Halloween tales: The body snatchers of Codicote

PUBLISHED: 18:28 31 October 2018

The memorial to John Gootheridge at St Giles' Church, Codicote. Picture: JAMIE HART

The memorial to John Gootheridge at St Giles' Church, Codicote. Picture: JAMIE HART

©2018 Archant

A graveyard in Codicote holds the last resting place of a man who was buried – twice.

St Giles' Church, Codicote. Picture: JAMIE HARTSt Giles' Church, Codicote. Picture: JAMIE HART

St Giles’ in Codicote is a pretty church, built mainly in the 13th century, and a pleasant 15 minutes’ walk from the village centre.

But the graveyard hosts a gruesome story.

On a grave rail is the inscription: “In memory of John Gootheridge who died October 30 1824 in the 79th year of his age.”

And then below, in smaller letters: “Reburied a week later.”

The memorial to John Gootheridge at St Giles' Church, Codicote. Picture: JAMIE HARTThe memorial to John Gootheridge at St Giles' Church, Codicote. Picture: JAMIE HART

What happened to make Mr Gootheridge rise from his grave that Halloween nearly 200 years ago?

The common explanation is that during the 19th century, a gang of grave robbers known as the Codicote Body Snatchers would unearth freshly buried bodies in order to sell them to medical research.

Body parts could fetch good money in those days, giving rise to a ghoulish industry.

Our sister title – then named the Welwyn Times and Hatfield Herald – retold the story in October 1959, adding that the night Mr Gootheridge was unearthed, “an eerie light in the graveyard” was spotted by a passer-by, who raised the alarm.

This caused the body snatchers to scarper, leaving Mr Gootheridge’s poor body to lay unburied in the dark night.

After his body was found, he was reburied a week later, and the inscription on his grave rail updated.

Mr Gootheridge is likely to have died poor, as a grave rail is a common type of wooden memorial for those who can’t afford a headstone.

As one unnamed elderly Codicote resident told the WHTT in 1959: “I’ve never seen another grave quite like that before.”

The twice-buried man is not the only feature of St Giles’ that might put a shiver down your spine this Halloween.

Inside the church is a curious carving of a little beast with horns, embellished with carved chains, looking like a cross between a dog and a devil on a leash.

The carving has become something of a symbol in Codicote, and also appears as one of the four images on the village crest.

Liz Waller, wife of the Reverend Waller, explained: “I think it’s supposed to give the image of chaining up the devil to restrict evil, and that good prevails,” she said. “That’s my interpretation anyway!”

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