Sunday, 4 November 2012

The Disordered Dissection of the Fiendish Felon

                Burke was smuggled from his condemned cell at four o’clock in the morning of January 27th, to a lock-up in Liberton’s Wynd, as the police were afraid that if he was conveyed to the Lawnmarket on the morning of the execution a riot would ensue, as the multitude tried to tear Burke into pieces. At noon on the same day, preparations were made at Lawnmarket for the next day’s proceedings; strong poles were placed in the streets and chains positioned to hold back the expected crowds. When word of these preparations went round, these crowds began to congregate and stayed throughout that day and on through the night. 

The Gibbet in Lawnmarket

In heavy, driving January rain, they cheered as the gibbet was raised at half past ten at night, and at two in the morning, in dismal, freezing conditions, they began to take up their positions in the courts, on the stairs and on wall tops, as the sightseers preferred to suffer not inconsiderable hardship rather than lose their vantage points. Every window overlooking the Lawnmarket had been hired days in advance, at prices ranging from five to twenty shillings, and by seven o’clock in the morning of Wednesday January 28th  1829 a crowd of 25,000 people had assembled. 

Burke himself slept most of that night, arose at five o’clock and dressed in a black suit provided for him. He received Catholic and Protestant ministers and prayed with them, before asking for his shackles to be removed – as they were knocked off, some of the fetters fell with a loud clang and Burke theatrically declared, 
So may all my earthly chains fall!” 
William Burke in chains

He was taken to a keeper’s room, where he sat by the fire and was heard to sigh periodically, before being moved to adjoining apartment, but he encountered Williams, the executioner, on the way. “I am not just ready for you yet,” said Burke, waving him away, but Williams followed him and pinioned his arms. Burke was given a glass of wine and he offered the toast, “Farewell to all my friends,” before, supported on either side by a Catholic priest, and led by two bailies, a solemn, formal procession led him from the prison, up Liberton’s Wynd and onto the scaffold. The baying crowd jeered and hurled insults and threats, and Burke hastened his step lest they break through and rend him apart, and as he mounted the steps, cries of ‘Burke him,” “Choke him” and “No Mercy, Hangie” resounded across the packed Lawnmarket. Burke knelt and prayed again, which removed him momentarily from the view of the throng, who took up a cry of, “Hare, Hare, bring out Hare,” whilst others called, “Knox, hang Knox, the noxious morsel.” 

Execution and Confession of Burke

Burke rose, picked up the silk handkerchief on which he had been kneeling, folded it neatly and placed it in his pocket. He mounted the steps of the drop and faced Williams calmly, who placed the noose over his head and made to tighten it about his throat. He met a little difficulty with Burke’s neckerchief and was told, “The knot is at the back,” the only words he spoke aloud on the gibbet. A white cotton night cap was placed on his head and pulled down over his face, and in a low whisper he began to recite the Creed. As he reached the words ‘Lord Jesus Christ’ (the prearranged signal), Williams drew the bolt and Burke dropped into the void. 

Execution of William Burke

At every convulsive twitch and kick, the crowd jeered and yelled  - he kicked and struggled, as if seeking some platform beneath his feet, but the undertakers below grabbed his legs and spun his body around until it was raised level with the gallows. The drop was made at a quarter past eight and the body was left to hang until five minutes to nine, when Williams took out his blade and cut it down. The gloating multitude swept forwards but were held back by the police, as souvenir hunters tried to lay their hands on anything – the rope, naturally, but shavings from the coffin and parts of the gallows would suffice. When Burke’s body was safely in its box, the crowd dispersed, and in spite of being the largest gathering in Edinburgh’s history, there had not been a single mishap.

Death Mask Bust of Burke
On the following morning, the body was transferred to the Medical College and laid out on a table, where several eminent scientists examined it and Mr Joseph, the sculptor, took a cast of the head, from which a bust was made later. The body was,
“…that of a thick-set muscular man, with a bull-neck, great development about the upper parts, with immense thighs and calves, so full as to have the appearance of globular masses,”
Which is only to be expected in that of a former navvy, a race of men famed for their immense, almost super-human, physical strength.
Tickets were issued to the authorised students and the doors to the lecture room were unlocked at 1 p.m., and Dr Munro had already removed the top of the cranium to expose the brain (which was noted to be very soft, something not unusual in a hanged man). Munro, ghoulishly, dipped his quill pen into Burke's blood and wrote on a sheet of paper, 
This is written with the blood of Wm Burke, who was hanged at Edinburgh. This blood was taken from his head.’ 

Dr Munro the Anatomist

The ticket-holding students were admitted and other interested students attempted to gain admission, but many more were left outside in the quadrangle, and these began to get so unruly that the police were sent for. Fights broke out between police and students, the police drew their staves and the students broke the windows of the lecture theatre; the College Provost and his bailie intervened but had to retreat under a hail of abuse. At length, Professor Christison saved the day by promising the students that he had arranged for them all be admitted in to see Burke’s body in parties of fifty, and he had given the authorities his own personal guarantee for their good behaviour. The same information was circulated in the City - that every interested person would be permitted into the lecture rooms in ordered, supervised groups on the promise of their good behaviour. 

The Skeleton of William Burke

Thus it was that on Friday January 30th 1829, the body of William Hare was laid out, naked, on a black marble slab in the dissecting room of the Edinburgh Medical College, ironically, he was yet another a strangled victim made available for anatomical study. The top of the skull removed by Munro had been replaced and a barely noticeable scar was the only evidence of the operation.
The spectacle was sufficiently ghastly to gratify the most epicurean appetite for horrors,”
wrote Alexander Leighton, an eye-witness and author of a later, not entirely reliable, book, The Court of Cacus, or The Story of Burke and Hare (1861).

Alexander Leighton - The Court of Cacus - 1861
The doors were opened at ten in the morning and throughout the day a steady procession filed through the narrow room, at a rate of sixty a minute until, it was estimated, twenty-five thousand people had seen the executed man. By far and away the majority were men – seven or eight women tried to gain entry, but they were roughly handled and had their clothes torn, before being turned away. Many of the sightseers returned on the following morning, hoping to be re-admitted, but found the doors were firmly locked.

Pocket Book bound with Burke's skin
After the public display, Burke’s body was divided into quarters, which were salted and, with an apt poetical justice, were stored in barrels. The skin was flayed and some parts tanned; Leighton records a former medical student who received that of the neck which he had made into a tobacco pouch (which still bore the mark of the rope after tanning), and the skin from the right arm which was bleached white and printed with portraits of Burke, McDougal and Hare, and presented to Mr Fraser, a jeweller, antiquarian and collector of curiosities. A correspondent to Notes and Queries (Sept 27th 1856) wrote of Burke’s skin,
A portion of his skin was tanned. It was very thick, of a dark blue colour, and much resembled that of Morocco leather. I remember well that the publisher of Burke's Trial at the time had a good piece of it, which he cut up and gave to various of his friends.”

Letter to Notes and Queries - Sept 27 1856

The phrenologists sought to use the measurements of Burke’s head as proof of their theories, publishing detailed comparisons of its dimensions and finding all kinds of significance in the associated elements. A new verb entered the language, ‘to Burke’, meaning to suffocate someone by lying on them and pressing down, but ‘burking’ eventually came to mean ‘to kill by suffocation’. 
It has no connection at all with the insulting epithet ‘berk’, which is rhyming slang for Berkley Hunt, and I will leave you to work that one out for yourself.

Phrenological Development of Burke

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