One Wee Dram of Anatomy

Greyfriars graveyard in Edinburgh, Scotland looks like the set design of a Hollywood art director. The word gray may have been born here among the muddy paths and headstones, under the watchful eyes of the winter-bare trees and the blackened medieval spires that loom in the distance. It is, like much in Edinburgh, awfully authentic.

Any 400-year-old graveyard can feel a bit macabre on a late autumn afternoon, yet here in Edinburgh, less is left to the imagination. Here, you can find traces not of the faux-creepy hauntings of spirits and specters, but the truly disturbing abominations of the living.

An enormous black iron cage surrounds one of the first plots you encounter through the gate. Instead of a headstone, the inscriptions are hammered into iron sheets between the bars. Further along, concrete walls surround another plot with iron bars affixed across the top. Why are these dead in prison? These fortifications are relics of a sordid history–one in which Edinburgh plays a central role–of anatomy, of medical education, of greed, and murder.

Before an act of British parliament in 1832 expanded the supply of cadavers to be used in medical education, only the bodies of executed criminals could legally be passed for dissection to medical and private anatomical schools in Britain. By the early 19th century, advances in medical science and an expansion of formal medical education dramatically increased demand for cadavers. A trade in illicit corpses grew out of this discrepancy, and grave-robbers, also known more ironically as resurrection-men, began to fill the gap.

In the law at the time, there seems to have been a tacit acceptance of grave robbing as a vile necessity, as it was considered only a misdemeanor offense. It was in fact common practice for bodysnatchers to carefully remove any jewelry from the corpse and replace it in the grave to avoid having their crime elevated to a felony, which might be punishable by death.

As public awareness of this practice grew, a host of techniques were developed to help one’s beloved-deceased stay below ground. Families held vigil over the body until burial, and often for weeks after, from special towers built for the purpose. New grave-robbing strategies using silent wooden spades and super-efficient extraction methods evolved. Professional watchmen were hired, then subsequently bribed away from their posts.

This arms race reached its zenith in Edinburgh in the late 1820’s, as evidenced by the iron-caged grave plots, and in the common use of the mortsafe—a solid iron casket–to keep the resurrection-men at bay. An example of which, pitted and black—an enormous industrial sarcophagus–can be seen at the Royal Scottish Museum just across the street from the Greyfriars. Also on display, and even more disquieting, is the Kingskettle collar: an iron shackle placed around the neck of the body and bolted to the floor of the casket to slow down the ever more efficient ghouls.

Though bodysnatching was widespread throughout Britain and parts of the Commonwealth, Edinburgh has the dubious distinction of having been at the forefront of the grisly business. It was at the time a leading center of medical education, based at its ancient and venerable university. There was great demand for corpses to supply the growing legions of medical and surgical trainees. As the trade in bodies accelerated, public revulsion and outcry grew. A head was reached in 1828, at the trial of two Irishmen, William Hare and William Burke, who had realized that they could make more money in the cadaver trade if, instead of waiting for graves to rob, they created the corpses themselves.

Robert Knox was a flamboyant and popular anatomist who in 1823 petitioned the Royal College of Surgeons, based in Surgeon’s Square near Edinburgh University, for the establishment of a Museum of Comparative Anatomy, which was accepted and to which he was appointed conservator. Dr. Knox established a private anatomy school in Surgeons Square, and began to train students. University professorships at the time amounted to political appointments, so it was not unusual for talented lecturers to provide tuition outside the academic center.

In fact Knox’s academic counterpart, Dr. Alexander Munro III, teaching anatomy just a few blocks away at the University, gained his chair as a family inheritance. He was widely considered a singularly uninspired lecturer, and was generally disliked by students. One such, a young Charles Darwin, who at one point wrote home to his family in England, “I dislike him & his lectures so much that I cannot speak with decency about them,” was so put off, that he abandoned medicine altogether and turned his attention to biology, wherein he later made a modest contribution.

Many students were drawn to Knox’s school, where the lecturer’s charisma and the “continental” method of teaching anatomy by having each student participate in dissection, guaranteed a top education. The school’s reputation grew (at it’s height Knox tutored 500 students) and with it the need for raw material.

William Hare, an Irishman who had come to Edinburgh years before to work on a canal project was, by 1827, part-owner of a lodging house at Tanners Close. Closes in Edinburgh are dank and claustrophobic little alleyways that connect main streets to side streets and are usually named for the trades practiced there. William Burke had also come to Edinburgh to work on the canal and now earned money in various labors, and lived as a lodger in Hare’s house. Another border at Tanners Close, an old soldier named Donald, was found dead one morning, still owing Hare money. To recoup his lost rent, Hare turned to the well-known trade in corpses. When the casket was delivered to the house, he and Burke filled it with bark from the local tannery and put the old man in a sack. They carried him to the College of Surgeons where a student directed them to 10 Surgeons Square—the offices of Dr. Robert Knox.

And so a gruesome relationship was established. Burke and Hare were not questioned about the particulars of their acquisition, but rather paid seven pounds, and assured that any future corpses would be gladly accepted so long as they were brought around at night. Within a few days, another of Hare’s old lodgers fell ill. Burke and Hare gave him a drink, and in his feverish state, they easily smothered him. Their next victim was another boarder in poor health. Again they proffered a drink, and carefully asphyxiated the victim so as to cause no damage to the flesh. Dr. Knox gladly accepted both corpses.

