The Cadaver Business

You stand, immobile, contemplating your options, a drop of rain running down the back of your neck, having finally found a way in. You look to your left, at the lamp-lit street, veiled by the driving rain. You look straight ahead, through the iron railings, into the darkness beyond.

You shiver as the rain advances down your back, your coat no longer strong enough to keep it out. Soon the fabric is suctioned to your back, just as your trousers are to your legs and your socks to your feet. You look left again, your brain urging you on. You rationalise that if you walk fast, it won’t take you that long. You’re wet through anyway, so what does it matter? You look forward again, into the darkness; into the shelter of the trees; into the cemetery.

You make your decision.

The old gate groans as you lean you bodyweight against it, and you slip through the gap into the solitude. The drumming of the rain is muted by the expansive canopies of the yew trees, which seem to absorb the sound, just as they absorb the sadness of the ground they guard.

The path is even, if unlit, and you know that providing you keep focused on the ground in front of you, you will not stray onto the uneven pitted lawns, where the stones have fallen like soldiers in battle and the tombs have collapsed in on themselves. You shudder at this thought; at what might await you should you stray from the path. It never ends well.

The weight of the rain is too much for the yews and, in patches, the raindrops weep through, like the tears of a mourner, making a pattering sound on the path. You tune into the sound as its rhythm becomes hypnotic; soporific.

Then the rhythm changes and you stop, straining your ears to hear. Sure enough, there is another rhythm – footsteps – but more than one set. You spin around, but cannot see through the blanket of darkness.

‘Hello?’ you call, but there is no reply. The footsteps continue, moving towards you.

‘Who’s there?’ you call again, but still no one answers.

You turn back the way you were heading and pick up the pace. That’s when you feel your legs kicked out from under you. You land, hard, on your back; the air being forced from your lungs on impact.

Before you have a chance to sit up, a weight lands on your chest, pinning your arms to your sides. You struggle, trying to dislodge the owner of one set of the footsteps, but you are held firm.

You start to scream, but your jaw is forced shut, causing you to bite your tongue, bringing tears to your eyes. Another hand is clamped over your nose and mouth, making it impossible for you to get any air into your lungs.

You thrash around; adrenalin coursing through your veins as your body demands that you fight. You brace your feet on the floor and buck your body, trying to dislodge your assailants, but they are too strong; their hold on you too tight.

You toss from side to side, the movements getting slower and slower as your muscles scream for oxygen. Your hearing is becoming dull and echo-like, as though you are under water. You are becoming light headed; black and white dots forming before your eyes. You feel woozy, like you do when you are going to faint and, as the rushing feeling starts in your body – a feeling like you are being dragged at high speed – an image of the lamp lit street comes into your mind.

You allow your body to go limp; allow the blackness to overtake. What choice do you have? You have been burked.

As I stood there that night, shivering in the cold dark cemetery, barely recovered from the tale of premature burial, another tale my guide did weave. ‘A local tale’, she said and smiled. Was that pride I detected in her voice; saw in her smile?

Whilst the tale was indeed a local one, the perpetrators were not. The West Port murders didn’t start out this way; didn’t start out as murders for two immigrant Irishmen, William Burke and William Hare. No, it all started out as a simple transaction to recoup money that was owed to them. But before we go into the details, let me set the scene.

It was Edinburgh in 1828, a time when medical science was taking off; a time when understanding human anatomy was so pervasive, that anatomy courses were packed out; and a time when the demand for bodies to dissect was high, whilst the legal supply of such bodies was too low. Why, you may ask? One reason was that the bodies of executed criminals, the prime source for medical cadavers, was drying up due to a reduction in the number of executions being carried out.

As with any supply and demand imbalance, it soon became very lucrative to supply corpses to medical schools in Edinburgh and it didn’t take long for the body snatchers to spring up. Despite the public revulsion, this trade flourished.

And now I will resume my story, as it was to this trade that Messrs Burke and Hare turned, when a tenant died, owing them £4 in back rent. Instead of taking it on the chin, they filled his coffin with bark and sold his body to Dr Robert Knox, at Edinburgh University, for £7.10s, making £3.10s profit. Not a bad way to earn a living, they did think. The trouble was, people didn’t just die in their boarding house and they didn’t feel the need to resort to grave robbing, when they had a few ideas of their own.

So, instead of following in the footsteps of any self-respecting Edinburgh body snatcher, Burke and Hare decided to take matters into their own hands. Their first victim was a sick tenant, whom they plied with alcohol and then smothered, by sitting on his chest, forcing his jaw closed and then covering his nose and mouth so he couldn’t breathe.

With no other sick tenants at their disposal, they modified their M.O. and started to lure people in off the street. All in all they murdered 16 people, receiving between £7 and £10 per body. They were finally caught when a lodger found the body of Mary Docherty hidden under her bed.

Hare was persuaded to turn King’s evidence against Burke, their partnership suddenly as inconsequential as the lives they’d snuffed out.

Burke was charged with three of the murders and convicted on Christmas Day 1828 for the murder of Mary Docherty. He was hanged on 28 January 1829 in front of a crowd of between 20,000 and 25,000 people. His body, as part of his sentence, was publicly dissected the following day (an eye for an eye?), with riots only being averted after one of the university professors allowed people in, fifty at a time, to view the corpse.

The skeleton of William Burke remains on display today, in the University of Edinburgh Anatomy Museum, while his death mask and items made from his tanned skin are on exhibition at Surgeon’s Hall. A calling card case, also made from his skin, can be found on display at the Police Information Centre in Edinburgh’s Royal Mile.

Hare was finally released from prison in February 1829 and was escorted out of Edinburgh. He is believed to have eventually fled to England, where his trail disappears.

The Anatomy Act of 1832, finally put an end to body snatching, by expanding the legal supply of medical cadavers, encouraging those with legal custody of dead bodies, to send them to medical schools before burial, so they might be used for study of anatomy and practise of surgery. Many people leave their bodies to medical science today, for just this purpose. The act also ended anatomising, as part of the death sentence for murder.

To burke is defined as ‘to murder in such a way as to leave no marks on the body, usually by suffocation’ OR ‘to get rid of, silence, or suppress’ and the name is attributed to the M.O. of Messr(s) Burke (and Hare).

And that is the key to their crimes; there were no marks. In fact, if it wasn’t for Ann Grey, Mary Docherty may well have ended up on Dr Knox’s table and Messrs Burke and Hare may well have continued in business for many years to come.

So, take heed, dear reader, and keep your ears alerted at all times. For, if you hear someone use the word burke (and indeed they well might), then keep a watchful eye on your loved ones, just in case the cadaver business has re-opened its doors.

May fear protect you when the darkness comes.

Til next time.