You know, sometimes I think they got it right in ye olden days. Sometimes I think we should stuff all this human rights and PC malarky. Sometimes I think we should just ask ourselves “What would 19th century Scotland do?”
Who’s heard of Burke and Hare? Anyone who’s been to Edinburgh and gone on a ghost tour, probably. Or, like me yesterday, anyone who has had a little squiz at the Edinburgh Surgeons Museum on Nicholson Street. For everyone else, Burke and Hare were two Irish workers who found themselves in possession of a dead body when Hare’s flatmate died in late 1827. Since the guy was so rude as to die (of natural causes) still owing his last month’s £4 rent, Hare decided to try to sell the body to a doctor at Edinburgh University as a way to recoup his money. As you do.
Surprisingly the sale was quite simple, and since bodies weren’t easy to come by in those days, they were encouraged to bring more. So Burke and Hare went into the murdering business. 10 months and 15 bodies later, they were finally caught. Hare was offered immunity if he testified against Burke (because he was the stupid one so they figured Burke was the mastermind), and Burke was hanged in January 1829.
And in the best ‘eye for an eye’ piece of justice I’ve heard in a while, the day after he was hanged, before a crowd of more than 20,000, Burke was publicly dissected in a theater of the Edinburgh University’s Old College. His skeleton can still be seen at the Anatomy Museum today.
But… and here’s the cool/gruesome part… he was also skinned and tanned. Pocket books (wallets) were made from his skin and allegedly sold on the streets. And if you go to the Hall off Surgeons Museum you can see one for yourself. You’re not supposed to take photos, but who am I to listen to rules?
Gross right? But kinda cool gross.
In 1832, a mere four years after the murders, the limitations on using dead bodies for medical research were lifted. Oh and in case you’re curious, the going rate for a body back then was anywhere between £7 – £10, roughly £700 – £900 in today’s money.
I don’t know about you, but most times after I accidentally see the news, I can think of quite a few people who would make rather stylish leather goods…