Showing posts with label Burke and Hare. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Burke and Hare. Show all posts

27 October 2019

Nice Body You Got There



Sorry, but this article has nothing to do with 6-pack abs, working out regularly, nor plastic surgeons, although it does involve doctors. So, in the spirit of Halloween, ghouls, skeletons and the walking dead (well, these corpses do get around, even if it's not under their own power), here's the not so distant past.

At the beginning of the 19th Century (that's the early 1800's for those of you who like to convert), there was a high demand by surgeons for cadavers to dissect in order to figure out what the heck was really inside the human body and how all those systems were connected. Most of these fresh cadavers came from murderers who had been hanged.

Unfortunately, at the period of time we are concerned with, only 55 murderers took the trip to the scaffold, whereas 500 cadavers were needed to teach new surgeons how to best operate. Since good money was being paid for fresh corpses, local entrepreneurs, known as resurrectionists, soon stepped forward to fill the gap. Fresh holes began to pop up in cemeteries where the recently deceased had been buried. More on this in a minute.

SIDE NOTE: While most resurrectionists plied their trade in the church graveyard, there was one grim pair of partners who took the occupation to a new level. In Edinburgh, Scotland, William Burke and William Hare became best known for their innovation of creating their own fresh corpses via the lure and murder method. Their system for increasing inventory was quickly adopted by a group later known as the London Burkers. Poor Mister Hare, even though equally as infamous as was Mister Burke, did not get equal billing with the London Burkers. I guess that the London Burkers as a name had a better sound bite in the media than the London Hares would have had. In any case, Burke was hanged for his crimes, subsequently dissected (nice of him to have provided one last fresh cadaver on his way out), and his skeleton preserved in the Anatomical Museum at the Edinburgh Medical School. Hare, who had turned Queen's evidence, got a walk. After testifying in Burke's trial, Hare left town under duress (sticks, stones and several different angry mobs). He then disappeared into the world at large. Unless of course, a more surreptitious mob found him walking on the road to England.

Mort safes in a Scottish cemetery
We now return to the problem of fresh cadavers who couldn't seem to remain in their graves. The solution for the more affluent relatives and loved ones of the recently deceased was to have some way to guard the body from body-snatchers. This led to hired watchmen, mort safes and mort houses.

A mort safe was a contraption of various designs built over the grave to deter anyone from digging up and removing the coffin. The so-called safe was usually constructed from thick interlocking metal rods or bands in an accumulative weight so heavy as to make it too difficult  for a grave robber to get at the coffin while trying to work in quiet secrecy during the dead of night. Several examples of these mort safes still exist in some Scottish graveyards.

Udny Mort House
One example of a mort house can be found in the old kirkyard at Udny Green, Aberdeenshire, in northeast Scotland. This house was built in 1832. Its construction costs were intended to be paid for by subscription, however, not enough people signed up, as a result of which the services of the mort house could then be purchased on a body by body basis. The house itself was a circular building with a conical roof covered with slate. The outside door was made of heavy oak and the inside door was iron. Inside the building, and using the same general concept of a lazy-Susan, was a revolving, wooden floor about three feet above the ground. When someone died, their coffin constructed of 7/8ths inch fir boards would be placed on the revolving wood floor, along with any other coffins in the mort house, to set for approximately 90 days each. At the end of this time, the body was considered to have decomposed sufficiently to be safe from body-snatchers. The floor was then rotated, the proper coffin removed and the remains were interred in the appropriate church graveyard. As security for the mort house, four of the initial subscribers were designated as holders for the door keys. All four key holders were required to be present any time the doors were to be unlocked and opened.

The use of mort safes and mort houses gradually fell into disuse a few years after The Anatomy Act of 1832 when other methods of obtaining fresh cadavers, other than grave robbing or executed murderers, became legal. The Udny Mort House itself ceased business in 1836 after its last meeting of the board.

Since grave robbing as an occupation these days has taken a great decline, you can probably now rest in peace, assured that your remains are not likely to be sold at a back alley door to some cutup in the dark of night.

