Tuesday, January 28, 2014

This Day in Literary History (‘Body Snatcher’ Execution Sparks Stevenson Tale)

January 28, 1829—William Burke, whose grisly practice of supplying body parts to Scottish medical schools gave rise to  the  classic horror story “The Body Snatcher” by Robert Louis Stevenson (pictured), was hanged in Edinburgh for the inevitable next step in his business: murders to accommodate the swelling demand for his services. The serial killer, after an execution witnessed by 25,000 people, ended up with his remains dissected and his skeleton on display at the University of Edinburgh's Anatomy Museum, an object of inspection not unlike his victims.

Maybe it’s because Stevenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” has traveled past familiarity into parody (intentional, as in Jerry Lewis’ The Nutty Professor, or unintentional, as in Oliver! composer Lionel Bart’s 1973 TV musical adaptation starring Kirk Douglas), but I have come to prefer the subtler charms of the great writer’s 1884 horror story of grave robbing to his better-known tale of the thin line between good and evil.

In a way, “The Body Snatcher” might be more horrific: while “Dr. Jekyll” is a dystopian warning of what could happen if science runs amok, “The Body Snatcher” derived from an actual investigation that, a half-century later, many proper Victorians would have preferred to forget, if the so-called "West Port murders" hadn’t already affected legislation and entered mainstream pop culture.

The known crimes (16 murders) of Irish emigrants Burke and his accomplice William Hare proved the necessity of laws that eliminated the need for corpses for medical research and teaching.

The grave-robbing spree began in November 1827 with the death of a fellow tenant in Hare’s building who had owed him money. If they couldn’t get money from the deceased in life, Hare and Burke figured, they would capitalize on him in death. Students of Prof. Robert Knox told the duo they were interested in the remains for his anatomy lessons, but to bring the corpse back after nightfall.

The actions of Burke, Hare and the students might have been unethical, but in that time they were not unusual. Prevailing religious mores had dictated that the only human remains that could be used for dissections were those of recently executed criminals. At the same time, growing scientific knowledge had made surgery an increasingly studied subject at universities. There weren’t enough corpses to meet this growing demand.

For their part, professors who received the corpses had no incentive to inquire about the sources of these body parts. They charged fees to the students who attended their lectures. Why upset something that was working so well? And so, an entire underworld became extremely proficient at opening up a grave, removing the body in the dead of night, and restoring the topsoil, leaving nobody the wiser the next day.

From this point on, Burke and Hare decided to nudge the death process forward. Their next victim had been quite ill when, after discussing the matter, they concluded it was pointless to wait until the point of no return, as with the first corpse. So, like any good neighbor, they gave Joseph the Miller some alcohol, then, when he was powerless to resist, one held his nose and mouth while the other lay across the prone body until he was dead. It would look, from a quick inspection of the body, that the deceased had passed away from drunkenness or illness.

The killing spree lasted until the following Halloween. A chance encounter led an elderly Irishwoman, Mary Docherty, to the rooms of Burke and his mistress Helen McDougald (who, with Hare’s wife, Margaret Laird, had been an accessory to the crimes). A couple who had met the Irishwoman the night before, James and Ann Gray, had returned to Burke’s apartment the next day, only to be told that after their departure, Helen had thrown Docherty out of the apartment for excessive familiarity with Burke.

The story unraveled after Ann Gray approached a spare bed to retrieve a sock she had left behind. Burke’s furious warning to get away from there only fed her curiosity, which she eventually satisfied the first chance she had when he left the apartment. The Grays’ discovery of Docherty’s body led them to go to the police. Though the body had been spirited out in the meantime, an anonymous tip led the authorities to Knox’s examining room, where they came upon it.

Helen and Margaret, interviewed separately, provided the police with a 12-hour difference in the time of Docherty’s death that only increased their suspicions. They bore down on the women and their mates. It was still not an open-and-shut case, but Hare’s agreement to testify against his literal partner in crime enabled them to indict Burke. His eventual confession, while providing at least some details about his own crimes, exonerated Professor Knox of any knowledge of the crimes, though this did not satisfy an Edinburgh community that turned against the doctor and forced his relocation to London.

The Anatomy Act of 1832, drafted by the Utilitarian philosopher-jurist Jeremy Bentham (whose will donated his own remains for medical research), was passed in the wake of the scandal over the murders. But the remedy it supplied for eliminating the financial incentive for grave robbing—using the unclaimed bodies from hospitals and workhouses—was, in its way, as egregious as the state of affairs that had existed before. Now, it was not only disgraced criminals, but an entire class—the poorest of the poor—who were at risk of being used in death against their will.

This past week, yet another version of the deaths of Lizzie Borden’s father and stepmother was aired on a cable station. While that crime was astounding enough on its own terms to warrant attention, interest has remained high over the years at least partly because of a memorable, if grisly, rhyme that arose from it. Something similar happened in the Burke-Hare murders, with parents keeping children in line with these verses:

Up the close and down the stair,
In the house with Burke and Hare.
Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief,
Knox, the boy who buys the beef.

Burke and Hare,
Fell down the stair,
With a body in a box,
Going to Dr. Knox.

The imagination of Stevenson, a poet himself, would surely have been fired by those rhymes. His fictionalization of the story (with the novel twist that one of the corpses turns up as a ghost) appeared in, of all things, the Christmas “Extra” of the Pall Mall Gazette in 1884. The story was adapted into a fine 1945 film by horror film auteur Val Lewton, featuring the eighth and last joint onscreen appearance by the stars of Frankenstein and Dracula, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.

Stevenson's “Body Snatcher” is an “envelope story,” a tale-within-in-a-tale that uses an initial narrator, a friend/acquaintance of a principal in the story, who can, in effect, vouch for the truth of the horror revealed and the sanity of the person who witnesses and relates it. (Henry James would use this same literary device 14 years later in The Turn of the Screw.)   

One would like to say that all the horrors of the past have been entombed, but, as we saw with the discovery of the remains of Richard III, crimes and criminals have a manner these days of appearing unexpectedly. And so it is that earlier this month, skeletons turned up of four adults and a child behind a townhouse in central Edinburgh. The number of small holes in the skeletons have led members of the city's Archaeological Service to conclude that they may well have been used for medical research--the kind of anatomy lesson that Dr. Knox, without inquiring much into the handiwork of Burke and Hare, would have done.

(The image of Stevenson accompanying this post is by the famed portrait painter John Singer Sargent. The writer's sickly, languid frame would have made him an ideal candidate for eternal dispatch by the shady characters he depicted in his story.)

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