The advancement of medical knowledge serves to keep us healthier and happier for longer and longer. Whereas prehistoric folk left their old behind when they couldn’t keep up, thanks to a vastly increased life expectancy (and free pensioner bus passes) these days experience seems to overtaking youth in the demographics game. But judging by the hygiene standards of early Victorian medicine, it’s a marvel that this nascent science added days, yet alone years, to anyone’s life.
To understand the intricacies of the human body, some 19th Century doctors took a rather dirty route to acquiring the specimens they needed. Perhaps hiring a body snatcher to disinter the buried, or when a fresher corpse was required, ordering a custom killing – made to murder.
The discovery of a shallow grave behind a townhouse in Haymarket, Edinburgh containing the remains of four children and one child, around 60 disarticulated bones in total, has led to suggestions of unscrupulous behaviour. The remains have been dated to the 19th Century, a time period in which the demand for human cadavers far outstretched the supply. Due to little holes drilled though them for connecting wires, these remains were likely to have been used for anatomical purposes
At this time Edinburgh was a world leader in the study of anatomy and some doctors were prepared to go the extra mile to put themselves and their students on the road to success. That put nefarious men like the infamous William Burke and William Hare in business. This dreadful duo committed no less than 16 murders in Edinburgh, in a ten-month period in 1826. The pair lured people to their house, plying them with alcohol before suffocating them with a method later known as ‘burking’ which left no obvious marking, compressing the chest and covering the mouth and nose. The corpses were then sold on to Dr Robert Knox, a not-so-ethical doctor, who used them to illustrate aspects of anatomy to his students.
The final act in this cautionary tale is the perfect example of why you should never ever go into business with a murderer. Afraid both parties would blame each other making a verdict hard to reach, officials offered Hare his freedom in return for testifying against Burke. Happy to oblige, Hare dished the dirt (or one side of it anyway) and made his own getaway as fast as… well as fast as a hare. Burke wasn’t quite so lucky and an estimated 30,000 turned out to watch his hanging. Ironically his remains were donated to Edinburgh’s medical school to be publicly dissected and studied, the same school to which the pair had sold their ill-gotten bodies.
Although links have been suggested between the recent Edinburgh bone finds and these two crooks, in reality the Burke and Hare corpses would have been much too high quality for the process of reducing to a disarticulated skeleton. Though there’s nothing to say these remains couldn’t be the hastily hidden teaching tools of another deceitful doctor. Ah well, not to worry. ‘For the greater good’, that’s how the saying goes doesn’t it…?
Support great archaeology
DigVentures crowdfunds archaeological projects that everyone can be part of, in the UK and overseas. With help from people all over the world, we investigate the past and publish our discoveries online for free. Support one of our digs and you can choose to excavate alongside our team, or watch our discoveries online!