Friday, January 20, 2012

Burke & Hare

On January 28th, for the 1st time in its 127-year history, the Anatomy Museum at the University of Edinburgh will open its doors to the public - and will continue to do so from 10am-4pm on the last Saturday of every month. The date is of particular importance, since it is the 183rd anniversary of William Burke’s execution. If you know about the history of anatomy, the name will need no further explanation, and is forever linked to his accomplice William Hare. The pair are infamous 19th c. bodysnatchers who committed at least 15 (and possibly as many as 30) murders for the money they could make supplying Scottish anatomists, including Dr. Robert Knox (1791-1862), immortalized in rhyme. While most of their fellow "resurrectionists" were exhuming newly-buried bodies from their graves to be used as cadavers, Burke and Hare found it easier to lure victims to their deaths (by smothering) and thereby a) ensure the freshness of their products and b) avoid the mess entailed in harvesting them from the ground. Though equally culpable for the appalling crimes, the 2 Williams suffered very different fates and are therefore represented by contrasting specimens in the museum:

William Burke
(1792- 1829)
After arrest, Burke was tried in Dec. 1828 for the murder of one of the victims, found guilty, and sentenced to death and public dissection. Burke's body is to be dissected, and his Skeleton to be preserved, in order that posterity may keep in remembrance his atrocious crimes,” read the handbill that circulated at the time. He was hanged before a crowd of 20,000 on Jan. 28th, 1829, and his body was brought to Dr. Alexander Monro tertius (1773-1859), Dr. Knox’s rival. During his dissection, the anatomist made a death mask, the cast of which was recently found in storage at Inveraray jail in Argyll (1st image, held by Director of the Anatomy Department Dr. Gordon Findlater). After some 24,000 people filed past Burke's mutilated body, his skeleton (2nd image) was processed and his skin was tanned so that it could be crafted into souvenirs.

William Hare
(1792/1804 - ?)
Because there was insufficient evidence to secure a conviction against he and his partner, Hare was convinced to turn King's evidence and testify against Burke. His fate after his release is unclear. Some believe he left Edinburgh for Dumfries and was afterward seen in Carlisle. Others think he made his way to London, was blinded after being thrown into a lime pit, and spent the rest of his life on the street as a beggar. All that remains is speculation, an illustration, and a life mask (3rd image).

Those curious about the history of anatomy and dissection may wish to preorder my 6th book, Dissection on Display, which has now been announced for publication this spring/summer!

Thanks, Sue!

1 comment:

  1. Congratulations on the new book! Is there a way I can get it autographed?


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