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Burke and Hare
Matthew Clydesdale, a Lanarkshire miner, was hanged for murder on the
fourth of November 1818. His trial had taken place at Glasgow and the
judges there had ordered that his remains were to be publicly dissected
and anatomized by Professor Jeffrey of Glasgow University.
Following his public hanging, Clydesdale’s body was taken to the Medical
College at the university. The body was later being used for a
demonstration when the corpse was suddenly brought back to life by an
electric shock administered by Professor Jeffrey. Clydesdale stood up
and looked at the professor and at the astonished students. Not in the
least disturbed, Professor Jeffrey took out a lancet and plunged it into
the bewildered man’s jugular vein, who fell on the floor "like a
slaughtered ox on the blow of a butcher". This was the last order for
dissection made by the Circuit judges at Glasgow.
Later in the year, Robert Johnstone, a 23 year old armed robber, was
brought to the gallows. As usual, the Edinburgh crowd turned up in force
to witness the day’s events at Parliament Square.
Sensationally, after the drop fell at three in the afternoon, Johnstone
was left still alive when the gallows equipment failed. An exceptionally
tall man, Johnstone’s toes could clearly be seen still touching the half
opened trap doors. The horrific spectacle swiftly turned the mood of
the crowd against the authorities. The City Guard and magistrates were
forced to retreat by missiles thrown by the onlookers.
A man then leapt onto the platform and cut Johnstone down with a knife,
whereupon the crowd rushed the gallows. While the army was being drafted
in to control the mayhem, the unconscious Johnstone was being carried
around by the crowd. They left with the body and tried to escape down
the High Street until they encountered a force of constables from the
nearby Police Office. Dropping Johnstone to the ground, the mob turned
Showing no signs of life, Johnson was taken to the Police Office, where
a surgeon confirmed that he was still alive. Johnstone was transported
back to the gallows by the army, where he was hung for a second time.
The whole affair had taken some eight hours. The final victim was the
English hangman, John Foster. Declared incompetent by the Edinburgh
authorities, his services were never to be required again by the city.
The crimes of William Burke and William Hare
have become part of Scottish folklore. The pair provided bodies to
Professor Robert Knox at the Edinburgh Medical School. The usual source
of cadavers lay in the robbing of the graves of the recently deceased,
but Burke and Hare preferred to obtain their corpses through the simple
strategy of murder.
At the trial, Hare provided evidence for the crown against Burke , who
was left to face the full force of the law on his own. He was sentenced
accordingly on the 28th of January 1829. Due to the terrible nature of
his crimes, provision was made for the treatment of Burke’s body
following his execution, where an example would be made of him.
It was inevitable that Burke would be subjected to the same fate as his
victims. On the day following the hanging, Burke’s body was dissected
for the subject of a lecture by a Professor Munro. The professor paid
special attention to the murderer’s brain. The public got their
opportunity to revile Burke’s remains on the 30th, when an estimated
crowd of some 25,000 filed past what remained of the body. Many spat to
show their contempt. Burke’s skin was tanned into leather and made into
purses and because he had murdered for money, his own hide became a
container for coins.
Burke’s skeleton can be seen to this day in a glass case at the
Edinburgh Medical School. He had refused his victims the right to a
burial, so it is his fate to never receive one.