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Burkers - The Aberdeen Body Snatchers

Now Burke's away, his life's extinct,
And past a' men's protection,
He's made a subject now himsel',
His body's for dissection.
Poor Willie, if his soul be weel,
It's mair than what's expectit,
For by his deeds, (if we may judge),
By him it was neglectit,
But some folk thinks it has nae chance,
In Heaven for to dwell,
If that's the case, there's ae thing sure,
It is consigned to Hell!

William Burke's Hanging in the Lawnmarket a marketplace for Linen in front of St Giles Church in the Royal Mile -  Edinburgh 1829 Burke and Hare were Irish body snatchers and murderers, who worked around Edinburgh's Canongate area - eventually becoming local legends. They hit upon the idea of murdering vulnerable or solitary people (in an attempt not to get caught) so that they could sell the bodies for dissection. Hare turned King's Evidence and so was acquitted, but this secured the conviction of Burke, who was hanged on the 28th January 1829.

The executioner having completed his preparations and placed the signal in Burke's hand, the magistrates, ministers, and attendants left the scaffold. The crowd again set up another long and loud cheer, which was followed by cries for " Hare, Hare!" " Where is Hare ? " " Hang Hare!" and so on. Burke lifted his hands and ejaculated a" prayer of a few sentences—then dropt the napkin, and briefly the drop fell. The struggle was neither long nor apparently severe; but at every convulsive motion, a loud huzza arose from the multitude, which was several times repeated even after the last agonies of humanity were past. During the time of the wretched man's suspension, not a single indication of pity was observable among the vast crowd—on the contrary, every countenance wore the lively aspect of a gala day, while puns and jokes on the occasion were freely bandied about, and produced bursts of laughter and merriment, which were not confined to the juvenile spectators alone—" Burke Hare too !" " Wash blood from the land ! " " One cheer more '" and similar exclamations, were repeated in different directions, until the culprit was cut down, about nine o'clock, when one general and tremendous huzza closed the awful exhibition—and the multitude immediately thereafter began to disperse. Burke's body is to be dissected, and his Skeleton to be preserved, in order that posterity may keep in remembrance his atrocious crimes.

The 'Burkers' Coach' which the travelling people so feared. The 'Burkers' as we know from the original Burke and Hare body snatchers in Edinburgh soon resorted to murder to get fresh corpses for Dr Knox and the 'noddies' in the medical school, and in rural Aberdeenshire in the nineteenth century, traveller folk often camped in their traditional spots, sitting ducks for these men who snatched children and old people from their bow tents in the middle of the night.

Maggie Stewart, an Aberdeen traveller, had a narrow escape from the Burkers, which she tells Hamish Henderson about in Tocher (vol. 5), the School of Scottish Studies' journal of interview extracts. You can listen to Maggie's tale online here.
She describes the fearful coach:

The Burkers' coach wes like a, the shape of an undertaker's thing, like, it wes aa black covert-in, and thir wir some of them 'at only held three men, and thir some of them held four men, and the chains that wes on them wes, thir wir leather roun aboot it, and the horsefeet wes shod wi rubber, and thir wir rubber roun the wheels. So they niver heard nae noise of horses nor naethin when they wir ganging alang the road, they only cried, "Squeak-squawk, squeak-squawk." This wes whit frichtent the auld traivlers, ye see, the noise of the coaches.

Aberdeen had its own share of 'Burking' going on; the old Medico-churgical Hall, the building behind the Arts Centre, was the site of an anatomy theatre, long before the one at Marischal College run by Dr Andrew Moir (Conveniently next door to Lodge Walk police station which had its own mortuary!). Now someone foolishly allowed their dog to root around in the earth behind the Surgeons' hall, and thus Rover dug up bones, human bones, well, that's what the terrified owner thought. So ensued a full-scale riot, with people shouting 'Burn the Burking Shop!' and trying to set fire to both the hall and the place where the anatomy professor lived in the Guestrow.

