“In the grimy loft, the woman was on the floor, Burke’s hands upon her throat. Hare calmly observed the proceedings.”
Alike the story of Our Mutual Friend narrated by Dickens that the daughter and father digging dead bodies along the Thames, grave diggers, or, in other terms, body snatchers, and cadavers, were always prevalent in the cities who worked abreast with undertakers to trade dead bodies for dissection. Night-watchmen were duly employed, watchtowers and mortsafes were applied in order to prevent the dead relatives being “resurrected” at the graveyards. It was only until the Murder Act 1752 that anatomists could legitimately negotiate the price and purchase the bodies of murders, including those infamous ones who hanged at Tyburn Tree.
In Death and Mr Pickwick we come across the notorious Burke and Hare murders. It involved serial killings of 16 victims over 10 months in the 1820s. William Burke and William Hare were Irish immigrants who resided in Edinburgh. Due to the insufficient supply of corpses, two scoundrels conspired together with Helen McDougal (Burke’s mistress) and Margaret Hare (née Laird) as accomplices. They lured frail and forlorn prostitutes, beggars and homeless mainly into their lodging house run by the Hares in West Port, Edinburgh. Victims were left intoxicated, smothered (the fresher the dead bodies the more money) and sold to Dr. Robert Knox (whom was believed to be complicit in their misdeeds all along). Under Hare’s testament against Burke, Hare was immune from prosecution and Burke was hanged in 1829. McDougal was found not proven. Burke was as usual, after dissection, his death mask alongside the life mask of Hare’s were used by phrenologists to study his character.
This murderous case intrigued and reflected various social criticisms in words and caricatures, for instance, the living conditions of Irish immigrants as well as the labour and the poor dwelling in the cities. “Our Irish importation have made a great discovery of Oeconomicks, namely, that a wretch who is not worth a farthing while alive, becomes a valuable article when knockd on the head & carried to an anatomist; and acting on this principle, have cleard the streets of some of those miserable offcasts of society, whom nobody missed because nobody wishd to see them again.” (Walter Scott)
Last but not least not without mentioning that the case contributed to the controversial Anatomy Act 1832, that medical students and anatomists were gained legal access to dissect corpses, especially the unclaimed bodies and those from prisons and workhouses, apart from the hanged.