A Different Resurrection Story for Easter Day

Last summer I posted about meeting King Arthur at Stonehenge (if you want to read that post, you can click here). I’ve been keeping up with Arthur’s activities via his Facebook page since then, and it was on Facebook that I read an account, posted last Thursday, of his recent arrest by West Yorkshire police. Because I’ve read Arthur’s autobiography, I knew he’d been arrested plenty of times, so the arrest itself was no surprise, but that they accused him of burglary this time was a shock. Burglary?

One of Arthur’s main goals in recent months has been the return to Stonehenge of the human remains that scholars—at University of Sheffield in West Yorkshire, it turns out—removed for study. He’s all for learning, and is happy to have the scholars study the bones, but when they’ve done all they can do, he’d like them to put the bones back. Surely he wouldn’t have descended to thievery to get his hands on the bones, though—would he?

The newspaper-style account quoted a Professor Burke and a Dr. Hare of University of Sheffield. The reference to Burke and Hare, and the fact that last Thursday was April 1, gave the game away.

The two notorious resurrectionists—aka resurrection men, aka body-snatchers—Burke and Hare took part in the early 19th trade in the stolen bodies of the recently deceased. The rise in the scientific study of medicine coincided with a change in the law that reduced the number of executions, resulting in fewer and fewer bodies being available for more and more medical students. Demand outstripped supply; resurrectionists filled the gap.

Resurrectionists generally didn’t go in for grave-robbing, that being a completely different crime. Stealing a body and getting caught meant jail or a fine or both, but stealing property from a corpse, even just its clothes, made you a felon. Felons could be exiled to the colonies or condemned to death, which would mean making a contribution to the corpse supply for medical schools in rather a different way than the body-snatchers intended.

For plenty of resurrection-men, the money to be made outweighed the risk of being charged with a misdemeanor. Stealing bodies became so common that families kept watch at gravesides to be sure no one disturbed their recently interred relatives. Some erected mortsafes, that is, iron bars or cages over the graves, to deter body-snatchers. (You can see pictures of several styles of mortsafes here.)

The resurrectionists could get around watchers and iron bars in a variety of ingenious ways, such as digging into the graveyard from a point far enough away that the watchers wouldn’t notice, tunneling to the head of the coffin, opening just the end, looping a rope around the corpse and dragging it out. Or like Burke and Hare, they could skip all of that and just murder people.

The possibility of exile or execution didn’t deter William Burke and William Hare, Irish immigrants who in the 1820s murdered 16 or 17 people in Edinburgh in order to sell the bodies. They didn’t start off as killers. They got their first corpse the old-fashioned way: when a lodger died in the boarding house run by Mrs. Hare, they faked his burial and sold his body to a doctor who gave anatomy lectures. When another tenant fell ill, they moved on from selling an already dead body to encouraging a sick body to become a corpse a little ahead of schedule, which they did by suffocation. They cut a swathe through the prostitutes and beggars of Edinburgh, plus their own relatives, before being caught. Eventually they would add a word to the English language: burking, a form of suffocation including sitting on the chest of your victim, a definition which eventually broadened to mean any murder in order to obtain a body, or any kind of stifling or hushing up—a book suppressed by authorities could be said to have been burked.

The London Burkers gang imported the techniques of Burke and Hare and either improved upon the method or employed more assassins, managing to murder and to sell the bodies of at least 500 victims, possibly as many as 1000. The ringleaders were hanged and their bodies publicly dissected, and Burke met the same fate although Hare, who’d made a deal to avoid prosecution, testified against Burke and walked free.

The mayhem stopped in 1832 when new laws allowed workhouses and prisons to provide unclaimed bodies for dissection, and allowed relatives to give bodies to science in exchange for having the doctor or medical school pay for the eventual burial of whatever was left. The same law required anatomy professors to be licensed, and made them responsible for ensuring the bodies they accepted had been obtained legally.

So I should have guessed immediately that a story published on April 1 about human remains that quoted Professor Burke and Dr. Hare was an April Fool’s joke, but I didn’t; I was completely taken in at first. But Arthur, of course, is not a body-snatcher (nor is anyone from University of Sheffield).

And even though that story turned out to be a joke, Arthur’s real activities continue to astonish. His next project is to run for Parliament. That should be fun; watch this space.

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