The Foxearth and District Local History Society
Sacrilege and Body-stealing

Foxearth & District Local History Society

The following are extracts from the Suffolk Free Press from 1864, recording the curious tale of the disappearing corpse from Foxearth Graveyard. This scandal would have been the talk of the parish for many months. The story is self-explanatory and needs no embellishment or explanation from us

July 14th. 1864.

Burial of the dead at Foxearth.

Refusal of the rector to permit the disinterment of a body.

This rural parish was throughout the day on Wednesday last, the scene of unusal excitement, arising from proceedings taken and preparations made for the disinterment and the remains of the body of the late Samuel Vial, Esq. The matter will perhaps be understood by a short recital of the circumstances connected with the grave anterior to Wednesday's proceedings.

It appears that the late Samuel Vial, who was a wealthy Landowner and Farmer, residing in the adjoining parish of Cavendish, died on 23rd. of Sept. 1855, then leaving two sons and a daughter(married), and it is alleged on one side, but contradicted on the other,that on his death bed he desired to be buried in Foxearth Churchyard,but whether so or not,he was buried there, and soon after a dispute arose between the deceased's friends and the Rector (REV. JOHN FOSTER) with reference to a tombstone or memorial to be erected, as they wished to erect over his remains. The incumbent states that the proposed monument was a column surmounted by a wheatsheaf, the whole to be surrounded by a railing, and he therefore objected, considering it unsuitable; he was then threatened with proceedings in the ecclesiastical court, and a correspondence ensued, but ultimately a simple tombstone was erected. When the late Mrs.Vial died her sons wished her to be buried alongside their father, to this Mr. Foster consented, although she was not a parishioner at the time of her death, on condition that a written agreement was given that they would not erect any tombstone until the design had first been submitted and met with his approval.

The Rector states that his object was to prevent any disputes arising afterwards. As the sons refused to give the written guarantee, Mr.Foster objected to the burial taking place, and Mrs. Vial was interred in Belchamp Otten churchyard.

The matter rested for a few months, until Mr. Simon Quy Vial and Mr. Pratt Vial, the two sons, applied at the Chancellors Court of the diocese of Rochester, for a faculty to remove the body of the late Mr. Vial from Foxearth to Otten Belchamp Churchyard.

On Wednesday morning a number of men from adjoining parishes assembled at Foxearth,and remained there until two o'clock, when Mr. Jas. Cardinall of Halstead, solicitor for Messrs. Vial, arrived with the faculty. a hearse was also there, with some stonemasons from Messrs. Keogh's yard at Sudbury,and labourers to help disinter the coffin.

The gate of the churchyard was locked and the men remained outside on the meadow. Mr.Cardinall read the legal document and demanded the body. The Rector refused on the ground that the faculty being invalid; and said that otherwise he had no interest in the matter, other than to protect the interests of his parishioners, especially Mrs. Ewer, a parishioner,a daughter of the late Mr. Vial, who as well as her children wished the body to remain at Foxearth. Mr.Simon Vial denied that his father had expressed a desire before his death to be buried there. Mr. Cardinall made a speech in which he alluded to the un-Christian and uncharitable nature of Mr.Foster's refusal to permit the disinterment of the body to where it might lie alongside his wife.

At one time there was quite an uproar, and it was feared that the men would proceed to take violent steps to remove the body, but Mr. Cardinal allayed the storm,and a portion of the crowd, which had increased to some two hundred people who vented their feelings in giving three groans for the Rector,and three cheers for Mr.Cardinall and Messrs Vial. We understand that Mr.Foster expressed himself perfectly willing to permit the removal of the coffin if legal faculty was obtained. The grounds of the objections to the one produced, was we believe that no citation had been produced or issued to let the objectors come forward. The memorial on which it had been obtained also stated that the applicants had obtained the consent of the Rev.Dawson, Rector of Otten Belchamp, for reinterment in his churchyard. This is denied, on the other side it is alleged to have been given verbally. However written notices were served on Tuesday,on Mr.Vial,not to proceed to inter the remains in Belchamp Otten churchyard. The Bishop of Rochester had also written to Mr. Foster to say the faculty obtained was quite out of order, no citation having been issued.

It appears Mrs. Ewer had also protested and prayed the Bishop not to permit the removal. An order likewise was given by the Rector and churchwardens of Otten Belchamp not to assist in any manner. No attempt was made to dis-inter the body, and about five o'clock the hearse and the men left the ground,and the crowd dispersed.

We hear it is intended to take proceedings, and that the matter is likely to cause considerable litigation in the Ecclesiastical Courts.

July 26th 1864.