Having run out of ailing lodgers, they began to lure people into the house, ply them with drink, and dispatch them in the usual manner. Five victims, then ten, a young prostitute, a grandmother and her grandchild–the pair became bolder and more brazen as the months wore on. One day, some of Dr. Knox’s students recognized a woman (and former prostitute) lying on the slab awaiting dissection. Dr. Knox protested that they were obviously mistaken, and began dissecting immediately—beginning with her face. Things began to unravel when Burke and Hare smothered a simple-minded and well-known young street dweller called Daft Jamie. Most all the students knew the young man and recognized him immediately upon seeing him on the dissecting table the following morning. This time they would not be convinced by Knox’s feeble denial and quick dissection.

Daft Jamie was missed from the street, but before any fallout from the murder could settle on Knox, the last and seventeenth victim, Mrs. Docherty, was found by another lodger, a Mrs. Gray, at the house of William Burke, who by this time had begun to offer rooms himself. Suspicious of Mrs. Docherty’s absence and Burke’s strange behavior, Mrs. Gray waited for Burke to go out for whiskey, then found Mrs. Docherty dead under a sheet with blood around her nose and mouth. She went to the police. The authorities found no body at Burke’s house, but a tip led them to Surgeon’s Square. There they found Mrs. Docherty lying on Dr. Knox’s dissecting slab. Edinburgh was aghast.

William Hare turned Queen’s evidence against William Burke, and was ultimately set free, while Burke was sentenced to hang. On January 28th, 1829, tens of thousands of spectators gathered at Edinburgh’s Lawnmarket. They had come “to witness the execution of a monster,” as an official account, on display in a small exhibit at the Royal College of Surgeons, proclaims in its perfect calligraphy. It describes an atmosphere of great public relief and catharsis where, as Burke twisted from the gallows, “at every convulsive motion, a loud huzza arose from the multitude which was several times repeated even after the last agonies of humanity were past.”

The display at the Royal College of Surgeons Museum (the very same Knox himself founded) features Burke’s death mask—a plaster cast of his head made immediately after his execution–and clearly shows the marks, deep gouges really, on his neck from the hangman’s rope. Next to Burke’s head sits a small wallet made of his tanned skin, a second of which is still displayed at the police station across from the Lawnmarket. As he had turned flesh to money, so a furious and disgusted public demanded his flesh be sewn into a purse, to symbolize forever the vile link he had made. Edinburgh’s taste for poetic justice did not end there. Burke’s sentence stipulated the public dissection of his body, which was carried out by none other than Dr. Alexander Munro III.

As for Dr. Knox, he was never charged with a crime, but the citizens of Edinburgh fumed and held a riot outside his house shortly after the trial. The popularity of his classes dwindled, and the Medical College at the University of Edinburgh rejected his applications to teach. He moved to Glasgow, and then to London where he died in 1862, and was buried in an unmarked grave.

Almost two centuries have passed since the Burke and Hare saga. While countless crimes have faded into history, these murders and their association with grave robbing and public dissection still capture our imagination. We are not sure even today how we feel about corpses and their use in science, education, and public display. Witness the recent controversy surrounding the show Body Worlds, where preserved human cadavers are positioned in life-like poses designed for artistic effect. There is no accord on where to draw the line between education and desecration.

One thing is for sure: wherever we do end up drawing the line, it was crossed in Edinburgh in the early 19th century. The marks endure in iron-clad graves, in billfolds sewn from the skin of monsters, and beneath the archways of the little closes that tunnel Edinburgh’s misty, cobbled Old Town, in the echoes of a children’s song:

Up the close and down the stair,
In the house with Burke and Hare.
Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief,
Knox the man who buys the beef.

Published on November 27, 2006 at 9:55 pm  Comments (8)  

The URI to TrackBack this entry is:

RSS feed for comments on this post.

8 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. One wee little dram!~

    Excellent writing, really excellent.
    great writing style, very informative and readable.
    you’re rockin’
    keep it up!


  2. Oh yeah,

  3. Very nicely done. Engrossing. More please.

  4. Och, and a fine wee dram t’was!

  5. dharmagrl,
    If you see this, thanks for stopping by, and I’ve been to your site but I cannot for the life of me figure out how to comment on your posts. But anyway, beautiful pictures–I just saw the latest. I grew up in D.C. and we used to get icestorms like that. Absolute magic (once the searing pain in your tailbone dies down). Anyway, stay warm. Dr. Nostrum

  6. What a fascinating and creepy tale! The ‘poetic justice’ element is grand.

  7. Wow, this post is incredible! I am researching for a short documentary I’m working on about wax anatomical models, and was pleasantly surprised to stumble on this wonderful site. It seems you are involved in a very similar voyage as I am. I too have a blog about travelling and extraordinary things. Although I am no doctor, we do delve into medical wonders quite often.

    Anyway, have added this blog to our links. I’m looking forward to many happy hours reading your backlogs. And thanks again for the invaluable information on the cadaver trade.

  8. […] the complete story of trial, I strongly recommend the Traveling Medicine Show. The wonderfully written post by a fellow traveller is what inspired this […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: