Dispatch from Edinburgh–A Nasty Bit O’ Business

Hatbox Louie and I live right near Edinburgh’s OldTown. Cobbled lanes snake around past medieval storefronts and pubs, and the tiny arched alleyways, called closes, connect to even smaller streets and are often named for the trades once plied at the end of the tunnel: Tanners Close, Fleshmarket Close, Old Distillery Close, Fishers Close.

We recently wandered into OldTown’s Greyfriars graveyard, and found it the most graveyardish graveyard we had ever encountered. Hilly, muddy, and the grayest of gray. Bare trees held shifty crows that followed us with their eyes as we walked, as if they new something we didn’t. Dates on the headstones ran back to the 16th century. It was over the top, cartoonish, a Tim Burton set. And it got worse.

We noticed a grave completely surrounded by iron bars. Another was enclosed by concrete with iron bars across the top. A 19th century gambit to foil graverobbers. The trade in corpses was lively then, supplying the expanding center of Medical training in Edinburgh.

Across the street at the Royal Museum of Scotland, we found a mortsafe–an enormous iron sarcophagus, made to hold the traditional casket. It would attend the corpse for six weeks, then be removed, at which point decomposition would have rendered the body useless for dissection. The museum also displays a Kingskettle collar. An iron shackle was placed around the neck of the corpse, and bolted to the coffin floor. Very restful.

As disturbing as it seems, what we learned next made us recognize this all as a rather lighthearted look at cadaver-supply–barely sinister. And these bodysnatchers, or resurrection men, as just a bunch of goofy cutups trying to turn a dime. The truly gruesome story was of the Burke and Hare murders. These men, rather then suffer the tedium of waiting for a death and then digging through the night, killed 17 people and sold their bodies to an anatomy lab.

Their story brought us to the College of Surgeons Museum where some artifacts from the murders and the subsequent trial and punishment are on display. If you’re interested, I was inspired to write an article about the whole affair, called

Published in: on November 28, 2006 at 11:48 am  Leave a Comment  

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