Hugh Douglas – Burke & Hare: The True Story of the Bodysnatchers (Nel, August 1974)
Nineteenth century Britain, never before so prosperous or so powerful, led the World in scientific knowledge, and inventions. And in Edinburgh, that shining city of the north, were the famous halls of medicine where the renowned surgeons worked.
But festering beneath the wealthy exterior was the terrible poverty, the near-slavery conditions of the-factories, the cruel blood-bath that surgery really was, without anaesthetics or anatomical knowledge. The traffic in dead bodies for doctors to study wag just one of the scandals of the times, and no more so than the deeds of Burke and Hare in Edinburgh, who -gave the medical men fresh bodies to explore, innocents but recently murdered.
Originally published in hardcover by Robert Hale the previous year, this is an unflinching account of the life, times and crimes of the Edinburgh murderers and their unholy alliance with the brilliant anatomist Dr. Knox. These men were not technically body-snatchers – digging up the dead was too much like hard work – their favoured modus operandi being to ply their house-guests with alcohol and then smother them. With the Medical Colleges unable to acquire the number of corpses they needed for research through legal means, the trade in bodies became a black market industry with Burke and Hare perhaps its most notorious exponents. When finally arrested, the despicable Hare turned Queens evidence to save his own neck. Burke alone was hung ….. and publicly anatomised.
Douglas is particularly adept at evoking the abject poverty of the Edinburgh slums and the widespread alcoholism among those unfortunate enough to have been born on the wrong side of the tracks, so it’s kind of appropriate that my battered copy is grimier than a tramps fingernails. Ghouls will certainly enjoy the material pertaining to Burke’s yuletide dissection, with the inevitable avid crowd dutifully lining up to get a good look at his stripped corpse and there’s an all too brief closing chapter on how the story has been treated in theatre, film and fiction.