So, sleep well and pleasant dreams this Halloween.

Although, you might want to lock all the doors and turn on the security cameras just to be sure.

10 September 2014

Resurrection Men


by David Edgerley Gates


Ian Rankin published his thirteenth Inspector John Rebus novel, RESURRECTION MEN, in 2002. The story is about a group of cops in a rehab facility - sent down in disgrace because of alcohol or domestic violence issues, or they've fallen afoul of Internal Affairs - but being Rankin, the book is of course about a lot more than that. The title is double-edged, a turn of phrase with a dark history.


In the early 19th century, medical schools relied on the dead bodies of executed criminals for anatomy studies. It was illegal, in that day and age, to leave your body to science. but the supply began to dry up, and it gave rise to a trade in fresh cadavers, and the graves of the newly buried were dug up by body-snatchers, who sold the dead for necropsies. They were known as Resurrection Men. 



Two of these entrepreneurs, Burke and Hare, resident in Edinburgh in late 1827, improved their market share by skipping exhumation and turning to murder. Their victims were the derelict, the sickly, women of the street - people who wouldn't be missed. Over the course of the next year, they killed at least sixteen people, and shopped their corpses to a surgeon named Knox, to use in his anatomical lectures. How much Knox knew, or suspected, is an open question, but certainly he turned a blind eye. After they were caught, Hare turned King's Evidence, in return for immunity, and Burke was hanged. His body, as it happens, was then publicly dissected at the University of Edinburgh. Knox, the doctor, was never prosecuted.


"A wretch who isn't worth a farthing while alive," Sir Walter Scott remarked, "becomes a valuable article when knocked on the head and carried to an anatomist." Scott was being ironic about economies of scale, but as far as I know, he never used this incident as material. Dickens wasn't so shy. One of
his characters in A TALE OF TWO CITIES, Jerry Cruncher, is explicitly a grave-robber. And in 1884, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote a story called "The Body-Snatcher," which stops just short of naming Knox as a knowing accomplice. Stevenson's DR.
JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE is a reimagining of the Whitechapel murders, and there's been some conflation, in books and movies, of Burke and Hare's crimes with Jack the Ripper. The serial killer, as a figure of fear, is a mid-Victorian invention, I believe. Not that somebody might not claim many victims, but that he does it for the sick thrill.


Psychopathology wasn't well-understood, in the 1800's - the term didn't even come into general use until the early 20th century. One of the narrative engines of David Morrell's gripping recent novel, MURDER AS A FINE ART, which takes place in 1854 London, is the lack of any practical forensic approach, and the inability to process, let alone inhabit, the mindset of a serial murderer. It's not simply an unknown, but unimaginable, like an empty space on an old map, which simply states: Here Be Monsters. Burke and Hare took up their trade for the easy money, but the seeming
effortlessness of the murders gives you pause. They displayed no remorse. Burke, in fact, before he went to the scaffold, asked whether Dr. Knox would give him the five pounds he was owed for his last victim, so Burke could buy a new suit of clothes to be hanged in. 

"To know my deed, 'twere best not to know myself," Macbeth says. Burke and Hare apparently avoided any kind of self-knowledge. They denied the humanity of the men and women, and at least one child, that they murdered, but did they deny their own? Neither one of them were crazy, so far as we know, although they were probably a few cards short of a full deck. They were paid five to ten pounds for each dead body they delivered. In today's numbers, between six and twelve hundred bucks. Not too shabby, if you're desecrating a grave in the wee hours, but for a capital crime? The odd thing about these guys is that they were very far from the pathology of the Ripper. There was actually nothing out of the ordinary about them. They were simply dumb enough to get caught.

Maybe that's the thing. It isn't that Burke and Hare live on in our imagination because they were criminal deviants who've evaded detection for 125 years - is the Ripper case solved? More, perhaps,
that Burke and Hare touched a popular nerve at the time, and that a writer like Dickens or Stevenson gives them shelf life. (Burke's skeleton is still on display at the Edinburgh Medical School.) No, the dread lies in the open grave. 

http://www.davidedgerleygates.com/