Thursday, October 25, 2012


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...

And now Anna will tell us about the real-life villiains...

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
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!


  1. While gaining medical knowledge and understanding was certainly laudable, not holding the anatomists and medical schools accountable for their unspoken encouragement of the resurrectionists’ actions quite probably led to inevitable extreme to which Burke and Hare took the procurement of cadavers. I suppose this is a philosophical discussion of sorts, given that in the beginning the issue solely concerned the grave-robbing which, while undoubtedly reprehensible and problematic, was probably defensible in terms of seeking scientific enlightenment . . . but as it evolved to its vile extreme, it became indefensible at all levels . . . .

  2. Thanks for the background information. Like most people I knew about Burke and Hare, but not as much of the background as you have given. It is interesting how we evolve, isn't it...Dee

  3. This story is a perfect example of the unintended consequences, isn't it? On the one hand you want doctors to learn more about the human body, but on the other hand that means they have to use an ACTUAL human body. It's an age-old conundrum.

    Your book sounds fascinating, Anna, and I will definitely look forward to reading it.

    I also grew up in a small town in Ohio, in Hamilton (long before it got its exclamation point!), and have lived in Cincinnati now for 42 years. What part of Ohio for you?

  4. There were probably so many impoverished families then, that had the families been given the opportunity to sell the deceased's body for medical science, many would have done so. Wouldn't that have thwarted the criminal element somewhat?

  5. Ah, but Gayle, although poor families might have sold the bodies of their loved ones, you'd have had the same issues we still face with legally assisted suicide. Was the loved one perhaps "helped along" before their time?

    Interesting, isn't it?

  6. I visited Edinburgh once -- in August of 1966 -- for several pouring-down rainy days, and I fell in love. This book sounds as if it will take me to Scotland! Thank you for sharing.
    The background on body-snatching is fascinating!

  7. I love all things Endinburgh, and historical fiction is my favorite, so I can't wait to read your book! I have visited there while living in England and love the city. Even today, people hesitate donating their body to Science. It may never become commonplace. But, I have a couple of Doctor friends who say it was so invaluable in learning their profession. What to do?

  8. Brilliant comments, everyone! Thanks for your input.

    Something I didn't touch on were the religious and superstitious aspects of this issue - the reasons most people so feared having their bodies, and those of their loved ones, dissected postmortem. This is another reason that few impoverished families would have sold the deceased bodies to science. And as Deb said, it certainly would have opened another can of worms.

    Karen, I know exactly where Hamilton is. :) Igrew up in the northwest corner of Ohio, in a small town called Hicksville - yes, that's really it's name. I don't often mention it because most people don't believe it. Unless they're from NYC, since there is also a Hicksville on Long Island - founded by the same man.

    Love Scotland! Such a beautiful place. I'm hoping to go back again next year to do some more research, and just because. :)

  9. Anna, religious and superstitious aspects remain the primary reasons why organ donors and whole body donors remain a small portion of the population, both in the USA and worldwide. Whole body donation garners less than organ donation--social pressure (responsibly done) has increased the availability of donor organs, but whole body donation remains proportionately low.
    As someone who spent more than half her life as a nurse, I understand the need for whole body donors. It provides education not just for medical students, but for other healthcare professionals. I practiced placing my first subclavian line on someone who had graciously donated for medical research and utilization. Most surprising and reassuring was the attitude shown by instructors and students--no jokes, real respect for the person that had been, as well as what we were able to learn.
    Now that I face that final turn of the wheel, I've made the decision of whole body donation. As a whole body donor, I can still donate any organs or parts (skin, bone,etc.), contribute to medical research and education, and best of all for my family, my ashes will be returned at no cost.
    So many professionals invested time, tips, and energy to further my knowledge base and increase my ability to give quality care to my patients. I see this as a small "give forward".
    Cheers to you for bringing such issues to the forefront. Authors do it again!

  10. Thanks for your comment, Diane, and for educating us. It just goes to show how far we've come, and yet how far we still need to go. Much to think about.

  11. Hi Anna– wonderful post! I look forward to reading your book with great anticipation.

    There is still a shortage of bodies for medical students studying anatomy. Many medical educators now question the need, however. Bodies are not valuable for practice, since cutting a fresh body or living person is completely different from cutting a preserved body. Anatomy can be studied very successfully and, in many ways, more effectively, with the use of virtual programs on the computer.

    When medical students do surgery rotations in the hospital, they learn by assisting surgeons, in a carefully-constructed educational program.

    While it is still an accepted tool for learning, many students, for religious reasons, watch others do the dissections and learn very effectively. And since there is a shortage of bodies to study, students take turns with others on dissecting areas of their assigned bodies.

    This topic, that regarding the value of studying anatomy on corpses, is of great interest in medical schools today. I had the opportunity to counsel students as they progressed through their anatomy studies. Most did not want to appear concerned about it in any, but the most proper, way. Many would, however, call me in the middle of the night or stop by my office on another pretext, as they returned to their rooms from the anatomy lab across the road.

  12. I read or maybe listened to a novel a long time ago related to this topic.


    Your book is right up my alley!

    Thanks for coming today.

  13. I'm not a big fan of science for science's sake and to hell with the moral ramifications. Just because we can, doesn't mean we should...HOWever, that said, stealing corpses seems so innocent--you know what I mean?--compared to what's going on these days and what might become possible with genetic engineering, just as an example...

    You're novel sounds great. It's just gone on my to-read list!

  14. Ooh, photos of my favorite city! I love that one can walk down the same streets where such grisly and yet formative events took place. Looking forward to reading your book!

  15. Thanks, everyone! Great discussion. It's interesting to see how technology changes things, even when it comes to anatomy & dissections.

  16. The book sounds fascinating. Your description of body snatchers is a great deal like a horror movie and science fiction all rolled into one. It is an area about which I knew little. Your heroine sounds like a strong woman. Always a plus in any mystery.

  17. endsdpp 29Fascinating history. while it's gruesome, one has to remember all the advances in medical science that came out of 19th-Century University of Ediborough. I didn't know about Burke and Hare but I read How Scotland Invented the Modern World, which in part stressed the knowledge, research and learning center in Ediburgh--so I was most impressed when I first saw it.

  18. How Scotland... is a great book, Judy. Love nonfiction books like that. And I definitely think of my heroine, Kiera as a strong woman. Though, after everything she's been through, she might not think so herself, at least at first.

  19. I was trying to find a recording of the children's rhyme that came out of the infamous case:

    Up the close and down the stair,
    In the house with Burke and Hare;
    Burke's the butcher, Hare's the thief,
    And Knox the boy who buys the beef.

    No such luck, but I did stumble across this musical retelling of the story (can't embed here, so you have to link to see it properly:)


  20. Aaaand I evidently can't embed http address either. Oh, Blogger, you scamp.


  21. Ah Scotland..What can be More exciting then to read Burke and Hare "The Real Body Snatchers"...Walking down The Streets and shivers going through my body..Thanks for Visiting Jungle Reds Anna...They Have Such Good Interviewing Skills...^ ^ Makes such a difference to us...

  22. Anna, although I've never been to Hicksville, it isn't far from where my daughter lived for six years: Perrysburg. And she taught for Owens in Findlay. Small world.

    Such a great discussion. Religion is an enormous influence, on so many aspects of our lives.

  23. Julia:
    The YouTube piece is hilarious! Thanks for sharing the link.

  24. Thanks for posting that Burke & Hare rhyme, Julia! I had forgotten about it, and it's so perfect for the occasion. :)

    And, Karen, it is a small world. I know Perrysburg and Findlay.

  25. OH, Anna. This is amazing. Thank you.

    And gorgeous cover.

  26. Thanks, Hank! I LOVE the cover, too. The people in the Art Dept (namely Leslie Worrell and Larry Rostant) at Berkley are amazing.

    Loved visiting here, Reds! Thanks so much for such a warm welcome and all of your support. And I have to say again, your Family Feud was a hoot at Bcon. :)

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