The “Resurrectionist Times” MacGregor mentions began roughly in the late seventeenth century — when the demand for cadavers among Scotland’s budding anatomists outpaced the legal supply of unclaimed foundlings, orphans, paupers, executed criminals, suicides, and victims of violent death. By the 1710s, doctors’ assistants were regularly unearthing bodies from Scottish cemeteries during the night, protected from discovery by the fact that “no one except the most hardy would in that age venture near a churchyard after the ‘gloaming’”.
Public outcry against these ghoulish deeds was great. Still, as MacGregor points out, nothing “was likely to put a stop to a practice which was being found useful on the one side and profitable on the other”. Despite a riot that ended in the destruction of an Edinburgh anatomical theatre in 1725 and a violent attack on Glasgow’s medical school in 1749, body-snatching continued to be widespread in the cities of Scotland until the passing of the Anatomy Act in 1832, when “the violation of the sepulchres of the dead for scientific purposes was rendered unnecessary, and absolutely inexcusable”.
MacGregor relates a number of hair-raising stories about “resurrectionists”. One, for example, concerns the body of a man named Henderson, stolen from a country churchyard by two young men who afterward stopped off at a pub with poor Henderson stowed in a sack. Curiously enough, however, the pub belonged to Henderson’s family. When the police came, the young men — desperate for a hiding-place — stashed the stolen dead man in his widow’s bed. Later that night, after the grave robbers were gone, she would discover him lying there, “clad in the grave-clothes she had made with her own hands”.
But the most unsettling stories MacGregor tells revolve around the murders committed for money paid out by anatomists who asked no questions. In 1752, Helen Torrence and Jean Waldie killed a boy of eight or nine in exchange for two shillings and ten pence from some Edinburgh doctors’ apprentices. The two women were hanged for their crime within days. Seventy-six years later, in the same city, the serial murderers William Burke and William Hare — with the aid of their wives, Helen McDougal and Margaret Hare — escaped the notice of the authorities for over a year.
Between January and October 1828, Burke and Hare (after having stolen a corpse for profit the previous November) murdered at least sixteen people in cold blood, delivering all of their victims — sometimes still warm — to Robert Knox, who paid anywhere from eight to ten pounds. The usual method for finding a victim was for Hare to prowl the streets seeking vulnerable people (the old, the infirm, the heavy drinking) and invite them back to a room at Log’s Lodging-House, where Burke was waiting. They then usually proceeded to get their guests drunk — after which Burke would immobilize them while Hare suffocated them.
There is little reason to doubt that Burke was in the first instance a man of finer nature than Hare, though their guilt in the end was at least equal. Hare, it seems, could play his part in the slaughter of a fellow-mortal without any qualms of conscience, and he slept as quietly the night after he had provided a “subject” for the doctors, as if his soul were unstained with guilt. Burke, however, was a man of a different temperament, and though reckless he could not altogether banish the moral teachings of his church from his mind… He could not sleep without a bottle of whisky by his bed-side, and he had always on the table a two-penny candle, burning all the night. When he wakened, sometimes in fright, he would take a draught at the bottle, often to the extent of half of its contents at a time, and that induced sleep, or, rather, stupor.
The December 1828 trial of Burke and Hare, their wives, and Knox, resulted in a guilty sentence only for Burke, who was hanged in January in front of a huge crowd (said to be as large as 25,000). In an ironic twist, a few days later Burke's corpse was publicly dissected (again before huge crowds) — the anatomist, according to legend, at one point dipping his quill pen into Burke's blood and writing "This is written with the blood of Wm Burke, who was hanged at Edinburgh. This blood was taken from his head". Burke's skeleton was given to Edinburgh Medical School, where it can be seen today, and a pocketbook supposedly bound with his skin is on display at Surgeons' Hall Museum.
The trial of Burke and Hare — as well as that of the copycat “London Burkers” who employed the same methods in 1830–1831 — was instrumental in the passing of the 1832 Anatomy Act. This reformed the laws that regulated the supply of medical cadavers and so put an end to the circumstances that made these murders for profit possible. “Happily,” MacGregor a bit too sunnily concludes, “the resurrectionist times were not without their good elements as well as their bad.”