What value a life?
Not a farthing for the living. Golden Guineas for the dead.
To feed the cravings of men of science.
Fire up the blood. Flesh the hounds. Then let them loose.
Meet Dr Robert Knox, Anatomist.
And Messrs Burke and Hare.
The advances made in medical science during the period of the Scottish Enlightenment gave the City of Edinburgh a European prominence of which the City fathers were proud. Men of intelligence and foresight abounded, not least amongst whom were the surgical anatomists who sought greater knowledge and understanding of the tissues and skeleton of the human body, essential for surgery.
It was a discipline that demanded a regular supply of fresh cadavers. Heavily influenced by the Presbyterian church that considered that dissection of a human body would prevent access to the after-life, the Legislature restricted the corpses lawfully available to anatomists to those dying in prison, orphans, foundlings and suicides.
The law did, however, inadvertently help in an indirect way. It was not theft to take possession of a dead body which could not be owned [although it was a crime to violate a sepulchre] and soon the practice of ‘body snatching’ became prevalent. These ‘resurrectionists’ would disinter newly buried corpses and spirit the bodies off to the schools of anatomy that were willing to pay royally for fresh corpses.
The citizens of Edinburgh railed against the practice and took steps to prevent the dis-internment of their loved ones through the use of mortsafes, the posting of sentries, building unscalable walls around cemeteries and dragging heavy stones onto graves to allow decomposition.
Soon a competitive black market emerged. Anatomists incited and encouraged the practice. They advertised through handbills, worked in league with gangs of body snatchers, used deception to take possession of recently deceased from poor houses. They even allowed students to pay lecture fees by providing corpses. And they paid handsomely for fresh cadavers.
Not least amongst those was Dr Robert Knox, Curator of the Museum of Comparative Anatomy in Edinburgh.
Into this crucible stumbled two Irish navvies, William Burke and William Hare. Having sold the body of a deceased lodger to Dr Knox to recover rent that he owed, these men were encouraged to source more bodies. The rewards were too tempting.
As Sir Walter Scott wrote, these Irishmen made ‘a great discovery of Economics, namely that a wretch who is worth a farthing whilst alive, becomes a valuable article when knocked on the head and carried to an anatomist.’
When, after seeing off another lodger at the boarding house in Tanners Close, the pair realised that they had chanced upon a method of dispatch that confounded medical opinion. Their killing spree began.
Burke and Hare’s association with Dr Robert Knox resulted in 16 murders in less than a year. Yet no medical expert could offer a clear cause of death. All might equally well have died of inebriation.
The wrath of the Edinburgh mob was such that the Crown could not countenance an acquittal. Fearful of the particularly Scottish verdict of Not Proven, the Lord Advocate offered Hare immunity from prosecution if he turned King’s evidence. The trial commenced on Christmas Eve 1828, continued throughout the night and, early on Christmas morning, the Jury returned a unanimous guilty verdict against Burke.
He was hanged at the Lawnmarket at the end of January 1829 before a crowd variously estimated at upwards of 25,000 enraged citizens.
This piece of musical theatre takes a wry look at the tale of Burke and Hare, the World’s first known serial killers. Although, as commentators remarked upon at the time, the real killers might have been the anatomists, particularly Dr Knox who got off scot free.
This production of the well -known story we have entitled – ‘FLESH’. Used as a verb, the word means to give a foretaste to an animal to stimulate and habituate a desire to hunt and kill.
In many respects that is exactly what Dr Robert Knox and these men of science did.