By the time of the Burkers, anatomists were generally presumed to be body thieves in some capacity, a hostile sentiment graphically underscored during the Aberdeen riots of 1831. When a dog unearthed what looked like a human bone behind the Aberdeen surgical college, a mob coalesced and stormed the lecture hall.  The lecturer (“dirty clever Dr Moir” — little else is known about the man) fled in terror as the hall was burned to the ground. Soldiers and police clashed with the crowd, which was thought to be over 10,000 strong. Hours later, the riot subsided, but Aberdeen was no longer a friendly place for a prospective medical talent.  And where Burke and Hare were still not quite sufficient to convince the House of Lords to take up a measure providing anatomists with alternatives for corpse acquisition, the Burkers and the Aberdeen riots apparently were.  The underground economy of resurrectionists was supplanted by the Anatomy Act of 1832, which allowed individuals to donate themselves or their unwilled kin to science for a pittance of compensation.  A monument stands to this sacrifice at Trinity Cemetery.

Burker's Hoose PDF 1831

Medico-Churgical Hall,
King St, Aberdeen

On the 14th December, 1789, the Aberdeen Medical Society was founded by a group of medical students, of which James McGrigor and James Robertson were the leaders. There had existed previously in Aberdeen two medical student societies, one in 1768, and the other in 1786 but both had withered and died, a fate which did not befall the 1789 foundation.  Over the years this Society gradually established itself and was strengthened by the addition of medical practitioners and honorary members. The name of the Society was changed to the 'Aberdeen Medico-Chirurgical Society' in 1811.
From the earliest days it had been the desire of members that the Society should have its own meeting place. A subscription list was opened in
1812 with the object of acquiring sufficient money to enable the Society to build a Medical Hall. The building in King Street was completed in 1820 to the plans of Archibald Simpson, the distinguished Aberdeen architect at a cost of more than £3,000.

The Library of the Society instituted in 1791 grew rapidly and contained many rare and valuable books. In 1967 the major portion of the library's old and rare medical books was sold, and later the Hall in King Street was sold. The proceeds enabled the Society to build its new Hall on the Foresterhill site, to which the Society moved in 1973.  Over the years the Society has played an important and influential role in the medical life of Aberdeen. It gave advice to the citizens through the Town Council on combating cholera and typhus; it instituted the training and certification of midwives in the city in 1827; it urged in 1867 the necessity of providing a fever hospital; it commented on medical education on many occasions. In 1920 the Society held a special meeting to discuss the question of hospital accommodation for Aberdeen and district. At this meeting Professor Matthew Hay outlined his scheme for co-ordinating the Aberdeen Hospitals and clinical University Departments on a common site. This resulted in the modern hospital and medical school complex at Foresterhill.

This was in 1832, when the Edinburgh resurrectionists were in the middle of their gruesome operations. The Aberdeen riot, and others, were the public response to something in which the authorities would not intervene. Would you believe that stealing a body wasn't a crime? The real crime is breaking into a coffin, (I think!) as did the daft drunk who accidentally broke into the tomb of 'Bloody Mackenzie' in Greyfriar's Kirkyard in Edinburgh!

The same year, the year of the Reform Bill which allowed many more men the vote than in previous years, the Anatomy Act was passed, the gist of it being, if a body ain't claimed by relatives, then the anatomists can get it! Bodies of murderers used to be supplied - and again this links to another very famous, very silly Aberdeen story, of our city's most useless hangman, Johnny Milne of Tullyskukie. He was given the job of hanging a man called Andrew Hosack, whom people believed was a murderer, rather than just a thief, for which he was condemned. So, the public were quite happy to intervene and ensure justice was served -
Hosack was meat for the anatomists, he deserved no better!

Funny isn't it? One minute they're interfering with hangings - the Hosack case was only a few years before the Burker riot, because Milne died in the early
1830s - next minute they want to burn the doctors at the stake for doing the same thing as they wanted them to do to murderers!

necromancy that attracted people like Alexander Skene and Dr John Dee, Queen Elizabeth's alchemist, and of course, Faustus, was a real medieval practice, the act of summoning the spirits of the dead to learn the secrets of the universe! Churchmen felt they had to learn it to be able to perform exorcisms! The Munich Manual was a famous 'grimoire' or magic book which contained the rules for necromancy, its full title being Forbidden Rites, A Necromancer's Manual of the Fifteenth century.


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Last modified: 01/09/2013