Updated: Mar 24, 2019
If you have read one of my books, you'll have grasped the fact I love history. I'm currently on holiday in Scotland, and yesterday I was privileged with the chance to visit Edinburgh. A camera in hand and hair wiping against my cheeks, I wandered around the damp streets. As I often tend to do, I found myself walking around a graveyard. It is set on a steep decline with a beautiful view (forgetting the slogging trek back up I would have to make, my poor lungs didn't thank me) but that wasn't what grasped my attention. Standing tall and proud in front of me was a watchtower.
Being a fantasy writer and reader of the genre my mind let loose with all the reasons why the dead would need to be watched over. Was it to make sure they didn't return as the living dead? Were they worried their loved ones would become zombies feeding on the flesh of the unsuspecting? I know with superstitions high in times past, and even still in some areas of the world that this could have flittered through their minds. Instead, I found it was something much more mundane, but that also led me to discover a local grisly tale of the 'West Port Murders.'
In the 19th Century, the Scottish law stated only orphans, those who committed suicide, and criminals who lost their lives in prison could be used for medical research. At the time, medical science in the area was flourishing, and the demand for cadavers was high. Because of the law, this meant the supply by legal means fell short of the demand. Robert Knox, a doctor who worked at the college started buying bodies from body snatchers. Grave robbers could earn eight to ten pounds depending on the season, so it became a lucrative business.
It became so much a problem, watchtowers were built so the dead could be watched over until their corpses were too degraded to be of any use to medical science. This new development led to a murder spree across the city.
Two Irish immigrants, William Burke and William Hare killed sixteen people so they could still reap the gains when it became difficult to dig up those who died from natural causes. The idea first came to them when a resident at Hare's lodging house died. When finally caught they said they sold him to regain the money they had lost at his death, but an idea was born. They saw a chance to make even more money, and instead of waiting, they murdered more tenants by suffocation and when that wasn't enough they turned to prostitutes and even strangers walking the streets.
Their murderous reign came to an end when a corpse was found under the bed of Burke, and though they tried to bribe the witness their crimes were brought to light. William Hare testified against William Burke and was granted immunity.
William Burke hanged for his part in their crimes in 1829 on the 28th January. To fit his punishment to his crimes, his body was given to Edinburgh Medical College to be dissected, and it's still on display even today.
The ending of this tale is what turns my stomach the most. If you happen to visit the police museum situated at The Royal Mile, Edinburgh, you will see on display a book made from Burke's skin.
The sixteen victims of William Hare and William Burke prompted a change in the law, and the 1832 Anatomy Act was created. When the time comes to be laid to rest, we can now all rest easy in our graves.