‘These men perform miracles, for they “raise the dead”, they are slave dealers, for they sell men ; they are amusing, for they furnish subjects for conversation; scientific, for they assist science. They are a species sui generis; Lycanthropes, for they live on the dead; discoverers, for they bring things hidden to light; quarrelsome , for they pick holes. Of what consequence is it to the fisherman whether the shark, the worm, or the scalpel decomposed his body?’
-Anon : The Cheilead, 1826-1827
In my last essay, we discussed the various means by which the recently deceased were kept from the clutches of the various ‘Resurrection Men’ – characters tirelessly working to provide the luminaries of surgical science the necessary canvasses upon which they might conduct their art to ultimately improve the lot of all mankind. There is of course another approach. When you can’t find readily deceased candidates, why wait for them to expire? The fresher the better, don’t you agree?
The London Burkers’ were a Resurrectionist gang running out of Covent Garden, London (the attributed moniker Burker taken from the inspirational William Hare and William Burke, early practitioners of similar deeds). Prior to being hung by their necks in front of a darkly voyeuristic crowd of over ten thousand, the three, comprised of John Bishop, Thomas Williams and James May, admitted to not only the murder of a fourteen year old boy (very careless in my opinion – to be caught, I mean, not the murder) but also the exhumation of over seven hundred bodies over twelve short years. Quite the prolific bunch.
Through undoubtedly torture-inspired confessions, we learned the following about the murder, that Bishop, Williams and May lured to their house and drugged a fourteen year old boy with a laudanum infused concoction of gin and rum into a semi-conscious slumber. The trio, clearly in need of liquid courage for such an act (so few have the stones for this work), left the locale for a drink or five, returning an hour later. Not content with their methods, they tied the boy by the ankle and dipped him head first into the nearest well.
The young man may have fought were he not intoxicated, perhaps may saved himself by hauling himself up the rope. Instead he slowly drowned in the depths of the dank city well. The killers, apparently unsure of the timescale of such matters, returned to the Shoreditch pub for a few more drinks. Upon return, the trio recovered the body and delivered it to their usual buyer, Richard Partridge, a renowned anatomist, and demanded the usual remuneration. Partridge, suspicious as to the the lack of burial preparation on the body, assumed foul play, sought the assistance of a constable, and the three were arrested.
Searches of the gang’s residence revealed multiple items of clothing, indicating more murders. The justice system, slaves to the public outcry, found them all guilty. James May escaped by some act of clemency, while Bishop and Williams were hung by necks until dead. Perhaps fittingly, the cadavers of the two men were served up to the local schools of surgery, sliced, eviscerated and laid open for the purposes of science. I am curious to how the doctors performing the procedure may have felt knowing that they were working on the very people who they had previously relied upon for the procurement of their essential human materiel.
What demons have we made these Resurrection men out to be? Serving the medical interest by providing up corpse after corpse up to the good of the medical cause and the general betterment of society, yet we throw them under the wheels of supposed ‘civilization’. What the tabloids will fail to mention, the same sensationalist rags that seek to also discredit me for my enlightened experiments, is the social conditions that brought about the trade itself. Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it, as the saying goes.
The population of England between the 1720’s and following century swelled, as does a pregnant sow, almost one hundred percent from six to twelve million citizens. Yet, the great wealth brought by industrial expansion bypassed the poorer classes, the principle recipients of this affluence remaining as ever the aristocratic elite and merchants. The growth of the populace, coupled with poor working conditions and cramped cities, saw the infant capitalist engine grind beneath its treads countless members of the working class, causing inevitable riots, looting, criminal acts and widespread misdemeanors.
While we pat ourselves on the back here in 1872 for our spurious and self-aggrandizing notions of sophistication, it’s important to be reminded of the short-sighted paths taken to resolve such matters that seem rather similar to ours. Rather than enact meaningful social reform to alleviate the disparity, English institutions enthusiastically moved to increase the punishments for petty crimes to ever more severe lengths. This specifically included the roster of crimes deserving of capital punishment, with consequent statutes rising above a healthy 200.
“We hanged for everything- for a shilling- for five shillings- for five pounds- for cattle- for coining- for forgery, even for witchcraft- for things that were and things that could not be” – Charles Phillips
Truly, an age dark enough to make the fall of the Roman Empire seem like a Brighton Beach Day. Millions of people toiling, dying, struggling to survive among the most barbaric of conditions, tens of thousands of young men sent to slaughter on the European battlefields, while the plutocratic tabloids hanging out a few dry brave souls for misdemeanors as mild as a few insignificant snuffings in the name of science.
Well, perhaps more than a few. A Resurrectionist-turned-murderer Elizabeth Ross was hanged for one death in the name of providing bodies to the surgical slab, while James May and John Bishop et al had also at least one confirmed murder to their name, as well as the 500-1000 bodies, more traditionally exhumed, to their record.
Saving the very best until last, our final article of the series will be devoted to the best known anatomy-killers of this style, William Burke and William Hare, to whom we owe the delightful moniker Burker, and whose body count of 16 (that is, the confirmed count) make them the most prolific of their kind…
This article was originally published in The Pandora Society on January 20th 2015.