We try to trace a line from a from our topic to Frankenstein and Gothic literature. This week it’s pretty simple. The gothic preoccupation with death and confronting the gruesome fate of the body after death is explored in a wide variety of texts vampire and zombie fiction explores ideas of the undead, corpses that come back to prey on the living and ghosts and spectres present a more ethereal threat which occurs when the soul or spirit is separated from the physical body at death. Relating our topic to Frankenstein is even simpler; How did Frankenstein get his corpses?
We’re going to talk about body snatchers, grave robbers and the Resurrectionists today. This post will have information from my research, for Courtney’s research I would highly recommend listening to the episode.
Courtney hosts a podcast with her best friend Ashley called The Cult of Domesticity. They explore intriguing, disturbing and entertaining stories of true crime, disaster and history.
Body Snatchers – A 19th-century Origin Story
In the early 1800s, surgery and anatomical study were flourishing. Hundreds of young doctors studied diligently in medical schools, and many I dare say substantially less diligently. Theoretical knowledge of what squidgy bit did what and which bits to cut was all well and good, but what they really `needed to hone their skills was an actual human body to dissect.
Today cadavers are often donors who give their bodies to science. But the people Regency and Victorian England were quite a bit more religious and superstitious. Donations were not forthcoming.
The only legitimate source of cadavers was from the gallows. Criminals sentenced to death would be sent to medical schools as subjects.
This had some drawbacks. For a start, all of the subjects died from the same cause. Second, the bodies had to be dissected very quickly as preservation techniques were pretty much non-existent. Third this influx of cadavers was not nearly enough to keep all the schools supplied.
As tends to happen when something is in high demand and heavily regulated, a black market sprung up to fill the need. Grave Robbers, Body Snatchers, The Resurrectionists, whatever you call them, they began making a tidy profit from digging up fresh graves and selling the cadavers to medical institutions and schools.
The need for fresh cadavers meant that thieves would often hover just out of sight while the funeral was still in progress.
Grieving families started alarming their loved one’s graves, or keeping vigil until the cadaver was useless to the body snatchers.
In summer medical schools undertook fewer dissections because the heat made it harder to store bodies. A fresh cadaver could fetch 8 pounds. In winter the schools conducted way more dissections so demand was higher and you could get 10 pounds a corpse. That is about one thousand American dollars and one thousand and two hundred Australian dollars at the time of recording.
But Robbing Graves was becoming a high-risk venture, and before long people started resorting to other means for obtaining a fresh corpse.
In England The anatomist William Harvey who was famous for discovering the circulatory system dissected his father and sister after their death. The London Burkers killed three boys and attempted to sell them to an anatomist who blew the whistle on them. At least one of the trio claimed to have robbed between 500- 1000 graves.
And in Edinburgh Scotland Burke and Hare had a system.
Scotland’s Fresh Cadaver Delivery Service
It all started in 1827 when a lodger called Donald died in the boarding house Hare ran. Having heard there was money to be made in selling fresh corpses they brought the guy from upstairs to a guy called Doctor Robert Knox who needed a supply of bodies for his anatomy lectures. Hare rationalized this by reminding himself and Burke that Donald owed him four pounds in unpaid rent.
Knox paid them seven pounds and 10 shillings. This was no small amount. And bolstered by the windfall they went back to their jobs.
When another lodger called Joseph contracted some sort of fever Hare became concerned she might deter lodgers.
So he called over his mate burke and they suffocated him with a pillow and sold his body to Knox.
The next victim is an unnamed Englishman selling tinder and matches who fell ill with jaundice while staying at the boarding house.
They developed a new method that they would use for most of the subsequent victims. Hare smothered the man’s face with his hand and Burke lay on top of him to prevent him from moving and flailing around noisily. Again Hare said he did it, for the good of this business…. Because you know the non-contagious condition of jaundice might scare away customers. In no way was it motivated by the 10 pounds they got for from Knox.
