The Body-Snatchers

3D front cover of Great Artists and Great Anatomists by Robert KnoxWilliam Burke (1792–1829) and William Hare (dates of birth and death uncertain) had an occupation as well as a first name in common. The were the most notorious of the ‘Resurrection Men’, who made a living from supplying dead bodies to the various medical and anatomical schools. The extra twist which brought them national fame was that they saved themselves the trouble of digging up newly buried bodies by murdering people and selling the corpses.

In England, dissection had been illegal until Henry VIII, in 1540, gave the Guild of Barber-Surgeons the right to the corpses of four hanged criminals a year. The Murder Act of 1752 allowed the judge in capital cases to allow the hanged body to be handed over for dissection, but a combination of increasing numbers of medical schools and the legal reforms which significantly reduced the number of crimes which carried the death sentence meant that, by the end of the eighteenth century, demand for corpses was exceeding supply.

Hence the rise of the body-snatching trade, immortalised in fiction by Dickens in the person of Jerry Cruncher, the ‘honest tradesman’ in A Tale of Two Cities, whose fingers are always covered in rust, who goes out frequently in the depths of night, and who is unnerved by the watchword ‘Recalled to life’. Interfering with graves was a misdemeanour in law (hence punished by a fine or imprisonment rather than transportation or death) and the rewards were sufficient to make many people take the risk.

To attempt to prevent the violation, relatives of the deceased sometimes watched the body before burial, and the grave afterwards, until they judged the body was sufficiently decomposed to be useless. In Scotland, especially, watchtowers were built in graveyards, and iron coffins, or graves in which the coffin was encaged in a ‘mortsafe’, became common.

Burke and Hare were both Irishmen who ended up in Scotland, casual labourers and heavy drinkers. In 1827, a lodger of Hare’s died, owing him £4. To get the money back, the pair decided to sell the body (which was removed from its coffin, a load of bark being substituted, and put in a sack) to one of the many anatomists in Edinburgh, most of whom were prepared to pay the Resurrection Men and not ask questions. They were going to approach Alexander Munro, the university’s professor of anatomy, but a well-meaning student sent them off in the direction of his own tutor, Robert Knox, Fellow of the College of Surgeons of Edinburgh and professor of anatomy at a private college in the city.

Knox paid £7 10s. for the corpse, and, over the next year, at Hare’s instigation, the pair committed at least fifteen more murders, selling twelve bodies to Knox. Burke – a plausible and charming individual, apparently – lured derelict people to their house with a promise of accommodation, and got them drunk. Hare then held their lips shut while Burke sat on the victim’s chest until s/he was suffocated. (At the time, this method was not forensically detectable.) The pair were finally caught when, on 31 October 1828, they murdered an old woman (allegedly a relative of Burke’s) in a way which roused the suspicion of the neighbours. The police were called, and found the body in a box in Knox’s cellar.

Burke and Hare were charged with three murders. Hare turned King’s Evidence, and was eventually released – it is not know what became of him or when he died. Burke confessed everything, and he and his partner, Nelly MacDougal were tried on 23 December. MacDougal received the Scots law verdict of ‘not proven’ and was released.

Burke was found guilty, sentenced to death – the judge directing that he should be publicly dissected – and hanged in front of a crowd which included Sir Walter Scott on 28 January 1829. The dissection was carried out by Alexander Munro, and the skeleton, formerly on display, remains in the collection of the anatomical museum of the university.

And what of the surgeon Robert Knox? In spite of the body in his cellar, he was not called among the 55 witnesses at the trial, and Burke claimed that he bought the bodies without any knowledge of the murders. But, perhaps not surprisingly, Knox was tainted by the association, and his enormously promising career effectively came to an end.

Born in 1791, Knox qualified as a surgeon in Edinburgh (ironically, he had trouble passing his anatomy exam under the incompetent tuition of Alexander Munro, whose lectures later bored Charles Darwin). He spent two years as an army surgeon in the aftermath of Waterloo, and was the sent to South Africa, where he began his studies in ethnology and made himself unpopular through his vehemently anti-colonialist views.

Knox returned to Britain on half-pay at the end of 1820, but after a few months went to Paris, where he studied under Cuvier, St Hilaire and other anatomists. Back in Edinburgh in 1822, he continued research in anatomy, and persuaded the College of Surgeons there to organise a museum of anatomy and pathology, of which he became the conservator. Meanwhile, he had bought a share in his own old medical college, and started teaching there, greatly enlarging the size of the institution through his diligence and the effectiveness of his lecturing. He was a member of the Wernerian Society and the Royal Society of Edinburgh, contributing learned papers on a variety of topics. He prospered, married, and was a devoted family man. But then he met Burke and Hare…

It seems that Knox simply did not believe that anyone could see him as complicit in their murderous activities, and he took no public steps to defend or justify himself. However, the public clearly believed the worst of him, and there were ballads, cartoons, and newspaper and periodical articles all hinting at his guilt. Scott referred to him as the ‘learned carcass-butcher’, and an effigy of him was strangled and torn to pieces outside his house.

An enquiry was set up which exonerated Knox of any complicity in the murders, but it seems that he never performed a human dissection again, and he was effectively shunned by Edinburgh society. The deaths of his wife and three of his children, accusations of plagiarism, and the falling off of students from his classes, all drove him to leave Edinburgh for London. He died in 1862, bitter and cynical, but continuing to research, publish and work in hospitals almost to the end.

In 1852, Knox published Great Artists and Great Anatomists, which explores the influence of anatomy on evolutionary theories and fine art respectively. He maintains (seven years before On the Origin of Species) that descriptive anatomy can give answers to questions surrounding the origin and development of life, without a need for religious belief in creation. The second part of the book is concerned with the significance of anatomical understanding in the painting and sculpture of the Italian Renaissance, and focuses on ‘the immortal trio’ of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael.

We have also reissued an admiring biography by Knox’s pupil and staunch colleague Henry Lonsdale (1816–76). Drawing on surviving correspondence and information gathered from friends and colleagues, this 1870 work stands as a robust defence and sympathetic portrait of a prominent yet controversial figure in the history of nineteenth-century medicine.


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One Response to The Body-Snatchers

  1. Pingback: Roget’s Thesaurus | Cambridge Library Collection Blog

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