Skeletons in the Cupboard

By Mervyn Ennis


In 2013 the Royal College of surgeons blog reported ‘New Donation of Abraham Colles Portraits


Abraham Colles


Sophia Colles

On Friday 29th November, the College was delighted to receive a donation of three Colles portraits (two of Abraham Colles, one of Sophia Colles) from Mr Michael Brooke and family in Australia.

Mr Brooke’s family are descendants of Abraham’s fifth son, Richard. Richard was born in Dublin in 1818 and received his BA from Trinity College Dublin in 1841.

After a decade at the English Bar he migrated to Australia taking up residence in Castlemaine, Victoria in 1852, right in the midst of the exciting gold exploration days. Richard must have been quite a tough character because he became Sheriff of Castlemaine and held that position for 35 years with all the temptation to crime of large amounts of gold passing through the town and surrounding areas. He was close friends with the famous Australian explorer Robert O’Hara Burke (1820-1861). On his explorations of the Australian outback Burke named a mountain in the north-eastern corner of Queensland ‘Mt Colles’ after his friend. Burke and Wills and another five members of the expedition died of starvation in the outback near Cooper’s Creek in South Australia in 1861. Richard laid the foundation stone of the Burke memorial in Castlemaine 1862.

Richard married Frances Ann Wilmett in 1841 and they had 4 children, 2 boys and 2 girls. The large Colles vault can be found in the Daylesford Cemetery, Victoria, Australia where descendants of Richard Colles still reside today.

The portraits donated by Mr. Brooke and his family are of Richard’s father and mother, Abraham and Sophia Colles. Abraham was born in Millmount, Co Kilkenny in 1773. He achieved amazing heights in his life and medical career. For those whose medical education is a little sparse, his greatest claim to fame was the description of ‘Colles’ fracture’. This is a break in the bones of the wrist, commonly found among people who ride horses, lose balance and then stretch their arms out to save themselves when they hit the ground instead of holding firmly on to their collars (the woman who taught me to ride was very stern about this and it most certainly can be done). Describing this fracture in the time before X-rays had been invented was rightly recognised as a triumph of anatomical knowledge.

The Saggart Sack-‘em-ups

However the following article is about another son of Abraham and Sophia who did not live long enough to reach the dizzy heights of either his father or his emigrant brother.

Dublin always had a progressive medical tradition. Jonathan Swift,  Dean of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral from 1713 until his death in 1745 and noted author, bequeathed money  to found a hospital for treating those with mental illness, because he recognised that people with mental illness needed a specialist service.  St Patrick’s hospital was one of the first in the world to treat mental illness.


Royal College of Surgeons Dublin

In Dublin in the 1800s, there were numerous medical schools in operation. The large military presence and constant fluctuations within the British Empire meant a continuous demand for Irish surgeons in the war-weary British Army. This demand drove the need to provide medical training and so medical schools came into being to supply medical expertise. Medical students had been studying corpses since the sixteenth century. At this time, the Law in the form of the 1752 Murder Act, stipulated that only the bodies of executed criminals could be used for dissection for the progression of medical science.   The high demands for corpses ultimately led to the practice of grave robbing. The Resurrectionists as they were called, because they raised bodies from the dead, or Sack ‘em ups, as they crudely dragged a corpse from the grave with ropes, dumped the naked body in a sack and loaded it onto a horse-drawn cart or carriage to take it to the hospitals for sale. They were particularly active in Ireland and Britain until the second Anatomy Act was passed in 1832. The act licensed teachers of Anatomy to dissect donated cadavers and people who died in the workhouse – the very poor, in other words.   Prior to this Act, the only bodies available under the law were bodies of executed criminals. At this time, Edinburgh was one of the centres of anatomical study with an average of 850 anatomy students per year but with only 75 executions per year there was an enormous short-fall and this short-fall in Britain and Ireland was provided for by the Sack ‘em ups.


Grave Robbers

The corpses provided by the Sack ‘em ups would have to be relatively fresh and without any signs of decomposition. Ten pound to forty pound could be paid for a cadaver which was the equivalent of a year’s wage for a night’s work; this made it a lucrative trade. The body of a child was paid for by the inch, while a set of teeth could earn a pound. It would appear that it was an offence to take the belongings of a corpse but the stealing of the corpse itself was deemed to be in a minor category.   The process to extract the corpse was done by digging a narrow tunnel directly at the head of the coffin then sending down a young person or child to attach a hook to the head and neatly extract the body. They kept their grim deeds as quiet as possible by using a wooden spade that would make less noise if it struck a rocks or stones. The displaced soil was placed on sacks and replaced as neatly as possible so as not to arouse any suspicion that a grave or surrounding area had been tampered with. The horses used to transport the bodies were fitted with leather over the metal shoes so they could travel as silently as possible and not attract attention at night in the locality.

There were frequent battles between Sack ‘em ups and Dead Watchers and the Saggart Sack ‘em ups is one story that has lasted the test of time. The custom evolved for members of the family to remain behind after a funeral and watch over the grave of their loved ones to ensure they did not fall into the hands of the resurrectionists. Malachy Horan the local Saggart Seanachee tells how a mother’s body was stolen on her first night in Saggart grave yard.