Abigail Simpson possibly next, accounts differ. She was a pensioner, who also sold salt and was travelling from the village of Gilmerton. They got her drunk and shoved her in a tea chest and sold her to Knox.
Maybe a month later Hare’s wife lured in an old lady and got her so drunk she passed out, Hare then covered her mouth and nose with a mattress cover and left her to slowly suffocate. Again Knox took the body, no questions asked.
It was then Burke’s turn to lure Janet Brown and Mary Paterson with alcohol. They went on a bender together, eventually ending up at Burke’s brother’s house. His Brother went to work and Mary Paterson passed out. That left Janet Brown and Burke up talking when Burke’s girlfriend Helen McDougal burst in accusing Burke of cheating on her. Both women left, angry with Burke leaving Mary Paterson passed out. Alone.
Her friend Janet would later be told she ran off to Glasgow with a salesman.
Burke rushed out and grabbed his buddy, Hare. They went back to the house, Mary was still asleep. They suffocated her, and shoved her in the same tea chest as Abigail Simpson, selling her to Knox and keeping her petticoats for Helen, Burke’s girlfriend.
Knox was delighted as the corpse was still warm.
People were going missing, and their relatives began to look for them. Mrs Haldane, who was smothered in an intoxicated slumber, had a daughter possibly called Peggy who came looking for her.
Burke listened to her story and they got talking., talking turned to drinking. Burke killed her without assistance for the first time, then shoved her in the tea chest and collected his 8 pounds.
There are 16 murders in total to get through. Including a range of unnamed intoxicated lodgers, a homeless salvager called Effy and even a visiting relative of Helen’s called Ann.
The tea chest got a lot of use and all the while Dr. Knox is not bothered by any of this.
At this point, Hare’s wife Margaret Hare suggests to her husband that they should kill Helen because she was “Scotch”. The Hares and Burke were Irish. Thankfully he refused.
Their second last victim was unfortunately known as Daft Jimmy. Daft Jimmy preferred snuff to alcohol. So their usual trick just didn’t work. He fought back. But the murderers prevailed.
However, Daft Jimmy was a familiar face on the streets of London, and Knox’s students recognised him at the initial inspection. So Knox presented Jimmy’s cadaver headless and without feet.
Other lodgers made the final murder very difficult for Burke and Hare.
The murder of Michelle Doherty was supposed to take place at the Broggan boarding house. Trusting a fellow person from Ireland she drank with the Hares. Everything went wrong. Fellow lodgers, Ann and James Gray, were so obstructive that they paid for them to stay at Hare’s lodging house. The Gray’s were witnesses to the drinking party and the next morning they came back and discovered the body in a pile of straw.
The police were called.
The two were arrested.
Hare turned state’s witness and after the trial, he disappeared into the night. Margaret also turns states evidence
Helen and Margaret upon their separate releases were chased by mobs… I cannot believe Margaret and William Hare got off pretty much scot-free3.
Knox the doctor who …totally knew what was going on was found entirely without fault which was crazy, and that was because Burke said Knox knew nothing about it.
“docter Knox never incoreged him neither taught or incoregd him to murder any person”.
William Burke was found guilty sentenced to death and was hanged on the 28th of January 1829 in front of a crowd of over 20,000 people.
His body was sent for public dissection and students fought for tickets.
Professor Monro lead the dissection and dramatically dipped a quill in Burke’s blood
and wrote “This is written with the blood of Wm Burke, who was hanged at Edinburgh. This blood was taken from his head”
His death mask and a book supposedly bound with HIS TANNED SKIN are on display in the Surgeon’s Hall museum…
His skeleton on display at Edinburgh Medical School.
So that’s the story of William Burke and William Hare.
Up the close and doon the stair,
But and ben’ wi’ Burke and Hare.
Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief,
Knox the boy that buys the beef.
— 19th century Edinburgh rhyme
Thank you to Courtney from Cult of Domesticity for joining me and contributing so much to the conversation!
And another huge thank you to Tom of Gallus Girls and Wayward Women for reading the Burke and Hare poem.
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