DR FIONA-JANE BROWN, of Hidden Aberdeen Tours, says bodysnatching wasn’t confined to Burke and Hare in Edinburgh – Aberdeen had its own fair share of of corpse-stealing hijinks
“Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief, Knox, the man who buys the beef.”
Before the 1832 Anatomy Act, trainee surgeons or ‘anatomists’ had to rely on a supply of bodies from the gallows or the gutter. ‘Body-snatching’ was a real profession; if you were a rich anatomy tutor, you could afford to pay others to do the dirty work. In most university towns, however, surgeons encouraged their students to raid the local cemeteries for freshly-buried corpses and Aberdeen was no exception.
Ordinary people became very suspicious of this new trend in medicine. The gruesome doings of Edinburgh’s famous serial killers, Burke and Hare, had the whole country terrified of anatomists, believing that they employed ‘Burkers’ to kidnap people and then kill them. Worse still, those who ended up on the anatomy slab may not even have been quite dead!
And so to a tale to rival the 21st century slasher flick.
Anatomy students were often unlucky in their hunt for ‘fresh’ specimens, and had to make do with dogs or even deer. One night a local group of ‘noddies’, as they were known in Scotland, spotted a very fine young gentleman sprawled apparently dead in the gutter. Careless in their excitement, they did not check for a pulse and grabbed their prone victim, hauling him off to nearby Marischal College. Their tutor was delighted. A perfect opportunity to study the digestive system, he suggested, and having removed the upper clothing, the doctor proceeded to incise the abdomen.
By the time the blade had cut across the body, the ‘dead’ gentleman leapt up in horror, much to the surprise of all concerned. This dandy had merely been dead drunk. He screamed in terror, “Murderers! Burkers! You’ve killed me!” his hands clasping the now gaping wound from which his intestines began to protrude. Somehow, he shifted himself off the slab and staggered to the door.
Outside, he made it across the darkened quadrangle into the city’s Broadgate. Clutching his fast escaping entrails, he began to call for help. Two citizens spotted him. But rather than recognise his horrific predicament, they took the sight of the intestines for … stolen sausages! They cried after him, “Thief!” He pleaded as he stumbled away from them, only to collapse around the corner and bleed out fatally in a gory heap. The story goes that the students came outside, found him, and after ensuring he was without life, they retrieved the corpse and continued with their dissection lesson!
I first heard this from famous Scottish Traveller, Stanley Robertson, whose ancestors were in constant terror of being ‘burked’ due to their lack of status in the community. The truth? Who knows, but it reflects a genuine fear and superstitious attached to human dissection.
DR FIONA-JANE BROWN is a folklorist and tour operator in Aberdeen, North-East Scotland. Her company, Hidden Aberdeen Tours, specialises in historical walks around the city and runs ghost tours around Halloween. Its website is here and its Facebook is here.