Halloween seems like the perfect time to share this post as it deals with murders, execution and some extra gory details. Come join me in my story for Halloween. (This is a repost from 31st Oct. 2022.)
How would you feel about visiting a museum to see an exhibit of a notebook bound in human skin? This is the invitation I faced in the summer. I was squeamish at the prospect and really wasn’t looking forward to seeing the book. However, I had started my blog and needed some curiosities to write about. Halloween seems the perfect time for this exhibit.
Surgeon’s Hall Museum
Proudly displayed in one of the glass cases of the Surgeon’s Hall Museum in Edinburgh is a book bound with the (human) skin of a serial killer. Today I’m going to tell you a little about how the book came into being.
Many people may have heard of the most prolific Edinburgh murderers of the 19th Century – Burke and Hare? The notebook in question is reportedly bound with William Burke’s skin.
Edinburgh – Centre for teaching
In the 1820s Edinburgh was a leading international centre of medical teaching and anatomical science. It attracted many international students wishing to study there. With an increasing demand, sourcing dead bodies for study and teaching was becoming a problem. Consequently there was an issue with grave robbers digging up the recently departed in order to meet the demand.
The story of Burke & Hare
Despite common misperceptions, Burke and Hare were never involved with the grave robbing practices. However, circumstances led them to commit murders to supply a Dr. Robert Knox, surgeon and anatomy lecturer at the Surgeon’s Hall with the dead bodies for his teaching. Burke and Hare supplied at least 17 bodies, 16 of which were murdered. The first body sold to Dr. Knox died at Hare’s Boarding House. Our murderers saw the opportunity to make money passing on the corpse rather than reporting the death. Seeing the chance to make more money through the sale of the bodies, they progressed to murder.
Anyone who watches crime/legal dramas on TV knows that we need evidence to bring someone to trial. The same was true here, with the investigation into the murders committed by Burke and Hare (and their respective wives). Although all four were arrested, the police and prosecuting lawyers didn’t have enough evidence to proceed to trial. Hare was persuaded to turn King’s evidence, testifying against his partner in crime. Consequently, he was given immunity and not prosecuted for his crimes.
I was familiar with the story of Burke and Hare (I don’t think you can grow up in Scotland without being aware) but I always thought they were grave robbers who progressed to murder. I also always believed they were both tried and found guilty of murder.
The reality is they were initially charged alongside their wives, but Mr and Mrs Hare were not charged. Hare because he turned King’s evidence, and his wife as she couldn’t be forced to testify against her husband.
Burke was tried on Christmas Eve 1828 and sentenced to death the following day (Christmas Day). His wife, Helen McDougal, was acquitted with a not proven verdict. This is a type of verdict unique to Scotland. So Ms McDougal got off Scot free.
When sentencing Burke to death, his sentence included the directive that his body should be dissected for study and if preserving skeletons became possible, his skeleton should be placed on permanent display for educational purposes. You can still see his skeleton on display today at the Edinburgh University Anatomical Museum. The notebook apparently made from his skin along with his death mask is on display at the Surgeon’s Hall Museum. Regrettably, I was not permitted to take photographs in the museum, so must rely on links to the images.
Recognising the worry and pain of families in mourning given the rise of grave robbing or worse, The Anatomy Act 1832 became law. It was introduced in an attempt to formalise arrangements for the supply of bodies for dissection and study for medical students. As a result of the Act, supplies could only come via hospitals or where someone specifically left their bodies to medical science.
My visit to the Museum
Personally, some aspects of the visit to the Surgeon’s Hall Museum were interesting – learning about the evolution of medical science and evidence based practice and how pioneers led the way. It was also really interesting to discover that some of the surgeon teachers also shaped the thinking and interests of Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle who applied much of the teachings at the Surgeon’s Hall (where he was a medical student) to the creation of Sherlock Holmes. That, however, is for a future blog.
I was initially quite squeamish by the notion of seeing a book bound with the skin of William Burke. I don’t know why I was surprised, but it just looked like any other leather-bound book. There is also a note written in Burke’s blood held at the Edinburgh University Anatomical Museum. All of these really seem appropriate as a tale for Halloween.
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