By Carrie Levinson, Reference Services and Outreach Librarian
You may have heard about “Resurrection Men” – people who robbed graves and even killed people to fill the unprecedented demand for cadavers in medical schools in the nineteenth century. You may have even heard the names William Burke and William Hare: two of the most notorious body-snatchers and murderers who ever lived. But did you know that there is poetry about these bizarre and tragic events?
The New York Academy of Medicine Library has a digital collection, The Resurrectionists, which contains broadsides, ballads, pamphlets, poetry, and other literature concerning Burke and Hare, their accomplices, and their victims. Since it is National Poetry Month, we’ve decided to feature some of the poetry contained in this collection.
First, however, a little bit of background. William Burke and William Hare were two ne’er-do-wells in 1820s Scotland who enjoyed drinking and working as little as possible (Barzun, 1974). When another occupant in their lodging house passed away from natural causes, they sold the body. Soon they found that bodies for the medical schools (particularly, the anatomy and physiology class in Edinburgh taught by Dr. Robert Knox) were in high demand, but not in ready supply. To capitalize on this newly-discovered stream of funds, the group quickly turned to murder. Their first victim was likely a miller by the name of Joe, and more followed (Barzun, 1974).
Unfortunately for them, Burke, Hare, and their accomplices made a number of mistakes resulting in their capture: they murdered a prostitute by the name of Mary Paterson, who was a client of one of the doctors and whom he recognized (though he kept quiet at the time); they also killed a well-known and -liked young man known in town as Daft Jamie, whose disappearance was immediately noted and speculated upon (bringing suspicion upon Dr. Knox as well); and they also began to quarrel amongst themselves. Their arrest came after a couple who knew their last victim, Mrs. Docherty, went to the police (Barzun, 1974).
Hare was offered immunity to testify against Burke and Helen MacDougal, Burke’s mistress. After the trial, deliberations took less than an hour: Burke was declared guilty, while MacDougal went free. Burke’s punishment: he was to be publicly hanged, his skin to be tanned and sold in strips, and his body to be dissected and then lectured upon, much like the bodies he had murdered for profit (Barzun, 1974). Burke was hanged on January 28, 1829, and his skeleton is still on view in the Anatomical Museum of the Edinburgh Medical School. Hare left Edinburgh in disguise and soon disappeared. One enduring legacy was a new verb, to burke, originally meaning to kill by smothering (in order to leave a good body to dissect!), and now broadened to mean to suppress.
A huge amount of literature was generated from these morbid events, including, arguably, the genre of crime fiction (Barzun, 1974). Here are a few examples of the poetry: one, an elegy for William Burke, and two poems lamenting the death of Daft Jamie (Jamie Wilson).
We hope you will peruse this collection and marvel at the many effects Burke and Hare’s dastardly deeds had on the law, medicine, and literature. Perhaps you’ll be inspired to write a poem of your own!
Barzun, J. (1974). Murder for profit and for science. In J. Barzun (Ed.), Burke and Hare: Resurrection men: A collection of contemporary documents including broadsides, occasional verses, illustrations, polemics, and a complete transcript of the testimony at the trial (pp. v-xii). Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press.