Whose body? A Plymouth Quaker mystery

Dr. Johnson reading “The Vicar of Wakefield”, from Illustrated Exhibitor & Magazine of Art, 1851. Drawn by Gilbert, engraved by J. Linton

Imagine how annoyed you’d be if the graveyard you were buried in was repurposed as a car park? Everyone else who had laid beside you for over a hundred years was disinterred, but because you had been buried deeper than all the others, your body was missed. The car park was built over you, and still you laid there, silent, uncomplaining and forgotten, as for sixty years cars drove over where you lay.

Now imagine your body is discovered, and you’re misidentified.

This has happened to a lady called Elizabeth Cookworthy, who was buried in the Quaker burial ground in Plymouth in 1833. I was curious about this story partly because my father was an undertaker so I find strange burials interesting, and partly because as a genealogist, I was intrigued by the headlines which said she’d been identified. How had this been done?

Not by DNA, but the plate on her coffin.

According to the Plymouth Herald, “The name plate on the lead coffin identifies the remains as those of Elizabeth Cookworthy, who died on October 9, 1833.” Research claimed reported in the media claims that she was the daughter of William and Sarah Cookworthy, one of twins who had been born in 1743. So she was 90 years old, apparently.

My friend Verity Holloway, who is even more interested in strange burials than me, was concerned that Elizabeth had been buried deep because she had small pox. As I’ve noticed that small pox does sometimes get a mention in parish registers when it’s the cause of death, I decided to have a look at the Quaker records on Findmypast, just in case it mentioned how Elizabeth had met her end.

I found one burial in Plymouth in the Quaker records for 1833. Elizabeth Cookworthy, aged 70, widow of William Cookworthy. Who died on 9th October.

Oh dear. It would appear that the body has been misidentified.

Quaker burials are often well-recorded, with an appearance in the burial register, and in a record of the note passed to the “gravemaker” who would arrange for the burial. Both of these documents said that Elizabeth was William’s widow, and both said she was 70 years old. The burial register gives her date of death as 9th October 1833, and the note to the gravemaker is dated 10th October 1833.

The date of death in the burial register matches the date of death on her coffin lid. Looking at the register, no other woman called Elizabeth Cookworthy was buried in the Quaker burial ground in Plymouth that year.

The media (Plymouth Herald, BBC, etc etc) are claiming that the occupant of the mystery coffin has been identified, but sadly it looks to me as if she’s been misidentified. Out of respect for a woman who died many years ago and whose resting place has been egregiously disturbed, I would like to record her true identity here.