets.
The cold air assaulted their sweating bodies, and soon, they were both shivering and cursing under their breath. They could not rest; they had to be gone from the area well before sunrise.
Owen’s shovel was the first to hit the cheap wooden coffin lid. Smiling, he dropped to his knees and started brushing away the light soil with his hands, revealing an adult size coffin lid.
‘We have hit the jackpot here my friend.’ He cried out triumphantly.
Leaning forward, he curled his fingers around the underside of the coffin lid and started to prize it free from the top.
‘Be careful, slow down,’ whispered Arthur.
Owen could sense that tonight was going to be rewarding after all, he ignored Arthur and carried on lifting the lid.
There was a loud explosion, the shallow pit filled with gun smoke and the smell of cordite.
Arthur wiped his eyes clear and observed Owen lying on his back next to him.
Most of his head was missing.
Arthur was rooted to the spot, he stood staring blankly at first his fallen comrade and then at the exposed coffin. His mouth opened, but no words came.
The coffin torpedo had surprised them both. It had done its job well.
The second Owen had attempted to open the coffin lid, pressure had been released from the homemade booby trap, and the cartridge from the concealed coffin gun had exploded, instantly firing into his exposed face.
The cartridge had been crude but effective. It had spread upon discharge and travelled easily through his soft fleshy face, tearing away skin, bone and muscle. The charge had ricochet off Owen’s jaw bone and had been diverted upwards, where it exited the back of his head, dragging out the majority of his brain, splashing against the side of the grave.
He had died instantly, no pain, no fear and no warning.
Arthur had heard rumours of such traps being placed by wealthy families in London, but like others, he did not expect their use to have travelled so far north as quickly.
He could taste iron in his mouth. He wiped the sleeve of his tatty coat over his mouth, and when he looked down, he was shocked to discover it was covered in warm fresh blood, globules of matter and snippets of bone clung to the fabric.
He spat the blood from his mouth, directing it to the wall of the grave and took stock. He knew he did not have much time. The gunshot would have woken the watchman and no doubt he would be hot-footing it to inform the peelers.
He glanced at Owen; the front of his face was an indistinguishable mess. He would not be easily identified, if at all. He decided to leave his friend where he lay. He did not have the time to take him with him or to hide the body.
If he did not hurry up, he too would receive the same fate as what his friend had in store for him. Cut up and fed to the wild dogs that roamed the deserted streets or buried in a paupers grave, where no one would know of his passing, forgotten and un-grieved.
Discarding the mutilated corpse of Owen from his mind, Arthur lent forward and hooked his arms around the body’s shoulders. He grimaced at the sight. The coffin contained the body of a male, perhaps thirty years old. He was of average build, but Arthur knew he would be awkward and cumbersome to lift, let alone carry.
The corpse showed early signs of decomposing. His jaw was locked tight with Rigour Mortis, and the once white face was turning to do a dark grey, the body was beginning to bloat as the gasses inside putrefied.
Trying not to gag, Arthur lifted the corpse from its resting place and manhandled it out of the grave, dumping it unceremoniously on the grass beside.
Knowing he would struggle to carry the body, Arthur gripped the still corpse by the legs and dragged him to the edge of the cemetery. He was aware of how eerie silent the cemetery had become, and he was sure the noise from the crunching gravel would be heard from miles away.
He braved on, never once stopping for breath. The clouds in the sky had disappeared, and the bright light of the moon illuminated everything.
He threw the body unceremoniously through the gap of the railings, where it landed in a heap on the cobblestones outside. He clambered through and replaced the railings.
Glancing around, the street was still deserted, so he hoisted the corpse over his shoulders and crossed the road, bent double and made for the alleyway where they had waited earlier, and where their handcart was hidden.
Thirty minutes and with not a moment to spare as dawn was beginning to break, Arthur wheeled the handcart with the corpse wrapped up in an old tatty blanket, which had covered a fair number of the dead in the past, up a back alley to the side of his boss’s house.
He knew his boss would be waiting for him, excited and eager to start work on his subject without a moment to lose, doped up on caffeine and morphine.
At the rear of the house, his boss’s laboratory was located, private and secret, hidden away from prying eyes where he could be free to perfect his skills in medical science alone without fear of interruption.
The door to the laboratory had once been painted black, the paint was now crumbling away, and dirt and grime clung to the decaying wood.
He knocked twice, careful not to be too loud. He heard a chair scrape on the floor inside and the sound of footsteps approaching.
The door opened, and a bright light shone through from the laboratory. Dr Reuben dressed in a dark purple smoking jacket and slacks peered out.
‘Come in, come in,’ he ushered quietly.
He stepped back to open the door fully while Arthur removed the corpse from the handcart.
‘Where is your friend?’ He enquired, taking in Arthur’s shocking appearance.
Arthur could not look the doctor in the face; his eyes alone frightened him half to death.
‘He had to go home, he was feeling unwell,’ he muttered, staring at the stone floor.
Arthur proceeded to the Centre of the room where a lone ceramic slab hooked up to a single light, and a water hose was situated. He laid the body down, detecting bloodstains of past, still clinging to the whiteness of the slab.
Behind him, Dr Reuben slowly and quietly turned the key in the door.
He stepped back for Dr Reuben to inspect the body for the first time.
‘Excellent. Arthur, once again you have excelled yourself. He is perfect for my needs.’
He turned and looked around the room. His dark beady eyes missed nothing.
‘And where is my second body? I can only see one specimen before me.’
‘I’m sorry Sir; it has been a difficult night. We could only acquire one body.’
Dr Reuben shoulders sagged, he did not turn around.
Quietly he chanted ‘No, No, No, this will not do at all.’
Arthur could tell his boss was disappointed with him and knew he needed to make amends quickly. He did not want to fall out with his employer or have his reputation tarnished.
‘I will go back out tonight and bring you another body, Sir.’
A draft blew under the door into the laboratory, and the candlelight flickered madly casting shadows deep into the room.
Dr Reuben turned around slowly, a thin smile on his face. He looked straight into Arthur’s eyes.
‘It’s ok. I can make do with what I have in the room.’
Arthur sighed, He was scared of Dr Reuben, and just now he could have sworn he detected pure evil in his eyes as if he was looking into the eyes of Satan himself.
Before he could express his gratitude, Dr Reuben’s hand whipped forward.
Owen caught a brief glimpse of a scalpel he had concealed in his hand. It glimmered as it travelled through the air and he felt the tiniest of nicks against his throat.
Arthur stood transfixed as Dr Reuben stepped back, looking at him with a look of admiration on his face.
He lifted his hand to this throat and felt the tiniest of incisions. As his hand rested against his skin, he could detect a faint flow of warm blood starting to exit the wound.
He looked in disbelief as Dr Reuben stepped forward again.
Arthur felt the wound in his neck open up. In an instant, his strength deserted his body, and he sank to his knees, aware of the river of blood forming on the floor.
Arthur felt as if his head was secured to his neck by a single twine only, sure that it would fall free from his neck if cut again.
His body felt cold, and he started to shiver uncontrollably.
He could see Dr Reuben standing over him, watching him slowly bleed out. He had a look of happiness on his face that Arthur could never recall seeing before.
Blackness finally engulfed Arthur.
For Dr Reuben, it was time to go to work.
He had a long day ahead of him.
Craig Wrightson 2018