Remembering the Resurrection Men

Still on holiday, here's an old favourite to tide you over until I get back.

The Resurrection Men

"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."

One of the highlights of my recent trip to Edinburgh was a visit to the Surgeon's Hall Museum that's part of the University of Edinburgh Medical School campus.  Among the exhibits to be found there was a display dedicated to one of the most notorious episodes in Edinburgh history: the Burke and Hare case (also known as the West Port murders). Selling seventeen murder victims to Dr. Robert Knox of Dr_knox[1] the University of Edinburgh medical school for dissection earned William Burke and William Hare a permanent place in forensic history and popular folklore.

Actually, only William Burke was hanged for the crime (Hare turned King's evidence and testified against his partner). After Burke's body was dissected at the medical school, his death mask and a book bound with his skin were placed in the museum where they can still be seen by visitors. William Hare managed to vanish into obscurity after the trial (or tossed face first into a lime pit by an angry mob depending on which story you want to believe). Unfortunately, that left only one target for public outrage over the murders: Dr. Robert Knox.

A well-known physician, anatomist, and zoologist, Robert Knox was one of the most popular lecturers at the University of Edinburgh's medical school. Since joining the faculty in 1822, Dr. Knox distinguished himself with writing on a diverse range of topics including anthropology, zoology, epidemiology, and anatomy. He also took over the Surgeon's Hall Museum and expanded the collection. Visitors to the dissecting theatre where Knox gave his anatomy lectures often found him "dressed with an overgown and with bloody fingers" from dissecting cadavers for medical students.

Due to the limited number of available corpses (only executed criminals who had been specifically condemned to death and dissection by the courts could be legally used), anatomy professors who wanted to teach human anatomy to students were forced to rely on illegal sources to meet the demand. Beginning in the 18th century, "resurrection men" or "body-snatchers" began to offer bodies to medical schools, no questions asked. The actual source of the bodies varied, whether stolen from cemeteries or simply indigents who had died in poorhouses (resurrectionists would often pretend to be relatives to claim the bodies). Trafficking in dead bodies was extremely profitable and cases occurred throughout the United Kingdom and other countries.

The ghoulish reputation and the stigma associated with dissection led to a certain hysteria among friends and relatives of the newly dead. Many of them actually stood watch over the grave sites to ensure that the bodies were left alone. There was also a market for "burglar-proof grave vaults" with lurid advertisements playing up the body-snatching trade and corpses "mutilated every year on dissecting tables in medical colleges". Despite successful prosecution in many places, body-snatching was often considered a misdemeanor offense and helped ensure a steady supply of cadavers.

There was nothing unusual about Knox agreeing to buy bodies from Burke and Hare (and they had actually approached another professor first). When they were finally caught in 1828 and the body of their last victim was found in Knox's possession, his medical career was ruined. Although a thorough investigation showed no evidence that he had known about the murders, public opinion in Edinburgh turned against him. "Burking" became a new slang word for suffocation and local folklore helped feed the mob frenzy. Whatever hope Robert Knox had of his involvement being forgotten quickly faded as rumours of "mob justice" made him afraid for his life. While the passing of the Anatomical Act of 1832 expanded the number of cadavers available for medical school and finally put the body-snatchers out of business, it was too late to help Knox.

Despite a lengthy campaign of harassment, including attacks on his home, burning in effigy, and crowds gathering at his lectures, Knox continued to teach and do research although his career slowly went downhill. He never dissected another human cadaver despite writing numerous papers on human anatomy and was eventually forced out of all of his positions at the medical school. It was only after the death of his wife and one of his children in 1841 that he left Edinburgh for a medical school in Glasgow. Due to problems there, he searched for another teaching position and found that he had been essentially banned from every medical school in Scotland due to his presumed involvement with the West Port Murders. Despite being legendary for his medical knowledge, he had difficulty finding a job as a surgeon as well.

After eventually relocating to London and years of hardship (despite some success as a popular science writer),Robert Knox was appointed as a Pathological Anatomist at the Cancer Hospital at Brompton in 1856. He also had an extensive obstetrical practice and made numerous public lectures. Knox also continued writing on a vast array of science topics including medicine, comparative anatomy and anthropology.; While there was the lingering effect of his Burke and Hare involvement to deal with, he remained immensely popular with his friends and patients despite his failing health and the death of all but one of his six children. After slipping into a coma on December 9th, 1862, he died 11 days later without regaining consciousness.  Robert Knox is buried in Woking Cemetery near Surrey. Even in death, he never returned to Edinburgh.

Although most of his papers on ethnic differences can rightly be condemned as racist today (he was definitely a man of his time), Robert Knox left an enormous legacy of writing including books on science, anatomy, and medicine. His books on fishing and art were popular sellers as well. Dr Robert Knox dealt with the (typically anonymous) gossip surrounding his supposed involvement with the West Port Murders with unusual grace and managed to keep it from overshadowing his life.

That can be a major accomplishment in itself.


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