Cruagh Graveyard

Malachy takes up the story, ‘An old woman from hereabouts died, and she a widow with one son only. Ay, she died and they buried her down there in Saggart. After the wake and all was over and his friends gone home, her son (dacent man) faced up to spend his first night alone. He went to bed, but all his trouble for her was in his mind, so he could not sleep. He tossed about for long enough till he heard the fowl begin to move on their perch. Suddenly, out of the darkness, his mother his mother came to him and she moaning: ‘Am I not to be left at rest after a long life, and a sad life, of toil?’   He raced to her grave ‘but all he found among the crosses was an empty hole—nothing else. On the upturned clay was lying a lock of grey-white hair.’

The chap was so upset at his own failure to guard her body that he neither ate, drank nor slept for three nights, after which he himself gave up the ghost and died. The neighbours were so annoyed and angry at the needless suffering brought on this family that they mounted an armed guard on the grave around the clock on the nights that followed. Local tradition has it that at night the Dead Watchers retired to Jacob’s pub and kept an eye on the grave from an upstairs window which gave a good view of the graveyard. The watchers’ sentry duties paid off. In the dead of night the Sack -‘em- ups duly arrived and stealthily commenced to ply their macabre trade in the Saggart grave yard, high in the hope of retrieving a second body from the one grave.

As they anxiously commenced their evil deed, they were oblivious of the fact they were observed from the upstairs window of Jacob’s Pub. The Watchers fired a volley of shoots from the window into the shadowy Sack ‘em ups.   One was mortally wounded and fell dead among the graves he came to rob. He was discovered to be a medical student and son of the famous Surgeon, Abraham Colles of Dr Stevens Hospital.

Colles was a professor of anatomy, surgery and physiology. Whether, he knew what his son was up to we don’t know. But Malachy concludes ‘ Of course, they hushed that up after’. Doctors such as Colles were from the upper echelons of society where such power resides. His family owned Black Quarry that produced the famous Black Kilkenny Marble that the song Carrickfergus reports was ‘black as ink’. Colles was a graduate of Trinity college where he studied in the company of such contemporaries as Thomas Moore and Robert Emmet. He graduated from Trinity College in February 1795 and went on to study in Edinburgh. In 1804, he was appointed surgeon to Cork Street Fever Hospital, before being elected Professor of Anatomy, Physiology, and Surgery.

Colles was said to be a zealous and painstaking teacher, a lecturer indulging in puns and witticisms who attracted crowds of more than 300 people. The education of surgeons during this time focused on classical dissection, an art that depended on a fresh supply of bodies to dissect. With only a few bodies of executed murderers being granted to the College for dissection, there was but one way of obtaining cadavers – grave robbing. Though he advised students to use caution, Colles did not prevent the theft of 1,500 bodies from Kilmainham’s Bully’s Acre cemetery, and their subsequent storage by the ‘Resurrectionists’ at the College. Dublin’s medical students were well supplied.

There was also to be another twist or two to the tale as Dr Colles was the surgeon who saved the legendary bare knuckle boxer Dan Donnelly’s arm from amputation and in time, when Dan died, his body was also to become a victim to the Sack –‘em- ups.   Some years earlier Dan had been on his way home to Townsend Street from a pub in Ringsend when he heard the terrified screams of a young woman who was being attacked by two sailors. Dan intervened but was beaten unconscious by the two ruffians. Among the injuries he sustained was his arm broken in four places. The initial prognosis was that Dan’s arm would have to be amputated.   But Dan’s parents pleaded with Dr Abraham Colles, to try and save the limb. Dr Colles was described as ‘a much loved man whose compassion and care for the cities poor was widely acknowledged’ at the time. The doctor was so impressed with what he was told of the young Dan’s charitable acts that he promised to do what he could to save his arm.

With infinite patience and delicate skill he pieced together the shattered limb and proclaimed Dan ‘a pocket Hercules’ for his forbearance and bravery.

Remember all this was done without the benefit of any anaesthetic or pain killers for Dan Donnelly – the patient. With the benefit of hindsight, it could be argued that Dr Colles’ medical skills were well honed from practising on the dead bodies supplied to him by his sons’ associates, the ‘Resurrectionists’.  Dan (1788-1820) died suddenly at the age of thirty-two in February 1820. His death occurred after a hectic bare-knuckle prize fighting and exhibition boxing schedule around Britain. Dan was broke, having drunk himself and family through three pubs to the door of penury. After a huge funeral, the Sack ‘em ups struck and stole his body from its grave in Bully’s Acre. It was later discovered on the operating table of a Dr Hall by Donnelly supporters. After a tense standoff, Dr Hall, who had paid cash on delivery for Dan’s body, negotiated to have the right arm amputated at the shoulder blade in order to study the boxer’s powerful muscle structure. The body of Dan Donnelly, Pugilist, Publican, and Playboy was then surrendered to be reinterred and rest in peace at Bully’s Acre.


Dan Donnelly

The Kilkenny-born Dr Colles came from a long line of surgeons and was twice president of the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin. He taught anatomy and surgery at his rented rooms in South Kings Street. He was widely acclaimed as a medical researcher and graphic lecturer.

Mervyn Ennis has an MA from University College Dublin in Social Work. He recently retired as head social worker from the Irish Defence Forces after 21years service in the Personnel Support Services which he helped found in 1992.

One thought on “Skeletons in the Cupboard

Comments are closed.