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Bodysnatching Through the Centuries



Rob Hardy


If the anatomist Dr. Robert Knox (1791 - 1862) were at work today, he would be astonished at the labs in which cadavers are dissected for educational purposes. What might surprise him most is that the bodies under the knife were often volunteers who had before their deaths arranged for their mortal remains to bestow enlightenment. There is no shame now in being on the anatomist's slab; giving your body up to be studied is rather to be commended. Knox had to do things differently. Anatomists and medical students in Edinburgh, even though it was one of the centers of medical education at the time, got their subjects mostly by digging up specimens that had been freshly buried, or paying diggers to do so. The diggers, jauntily called "Resurrection Men," provided cadavers for a fee. And in the famous case of William Burke and William Hare, they not only provided Knox with cadavers, they manufactured fresh specimens by murdering people and then claiming to have dug them up. The infamy of Burke and Hare is probably the only reason Knox is remembered now. The trio were operating almost two centuries ago, and they certainly were not the only ones in the world involved in the cadaver trade, and Burke and Hare were not the only murderers in it. Their crime, however, is the only well-known instance of body snatching, and is also the most famous crime from Scotland; the world will not let it go. Why there should be such permanence is a main theme of The Doctor Dissected: A Cultural History of the Burke and Hare Murders (Oxford University Press) by Caroline McCracken-Flesher, a fascinating look at how the murders have resounded through almost two hundred years of literature and drama.  




The author has not told the historical story of the murders themselves at length. The world's fascination with the macabre tale has meant that there are plenty of such histories to tell how Burke and Hare would get their livings. The two were Irish immigrants to Scotland, and although anti-Irish sentiment was not attached to them while they lived, there has been an anti-Irish theme in some of the subsequent stories. Digging up bodies from cemeteries and selling them to anatomists was a crime, to be sure, but it was an open dirty secret; science had to march on somehow. But Burke and Hare lured with alcohol and promises of hospitality at least sixteen people who were not cemetery residents, and used the technique of sitting on their chests and holding their noses until they expired. Indeed, "to Burke" became synonymous with "to suffocate" at the time of the trial for the crimes. Burke was hanged, and in what was seen as a fitting indignity, his body was anatomized (and his skin was tanned to make various household objects). Hare had turned state's evidence, so he escaped prosecution and was eventually lost in obscurity. It is perhaps the unfinished punishment that plays a role in the way the crimes continue to gnaw in Scottish mythology. 




A far more important reason for the far-flung fame of the crimes is that Dr. Knox was never tried in the case. What did Knox know and when did he know it? The question has never been conclusively answered. Knox was an enlightened medical educator within a prestigious medical community. He went along with the general acceptance of doctors getting a covert supply of cadavers for their training. When the time for Burke's trial came, Knox was silent. He must have thought himself innocent, and not culpable for asking questions even when the body of "Daft Jamie," an amiable mentally retarded man well known on the streets of Edinburgh, showed up for its turn on the slab. Knox may have presumed that Scotland would regard him as above any sordid criminality because of his prestige, and claimed the position of victim when his silence was criticized. He did write to the papers complaining of his treatment and insisting that everyone else ought to be quiet about his case. He himself kept quiet; he was an orator, and published books, and he said years later that he could have proven his innocence if he had spoken up, but he never did. Rioters broke his windows, and eventually he had to leave Edinburgh. 




No one else spoke for him, but others spoke about him. One of those was Sir Walter Scott, who McCracken-Flesher says could have shut down the national scandal by writing a "riotous popular retelling into one manageable history, [to] bring all speculation to an end." A national literary hero, Scott was interested in the case, and others interested in it prevailed upon him to take it up. He thought Knox culpable, but he did not take part in the sorts of retelling that McCracken-Flesher details here through the years. "Doing nothing, Scott exhumed and disturbed everything. It was he who animated a local trauma to walk down the years in Scottish culture and even beyond." 




Most of the story in this book is about how that unresolved trauma worked itself into Scottish and international lore. The Court of Cacus came out in 1861, a novel invoking history and religion to explain Burke and Hare's dark deeds, but not looking much at Knox. Lucy, the Factory Girl of 1858 put Knox center stage, but was also written by a millennialist who fit him into a tale of the end times, like our own culture's Left Behind is for us. (These stories always fall into the past and are always wrong. So far!). More serious as literature were the efforts of Robert Louis Stevenson, who finally gave a clear implication of Knox's guilt in his Gothic tale "The Body Snatcher." (Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi were in the movie.) McCracken-Flesher also makes the case that Knox is a source of the main character in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Jekyll was a chemist, not an anatomist or physician, but he is closely aligned with the medical profession, and like Knox he refuses to confess any secrets in what he says "is a private matter." Furthermore, the descent into Hyde represents some of the anthropological ideas that Knox was to write about in his later career. Finally, I was surprised and happy to be reminded that there is a body-snatching link to Stevenson's hilarious and neglected black comedy (which he wrote with his stepson Lloyd Osbourne) The Wrong Box of 1889, which has an absurdly complicated plot centering on a misidentified body carted up in different ways and sent from one distressed recipient to another. 




It is hard to imagine that there is any literary or cinematic aspect of the crime that McCracken-Flesher has overlooked. James Bridie's play (later film) The Anatomist of 1930 broadened complicity to society as a whole. Alasdair Gray's Poor Things of 1992 concentrated on the victims of the murders telling their stories. Alfred Hitchcock had a go at it, and so did Dylan Thomas. Burke and Hare have turned up in video games, in Smallville, and as camp personalities in fringe musicals. The Edinburgh Dungeon has a new exhibit about them. McCracken-Flesher writes, "We have only to think of tartanry with its remnant of Jacobitism, still alive in Princes Street and cannily embraced by skeptical Scots, to realize that the unimaginable horrors of Burke and Hare are likely to continue to lurk alongside more colorful and less threatening cultural imaginations in the making of tomorrow's Scotland." It is funny and bizarre to think that these horrific crimes have been handled in so many different ways. This thorough book even documents that the three men show up in an old nursery rhyme for jumping rope: 




Doun the close and up the stair, 


But an' ben wi' Burke and Hare. 


Burke's the butcher, Hare's the thief, 


Knox, the boy that buys the beef. 




There is no sign, two centuries on, that interest in the case will diminish. You can't keep the resurrection men down. 




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