Friday, January 22, 2010

By Lisa Rosner
University of Pennsylvania Press, $29.95, 336 pages


Ten years ago when the historic London house where Benjamin Franklin lived for 18 years was being converted into a museum, workers made a ghastly discovery in the basement. There, in a 1-square-meter hole dug to test the underlying ground, more than 2,000 bones were found buried in that tiny space. Many of the bones were of dogs and cats, but there also were the skeletons and fragments of adults - both men and women - and of several infants. All bore traces of the red ink markings that indicated they had been used in the study of anatomy through dissection.

Had the London coroner not ruled that the age of the bones placed them in the latter half of the 18th century, the whole floor would have had to be excavated and the house itself might never have been restored. As it turns out, there was ample historical evidence that the daughter of Franklin’s longtime landlady had married a famous surgeon named James Hewson, who had operated a school of anatomy that dissected corpses down there in what had been the kitchen.

Some of the more florid British media immediately raised the speculative cry that our sainted American Founder might have been “a Burke and Hare” cadaver pilferer. And indeed the house, which is just behind Charing Cross train station near the Thames, would have been ideally situated for grave robbers to transport their grisly goods ashore and wheel them in the back door of Franklin’s Craven Street domicile. With tongue firmly in cheek, the current museum operators have a computerized interactive science exhibit of the human skeleton to entertain visiting schoolchildren. It is unlikely, however, that Franklin, ever the curious scientist, ever did more than observe Hewson and his students at the dismemberments.

It should have surprised no one when the hue and cry about “Burke and Hare” was instantly raised in the British consciousness. Along with Dr. Crippen, a 20th-century poisoner, and Jack the Ripper, the London slasher of the Edwardian era, the horrific killers William Burke and William Hare rank among the favorite British thriller crime personages who have become staples of histories, novels and enough movie versions to be worthy of a Burke and Hare film festival. My favorite is the 1945 treatment of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Body Snatcher,” which starred the wonderful duo Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.

Author Lisa Rosner, a history professor at a New Jersey college, has done a fine job of taking an already oft-told tale and injecting new information and a broader context that elevates these two grotesque villains from being seen as cartoon monsters and puts them in their proper - albeit awful - place in the customs of the time. In a larger sense, the Burke and Hare story is about the evolution in scientific knowledge and practice that was bringing medicine out of the Dark Ages and into the light of method, observation and standards of practice. The story is also about commerce of the most grotesque kind.

The way Ms. Rosner marshals her research, Burke and Hare at first thought they had merely had a good piece of luck. Both were semiskilled Irish laborers who first met in 1827 when they lived near each other in the West Port working-class neighborhood of Edinburgh. The Scottish capital was booming as a center of commerce, finance and economic thought, but most of all, of medicine. In those days, the various specialties of medicine operated out of guildlike separate colleges, but in order to get one’s credentials, a student had to attend a requisite number of lectures at most of them, paying the lecturers individually. Surgery was a mandatory course, and that meant a student had to study anatomy theory as well as participate in the dissection of a human cadaver under the guidance of one’s tutor.

This was big business, the way Ms. Rosner tells it. Each October, more than 500 new students from all over Europe arrived in Edinburgh to begin the usual three-year course of study at a cost of between 100 and 500 pounds, depending on how many lecturers they paid and how many courses they could afford. The bottleneck was the shortage of cadavers for all these students to shred, dismember and otherwise mutilate as they learned their craft.

While people who died in jails or poorhouses provided some of the bodies for the anatomists, there just weren’t enough to meet the demand for fresh corpses for the student surgeons. Grave robbers (sardonically known as “resurrection men”) filled the need by covertly exhuming ordinary deceased citizens from their consecrated graves in churchyards throughout Britain and hauling them to the great centers of medical training in London and Edinburgh. It was an international trade, it seems, with some of the bodies delivered to Scotland coming by freight from as far away as Ireland. It was a brisk trade and a felony with stiff prison terms if the resurrectionists were caught but rare punishment for the doctor-clientele. Oddly enough, the criminal penalty did not center on the body of the deceased so much as the law’s prohibition for violating a churchyard grave site.

Burke and Hare, however, did not rob graves. Indeed, their first body was not obtained illegally at all. In November 1827, an elderly man named Donald who was living in the house Hare shared with his wife died of congestive heart failure, owing them money. While they went through the subterfuge of filling a coffin with material and sending it off to be buried, the two did not break any laws when they bundled off Donald’s body to the offices of a well-known surgery lecturer named Dr. Robert Knox at the Edinburgh Medical College. With no questions asked, Knox paid the two 7 1/2 pounds, which was less than the going rate of 10 pounds a body, but still quite a windfall for the men.

Between then and October 1828, the pair, with the connivance of their respective spouses, killed 16 adults and children, usually by plying them with liquor and then suffocating them. Knox bought them for 8 to 10 pounds each. When they were finally apprehended, Hare escaped prosecution by testifying against Burke. The two women went free, and after Burke’s hanging in 1829, the other three vanished from sight. Knox refused any comment about the case and continued to employ resurrectionists to provide dozens of fresh corpses each year; he went on to become a prominent surgeon at London’s cancer hospital until his death in 1862.

Some good came out of the grisly episode. The international shock over the Burke and Hare case gave the final political push to the so-called Anatomy Act of 1832 that regularized the providing of cadavers to medical schools and effectively eliminated the profit from grave robbing. As this well-written account makes clear, the history behind this tale is as interesting as the horror of it all.

James Srodes’ latest book is “Franklin: The Essential Founding Father.” His e-mail address is

Copyright © 2023 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide