In Episode 5 of Under The Knife, I discuss the dark history behind anthropodermic bibliopegy, or binding books with human skin. Why was it done? And how exactly did tanners use human skin to create covers in the past?
It is hot and muggy in the upstairs gallery of Surgeons’ Hall in Edinburgh. I walk past shelves upon shelves of jars that contain 18th-century specimens suspended in liquid: an amputated arm here, a cancerous bowel there. Compared with the lower level of the museum, it is eerily quiet up here. This section is not open to the public and so these objects are rarely gazed upon with such naked curiosity as I am experiencing now.
In this instance, I am not Dr Lindsey Fitzharris, medical historian. I am as inquisitive as any person who would be granted access to the collection up here, bubbling over with questions and observations about the bits of body parts floating before my eyes. But before I can seek answers to these questions, I must first view the object I’ve come to write about: a pocketbook bound in the skin of the 19th-century murderer, William Burke.
I make my way to the end of the gallery where the Director of Heritage, Chris Henry, is standing in the corner. In his gloved hand, he holds the notorious pocketbook which has attracted tourists from around the world to Surgeons’ Hall for decades. I have never seen it outside of a glass case. It looks less ‘sacred’ without the dim spotlights and laminated cards describing its origins.
It looks almost normal.
But of course, it isn’t normal. Far from it. In 1828, William Burke and William Hare murdered 16 people over the course of 10 months. Masquerading as bodysnatchers, the two murderers then sold the fresh corpses onto surgeons in Edinburgh where the bodies were then dissected in private anatomy schools dotted around the city.
Burke and Hare were eventually apprehended when one of their victims was discovered in the dissection room of Dr Robert Knox, who had been purchasing many of the suspiciously fresh bodies from the two men over the past several months. Hare turned King’s evidence and was released, while Burke took the blame and was sentenced to death. What awaited him at the end of the rope was much worse than even he could imagine.
Chris hands me a pair of white gloves. He’s an expert on this object, so the interview flows easily. He regales me with stories about how it came into existence, telling me that Burke’s body was privately dissected as a mob of several hundred people gathered outside the surgeons’ window demanding to be let in.
As Chris speaks, it suddenly happens. He hands me the pocketbook, almost as if he is handing me any book from a library shelf. I can’t feel it in the same way I would if I wasn’t wearing gloves, but I have a visceral reaction to the object nonetheless. This is the actual skin of a notorious murderer–a man I had been reading about for years in my own research.
After my initial reaction, I begin inspecting the pocketbook more carefully. It is remarkably well preserved considering this was meant to be a functioning item. Indeed, the original pencil that came with the pocketbook is still tucked neatly inside its covers. Looking at it, I can hardly believe someone would use it to carry money. Even for me–the Queen of Macabre–this is all a bit too much.
Its covers are soft and pliable after all these years, reminding me that this was indeed used on a regular basis. In faded gold letters, the front reads: BURKE’S SKIN POCKET BOOK. When I turn it over in my hands, the words–EXECUTED 28 JAN 1829–complete the story.
Emma Black, who heads public engagement at the museum, talks to me after the interview. As with any museum containing human specimens, Surgeons’ Hall has several pieces on display that are controversial. Interestingly, Burke’s skin book isn’t often mentioned as one of them. She wonders if, given the atrocity of the crimes committed, some of us have come to accept that this object is suitable for display. At the time, the dissection and book acted as a further punishment for Burke’s crimes and was seen as a form of justice which fitted the horrific nature of the murders themselves. Burke’s skeleton is also on display at the University of Edinburgh’s Anatomical Museum (right).
For me, however, the pocketbook is much more than this. It represents the growing need for bodies in the dissection room at the beginning of the 19th century, and the willingness by some anatomists to turn a blind eye to the dubious doings of those who procured the dead on their behalf.
In short, the pocketbook represents a dark and sordid part of our medical history.
After several minutes, I hand the pocketbook back to Emma. Once more back in its case, the object takes on that ‘sacred’ glow.
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*Please note that Surgeons’ Hall Museum is closed for redevelopment and will reopen in Summer 2015.
I’ve written about body snatchers several times on this site, and each time, readers ask for more. Given that it’s Halloween, I thought I would give into that request and return to the subject in a longer, more comprehensive article about these fascinating creatures from the early 19th century. Happy Halloween!
It is half past two in the morning on October 10th, 1777. The new moon casts a bluish light over St George’s burial ground off Hanover Square in London. Two men, clad in dark clothes, enter the cemetery. They have been tipped off by the grave-digger who accompanies them that the body of Mrs. Jane Sainsbury was buried earlier that day.
Carefully, they navigate around the tombstones until they come to the freshly dug grave. With spades and shovels, they begin soundlessly removing the dark, damp earth, digging deeper and deeper into the ground. Within fifteen minutes, they hit a hard, solid structure: the coffin. One man readies a cloth sack while the other two pry the lid open. A terrible odour escapes: the smell of death. The woman’s eyes have sunk deep into her skull. Her jaw hangs open, stretching her lips into a ghoulish grin.
All three struggle to remove the rotting corpse from its wooden enclosure and strip it of its clothes and burial shroud. Slowly, the woman’s fleshy remains are stuffed inside the sack, limb by limb. One snatcher tosses the woman’s possessions carelessly into the coffin while another silently shuts the lid. All three begin to shovel dirt back over the gravesite, hoisting the sack up as the hole slowly fills.
The job is finished in less than thirty minutes. 
The words ‘body snatcher’ conjure up all kinds of sordid images: crude men with fingernails caked in dirt; corpses crammed into sacks, bodily fluids leaking through the cloth; murder. But the truth is that relatively little is known about the men who stole away in the middle of the night to collect bodies for the anatomists and their students in the 18th and 19th centuries. Yet, they are an important and integral part of our medical past.
During the 17th century, medical students in London were not required to study anatomy or physiology through clinical dissection. The act of cutting open dead bodies was generally believed to be ‘noe more able to direct a physician how to cure a disease than how to make a man’.  This is not to say, however, that medical students knew nothing of anatomy. Many attended public dissections conducted by the Barber Surgeons Company. There, they observed and watched, but did not participate (see above, dissected skull from Museum of London Archaeology).
This changed in the 18th century with the proliferation of private medical schools that gave students an opportunity to learn anatomy through dissection. To do this, however, bodies were needed. Lots of bodies.
From what little records exist, we know that body snatchers required some level of moonlight in order to conduct their work in cemeteries, although not all bodies were obtained through exhumation. The body snatchers might steal as many as six bodies in a single night and often worked in small gangs which fought each other for a monopoly over the cadaver trade. This might involve desecrating a graveyard that supplied bodies to a rival gang in order to arouse fury from the local population who would then secure the cemetery, making it difficult for future attempts.
Cemeteries underwent dramatic makeovers as the public’s fear over body-snatching escalated. Mortsafes (left)—or iron grills—were placed over gravesites to prevent snatchers from disturbing the dead. Loose stones were put on top of surrounding walls, making it nearly impossible to scale. Churchyards became fortified with spring guns and primitive land mines. Cemetery ‘clubs’ were formed in which members would watch new graves until ‘decomposition rendered the cadavers useless for anatomical instruction’. 
In one instance, a father—grieving over the recent loss of his child—enclosed a ‘small box, [with] some deathful apparatus, communicating by means of wires, with the four corners, to be fastened to the top of the coffin’. As the child was lowered into the ground, he threw gunpowder into the box so that ‘the hidden machinery [was] put into a state of readiness for execution’. 
During this period, a human corpse did not legally constitute property, and therefore punishment for stealing one was not nearly as severe as the general populace thought it should be. In 1832, two medical students in Inversek—a village just outside Edinburgh—were caught trying to steal a body from a local churchyard. After being kept in a private house over night, they were moved to a prison at their own request because they believed it was a ‘place of greater security from the threatened vengeance of the outraged citizens.’ The next day:
…a crowd of several hundreds assembled round the gaol, provided with axes and other implements to break it open, and do execution upon the offenders, who … had been previously remitted to the sheriff. 
The general population abhorred body snatchers and the surgeons who employed them, and went to great lengths to prevent their loved ones from ending up on the dissection table. Coffin collars, like the one seen on the right, were invented to thwart the inexhaustible efforts of the resurrection men. These was fixed around the necks of a corpse and bolted to the bottom of a coffin, making it nearly impossible to remove the body from its grave.
Cemetery guns, as well, were designed to keep body snatchers at bay. These were set up at the foot of a grave, with three tripwires strung in an arc around its position. Those unfortunate enough to stumble upon one in the dead of night may find themselves in a grave of their own.
