By Rossella Lorenzi, Jan 23/2013, here.
Evidence linked to one of Edinburgh’s most nefarious trade has emerged from the rear garden of a house in the Haymarket district, according to archaeologists who have linked humans remains unearthed more than a year ago to the body snatching era made infamous by Irish killers Burke and Hare.
Belonging to four adults and at least one child, the disarticulated remains — about 60 bones — feature small holes used to re-articulate the skeletons with wire. This suggests they were used for anatomical display, said experts at consultants GUARD Archaeology.
“The forensic archaeologist at GUARD also identified that some of the bones had very smooth shinny patches, suggesting that they had been handled many times,” John Lawson, from the City of Edinburgh Council Archaeology Service, told Discovery News.
Indeed the remains date back to the early 19th century, when the Scottish capital was a world leader in the study of anatomy.
“Edinburgh’s medical schools acquired human remains legally from hangings, unclaimed poor or, in fact, from illegally dug graves,” Lawson said.
It was at that time, when demand for fresh bodies far outweighed supply, when Irish immigrants William Burke and William Hare began their grisly trade.
From 1827 until 1828 the infamous duo delivered at least 16 bodies to Dr Robert Knox, an anatomy lecturer who was meticulously and obsessively devoted to getting the very best bodies to illustrate specific aspects of human anatomy for his students.
Only the first of the bodies they sold to Knox died naturally. All the rest were murdered.
The pair lured poor people into Hare’s lodging house, plying them with whiskey and beer. Then they killed the drunken, insensible victims by compressing their chest and covering their nose and mouth.
Later known as “burking,” this method of suffocation left no suspicious homicide marks and provided the anatomy students with fresh, undamaged bodies.
Finally caught in 1828, the two men had different fates. Burke was hanged in front of a crowd estimated at 30,000 people, while Hare got immunity from prosecution in return for his testimony against his accomplice. No charges were ever brought against Knox.
Ironically, Burke’s remains were handed over to the University of Edinburgh’s medical school where he sold his victims. There, he was publicly dissected and anatomized in the name of science.
Although they are regarded as important relics of this period in Scottish history, the mysterious remains unearthed in the Edinburgh garden may have not passed at all through Burke and Hare’s hands.
“There were so many clandestine dissections and articulated skeletons in early 19th century Edinburgh that there really is no reason at all to trace every single cadaver back to Burke and Hare,” Lisa Rosner, author of “The Anatomy Murders” and distinguished professor of history at Stockton College in New Jersey, told Discovery News.
Moreover, the crimes of the infamous duo were so well known that all their victims are believed to have been accounted for.
“The bodies they supplied weren’t just any bodies. They were fresh, well-preserved cadavers, and it is extremely unlikely they ended up as articulated skeletons,” Rosner said.
Considered as high-quality — and high priced — medical commodities, Burke and Hare’s victims were given special treatment.
“We know from the documentary evidence that they were preserved in alcohol, or divided into sections and handed over to select students. No practical-minded anatomy lecturer would waste them to create an articulated skeleton,” Rosner said.
Indeed, preparing a skeleton for anatomical display was a laborious process which involved soaking the corpse in a closed tub for about two months until all the skin and muscle fell off.
“Then, the preparer had to carefully dig out all the bones from the ‘putrid matter,’ and place them in a basin of pure water,” Rosner said.
Once clean, the bones were left to dry for quite a long time during Scotland’s summer months. Finally holes were drilled in so that brass or iron wires could hold the bones together.
Most likely, the Haymarket bones underwent the soaking in water treatment.
“That was the fate of second rate, often emaciated cadavers, or those whose soft parts were damaged by injury or disease,” Rosner said.
Why the bones were then buried in the garden remains a mystery.
“Given the fact they may have been acquired illegally, it is possible that someone wished to bury them, or it could have been as simple as a house clearance. We will probably never know for sure,” Lawson said.
“What we do know is that these were used to train the surgeons of the future and are a relic of our heritage, of that early stage of modern medicine,” he added.