DEBORAH CROMBIE: Now, what could be more fun with Halloween coming up than real ghouls? Anna Lee Huber is here to tell us about Burke and Hare, the infamous Edinburgh body snatchers. When I lived in Edinburgh, I could never walk through the Old Town without a little shiver at the thought of those two.
Anna Lee Huber knows whereof she speaks--her debut novel, The Anatomist's Wife, the first in the Lady Darby historical mystery series, is set in Scotland in 1830.
Following the death of her husband, Lady Darby has taken refuge at her sister's estate, finding solace in her passion for painting. But when her hosts throw a house party for the cream of London society, Kiera is unable to hide from the ire of those who believe her to be as unnatural as her husband, an anatomist who used her artistic talents to suit his own macabre purposes. Kiera wants to put her past aside, but when one of the house guests is murdered, her brother-in-law asks her to utilize her knowledge of human anatomy to aid the insufferable Sebastian Gage-a fellow guest with some experience as an inquiry agent. While Gage is clearly more competent than she first assumed, Kiera isn't about to let her guard down as accusations and rumors swirl. When Kiera and Gage's search leads them to even more gruesome discoveries, a series of disturbing notes urges Lady Darby to give up the inquiry. But Kiera is determined to both protect her family and prove her innocence, even as she risks becoming the next victim...
When people hear the words “body snatcher,” they instantly respond with fear and disgust. They picture shifty, ghoulish characters digging in a cemetery on a moonless night, robbing someone’s loved ones of their eternal peace, and their belongings. But what they don’t often understand is why body-snatching became so prevalent and necessary in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
Prior to the passage of the Anatomy Act of 1832, British medical schools had difficulty procuring cadavers for their anatomy classes, because only the bodies of executed criminals could be used for this purpose, which amounted to only about two to three bodies annually per school. In the 1700s there had been hundreds of convicts executed each year for often trivial crimes, but late in the century, changes in the laws, and the introduction of the sentence of transportation, shrank that number to just over fifty. More medical schools and private anatomical schools were being established each day, and without fresh corpses they couldn’t give their students the hands-on experience they needed. Not to mention the hindrance this was to serious anatomists trying to better understand the human body and the way diseases affected it.
Thus began the widespread practice of body snatching, where recently buried bodies were stolen from their graves and sold to medical schools and anatomists for their use. It was a lucrative trade, and these resurrectionists, as they were called, became very good at it, often disturbing the grave sights so little that relatives couldn’t tell their loved ones had been taken. Until the coffin was checked. The body snatchers were even careful not to steal valuables or clothes from the graves they robbed because the charge of stealing a corpse was only a misdemeanor, with a fairly light punishment, while theft of property was a felony. Anatomists and medical schools knew fully well where these bodies were coming from, but chose to look the other way for the sake of education and medical advancement.
Meanwhile, the public was horrified by the practice. Relatives often set up watches over their loved ones’ graves to make sure their final resting places were not violated while the body was still fresh enough to interest resurrectionists. They began using iron coffins, and mortsafes—a framework of iron bars erected over a grave to deter body snatchers. The cemeteries near the medical schools in London and Edinburgh increased their own security measures, hiring night watchmen to patrol the grounds and stand guard in watchtowers built specifically for that purpose.
The practice of body snatching was so common that in 1831 one gang of grave robbers confessed to stealing as many as 1000 bodies over twelve years. Anatomists paid approximately 8-10 guineas per corpse, depending on how fresh the body was and whether it had any interesting abnormalities. It was such a profitable trade, that enterprising criminals soon sought to take advantage of it, the most famous of whom were Burke and Hare, two laborers in Edinburgh.
Rather than risk being caught while performing the difficult labor of disinterring bodies from the heavily guarded local cemeteries, they began inviting victims to their lodging house, plying them with alcohol, and smothering them to death. They then sold the bodies to the Surgeons’ Hall at the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, namely to well-known anatomist and lecturer Dr. Robert Knox. Burke and Hare were caught in November of 1828, but not before they murdered sixteen people. The case lacked sufficient evidence, so Hare was convinced to testify against his partner, and escaped prosecution. Burke was hanged on January 28, 1829, and afterward his body was transported to the University of Edinburgh to be publicly dissected. His death mask, skeleton, and several articles made from his tanned skin, including a book cover, are on display at the university’s Surgeons’ Hall Museum. Dr. Knox escaped prosecution, but public opinion turned sharply against him for his part in providing incentive for the murders.
After the trial of Burke and Hare, citizens in London and Edinburgh were panicked by the idea that similar enterprising criminals might be at work, murdering hapless citizens and selling their bodies to anatomists and medical schools. Medical schools were forced to pay closer attention to where their bodies were procured, and legislation reform became a necessity.
Do you think the anatomists and medical schools quest for better medical treatment and scientific understanding justified the resurrectionists’ actions? Or should they have been held more accountable?
Anna Lee Huber was born and raised in a small town in Ohio. She is a graduate of Lipscomb University in Nashville, TN, where she majored in Music and minored in Psychology. The Anatomist's Wife has been hailed as “…a riveting debut…” and will be released by Berkley Publishing on November 6th, 2012. She currently lives in Indiana with her husband and troublemaking tabby cat. When not hard at work on her next novel, she enjoys reading, singing, travel, and spending time with her family. Visit her website at www.annaleehuber.com
Or find her on Facebook at: AnnaLeeHuber
Or Twitter at AnnaLeeHuber
· Calton Cemetery: A view over the wall into Calton Cemetery in Edinburgh – notice the watchtower
· Lawnmarket at night: A view down Lawnmarket from Castle Hill at night
· Old Town Edinburgh: A view of Old Town from New Town
· Surgeons Hall: 19th century drawing of the Surgeons’ Hall at the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh
. St Giles Cathedral: St Giles Cathedral, at one end of the historical Lawnmarket, where Burke was executed
Anna Lee will be giving away a copy of The Anatomist's Wife to one of our lucky commenters, so be sure to come back on Friday when I'll announce the winner!