Mr S.Q.Viall denies a statement that the monument proposed to be erected over his father's grave at Foxearth was not a column surmounted by a wheatsheaf or any other agricultural emblem and states that Mr Cardinall in his address to bystanders on the occasion of the recent attempted disinterment did not make allusions to the unchristian uncharitable nature of Mr Foster's refusal to permit disinterment of the body.

Oct. 7th.1864


A great amount of excitement throughout the parish of Foxearth, near Sudbury, and the adjoining locality, by widespread rumour propagated on Thursday last and which proved correct to the effect that the remains of the late Samuel Vial, ESQ. had been removed from the chuchyard under circumstances of a most extraordinary nature. It appears that about six o'clock on Thursday morning a labourer named Ward, in the employ of the Rev. J. Foster, was passing through the churchyard when he found the tombstone had, by some means or other, had been removed during the night, and the ground rifled of its contents,the earth still remained as it was thrown out, and the gravestone was broken in two or three pieces. A piece of candle, which evidently had been used to light the men in their operations,was left on the mutilated tomb.

Mr. Vial had been buried in a brick grave, which had been covered in the same way with a large slab,the full size; this had been drawn or taken out and placed by the side, but as the grave had not been entirely uncovered at one end of the coffin had been tilted up then lifted to the surface. From thence it was carried to the gate, and placed in a vechicle of some description; the tracks across the meadow clearly showed the marks of a vechicle leading to the Sudbury road. Rev.Foster had been absent for several days. Nothing was heard in the night, either of the men who did the work, or the waggon brought to convey the body away,but certain labourers,in the parish of Otten Belchamp,who were going to their morning's employment,aver that they met a yellow painted vechicle, driving at a moderate pace,towards Belchamp, on which were riding five or six men,but they were so disguised as not to be recognizeable by any of them.The man who first discovered the empty grave was in the gas house,seeing to the works,at two o'clock in the morning,but heard nothing;this might be accountable for,as a strong wind was blowing from the buildings, and the night was dark one.

It will no doubt be fresh in the minds of our readers that the sons of the deceased were anxious to disinter the remains and bury them along side his wife, who is interred in Otten Belchamp churchyard . On the same morning,between seven and eight o'clock as the sexton at Otten Belchamp was walking through the churchyard,he noticed a plank lying against the wall,and noticed it was partly encrusted with dirt,and appeared as it had been for some time imbedded in the earth. On making further investigations it was discovered that the grave in which Mrs.Vial had been buried had been opened during the night; not however as in olden days, by body snatchers,who rifled the corpses for plunder, or carry them away in sacks to dispose of them for remuneration as "subjects" for the dissecting room,but that another corpse might beinterred in the same grave.

The earth had been shovelled in carefully, and pressed down well,and the turf (which had been cut artistically from the mound) was replaced exactly,apparently by practical and professional hands.all marks of the nocturnal visit and disturbance had been obliterated as far as possible,and a casual glance at the spot would not have detected any recent displacement of soil. But a little "slip" as often is the case,had occurred, which led to the discovery of the open grate. It appears that when Mrs.Vial was interred, for some reason or other,three planks were left in the ground,laid over the coffin;perhaps in preparation for the other coffin,which might be placed above.On Wednesday night the men who had been employed to disinter the body of Mr. Viall in Foxearth churchyard,had not stayed to obliterate traces of their midnight work,but evidently proceeded immediately to Otten Belchamp, and opened the grave where the wife had been buried,and placed the corpse of her husband there,but in the necessary burying,they had inadvertently left out one of the planks, and finding out too late their mistake, had thrown it against wall, not deeming it advisable to carry with them any criminatory evidence.It was the plank that led to the discovery of the opening of the grave.

Of course the Foxearth authorities were angry at what had been done,and every effort is being made to discover the parties engaged in the removal of the corpse; it is rumoured that a London detective is likely to be brought down, and by whose skill the midnight depredators brought to justice.Great excitement has been caused locally,(and as is generally the case in parochial disputes and feuds,some persons sympathise with the Rector and are very irate at the "sacrilege";while others feel that the Vial's were very much injured and aggrieved,and that the secret way the body was removed was cleverly planned,and neatly carried out.As journalists we cannot side with one or the other.Yet we trust that for the peace,and to avoid other scandals which might hurt religion,social rites,and even trade and business,and that the authorities,be that Foxearth and Belchamp,will now let the dead rest in peace,and abstain from quarrelling with the living.It was a natural feeling that survivors should should wish both parents to rest together in consecrated ground,and there could could be no valid objection to the removal of either body to the other churchyard.