As ingenious as these devices were, they only protected the dead whose families were wealthy enough to purchase them. It is not a surprise, then, that many of the bodies that ended up in the hands of the surgeons were those of the poor. Making the jobs of the body snatchers even easier was the fact that many paupers were buried in pits which would remain open, sometimes for several weeks. One resurrectionist wrote:
I like to get those of poor people buried from the workhouses, because, instead of working for one subject, you may get three or four; I do not think, during the time I have been in the habit of working for the school, I got half a dozen of wealthier people. 
Historian Ruth Richardson points out that the depth of pits varied ‘depending on land available, soil type, and the pecuniary interests of those involved in graveyard “management.”’  Some pits were as deep as twenty feet. In St Botolph’s, Aldgate, two men died at the bottom of one such pit from asphyxiation after stumbling into it in the 1830s.
The body snatchers continue to live in the public’s imagination as criminals of the lowest form, partly because so little is known about them. Reports about their alleged activities are often exaggerated in newspapers and literature from the period. In 1824, the surgeon, William Mackenzie, complained that a week rarely passed without ‘the circulation of exaggerated stories of atrocities in the procuring of subjects for dissection’. 
But, of course, body snatchers were hugely important to medical schools at that time. Their presence could not be avoided. On 8 October 1793, James Williams—a 16 year-old surgical student—described his living quarters in John Hunter’s anatomy school to his sister living in Worcester. He wrote:
My room has two beds in it and in point of situation is not the most pleasant in the world. The Dissecting Room with half a dozen dead bodies in it is immediately above and that in which Mr Hunter makes preparations is the next adjoining to it, so that you may conceive it to be a little perfumed. There is a dead carcase just at this moment rumbling up the stairs and the Resurrection Men swearing most terribly. I am informed this will be the case most mornings about four o’clock throughout the winter. 
Before the discovery of anesthetics, surgery was a brutal affair. The patient had to be restrained during an operation; the pain might be so great that he or she would pass out. Dangerous amounts of blood could be lost. The risk of dying was high; the risk of infection was even higher. The surgeon was so feared that in many cases, patients waited until it was too late before approaching one for help.
Dead bodies, on the other hand, could not scream out in agony, nor would they bleed when sliced open. In this way, the novice could learn how to remove a bladder stone or amputate a gangrenous arm at his own leisure, observing the anatomical structures of the human body as he went along. Ultimately, this prepared the student to operate on the living (see 19th-century dissection table below from the Science Museum, London).
In this way, body snatchers were crucial to the advancement of medicine. Unfortunately, historians find it difficult to track them as they often use numerous aliases to hide their true identities. One snatcher may appear in multiple court records under half a dozen names. There is simply no way to know.
It is unlikely that many body snatchers were murderers. The punishment for stealing a body was too low; the punishment for murder was too high. The payout for a body was the same no matter how one procured it. Yet undeniably, the resurrection men are a part of the medical profession’s dark and sordid past—a past that for the most part has received only cursory acknowledgement.
Still, we must ask ourselves where we would be today without the body snatchers and the bodies which they stole.
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1. Based loosely off a true account. The three body snatchers were eventually apprehended. One was acquitted while the other two were sentenced to six months imprisonment. They were paraded through the streets and whipped publicly. L. Benson, The Book of Remarkable Trials and Notorious Characters (1872?).
2. Probably the fragment of 1668, Anatomie, most of which is in John Locke’s hand. Originally quoted in Andrew Cunningham, ‘The Kinds of Anatomy’, Medical History (1975), p. 3.
3. Ian Ross and Carol Urquhart Ross, ‘Body Snatching in Nineteenth Century Britain: from Exhumation to Murder’, British Journal of Law and Society (Summer, 1979), p. 114.
4. J.B. Bailey, The Diary of a Resurrectionist: 1811-1812 (1896), p. 80.
5. True Sun, 29-5-1832. Originally qtd in Ruth Richardson, Death, Dissection and the Destitute (1987),
6. Ibid., p. 60.
8. MacKenzie, ‘An Appeal to the Public and to the Legislature, on the Necessity of Affording Dead Bodies to the Schools of Anatomy, by Legislature Enactment’, Westminster Review (1824), pp. 83-86.
9.Qtd in Jesse Dobson, John Hunter (1969), p. 178.