Times were hard in the 1700s, and people made a penny wherever they could. Some trades were frowned upon, however, and rightly so. One such trade was that of the resurrectionist, also known as a grave robber or 'sack-em up'. These unsavoury types provided cadavers to the many private medical schools throughout the UK, and at the start of the 18th Century business was booming. Probably the most famous of the practitioners of this particular trade were Burke and Hare, who found infamy almost 100 years later. Their notoriety wasn't really due to their grave-robbing, but more to do with their fresh supply of corpses to order. They were both originally from Ireland, but they met in Edinburgh, from where they went on to supply students of anatomy with more than their quota of cadavers.
Anyhow, in 1705, resurrectionists weren't unique to Edinburgh. In Ireland, surgeons were prepared to pay a fair price for the newly deceased and this provided employment opportunities for the local resurrectionists.
This is the story of Margorie McCall and while it's bizarre, it is true... well, mostly true. With the passage of time and the re-telling of the tale, hard facts are thin on the ground.
Margorie McCall was wed to a doctor. They lived in Lurgan, Co Armagh and by all accounts were very happy. When Margorie fell ill, her husband John was beside himself with worry - in the early 1700s many illnesses we consider minor today could be fatal and 'the fever' was a great catch-all for many of these ailments. Sadly, Margorie succumbed to her bout of fever and was buried in Shankill Church of Ireland Cemetery, not far from her home in Church Place. She was hastily buried for fear of the fever spreading, and that should have been the end of that; however, she was to become one of the most famous women in Lurgan - and is still talked about today.
Margorie was buried still wearing her beautiful gold wedding ring. This was due to her husband's inability to remove it from her finger, which had swollen considerably since her death, but news of the treasure leaked out to the resurrectionists. They spotted the opportunity to gain themselves a bonus.
That evening, before the soil had time to settle on Margorie's coffin, the grave-robbers1 paid a visit. Working under cover of darkness they grappled in the dirt until they reached and opened her coffin. True to the rumour, the ring was still on her finger. Before removing the body, they attempted to purloin the valuable item, but it wouldn't budge. Being businessmen, they weren't about to allow such a prize to make its way to a surgeon's slab2, and since she couldn't get any deader, they agreed to cut off her finger to free the ring.
Unfortunately for them, the shock of the knife cutting through her finger awoke poor Margorie, not from death but a catatonic state. She sat bolt upright, eyes wide and wailed like a banshee. There are differing reports as to the fate of the body-snatchers: one states that one of the men dropped dead on the spot from fright; the other that they both ran for their lives, never to resume their dubious occupation. Whatever the truth of the matter, it's pretty certain that they'd never have forgotten that little misadventure.
The bold Margorie helped herself out of the ground like some preview of Michael Jackson'sThriller and stumbled the short distance to her home.
Honey, I'm Home!
At home, her husband John was sitting with relatives, bemoaning her passing and toasting her journey to a better place. When the door rapped John reportedly cried out; had he not known they'd buried dear Margorie that very day, he could have sworn it was her distinctive rap at the door.
When he opened the door it was of course Margorie in her grubby shroud, dripping blood from her almost severed finger. John's response is disputed, but most tellings of this story3 agree that he dropped dead on the floor. Now there's a quandary: joy and sadness in equal measure for the rest of the family. Margorie alive and relatively well, but John deader than Margorie ever was. He was buried in the plot Margorie had recently vacated.
Oh, What a Life
Margorie went on to re-marry and have several children, although it was rumoured that she left the grave pregnant by 'unspecified suitor'. She is still remembered by the townspeople of Lurgan today, and it's said that on occasion she can be seen wandering Shankill Cemetery, although why she would want to do that has never been fully explained.
No one will ever really know the exact details of the night Margorie arose from the grave, but it brought her a sort of immortality and not just in old yarns: Aiden Crossey4 composed the reel Margorie McCall in her honour. Proof of her existence, if any were needed, is her headstone, which although damaged by vandals and time, is still there for all to see... Here lies Margorie McCall, Lived once, Buried twice.