Back in the early days of my education, I was asked to research my surname and create a heraldic crest representing our family’s illustrious past. Being the good student that I was, I hurried off to the library (that’s how we did these things back in the day) to see what I could dig up on the family name “Burke.” I envisioned an encyclopedic family history rich in Celtic kings and vast tracts of fertile Irish soil. What I found was a tiny write-up on the “Burke” lineage and extensive information about “William Burke/Burkers/Burking.” Grave-robbing. Body-snatching. Part-harvesting. Wisely, I created a heraldic crest of shamrocks and swords and buried (ha!) any knowledge I had of how the term “Burking” came to be.
Those early memories surfaced again during my visit to the Museum of London‘s “Doctor’s, Dissection and Resurrection Men” exhibit, a macabre and grisly exploration of the body-snatching trade and its relationship to the 19th century medical community. The Museum of London’s Archeology team uncovered 262 burial sites in a 2006 excavation at Royal London Hospital. Many of the burial sites contained piles of unrelated bones exhibiting signs of dissection, amputation and autopsy, prompting a more extensive inquiry into the history of the hospital, medical research and Resurrection Men.
The medical profession needed real “subjects” to dissect and study, which created a huge demand for fresh bodies. The corpses of executed criminals provided some legal samples for study, but demand for bodies far exceeded supply. Criminal gangs of body-snatchers (Resurrection Men) stole bodies from wakes, graveyards and mortuaries to sell to surgeons and private anatomy schools. The fresh body trade became quite competitive and some Resurrection Men decided to skip the risky, complicated work of stealing bodies and decided to create them instead. Thus the case of Burke and Hare , who murdered 16 people for the sole purpose of selling their bodies. Thus the term “Burker/Burking.” Both men were executed and their bodies delivered to the surgeon’s dissection table. Ironic.
The horrendous Burke and Hare case, followed by London’s own Italian Boy case prompted the Anatomy Act 1832, which regulated a legal trade in bodies for medical science.
The exhibit itself is a fascinating, gruesome compilation of models, diaries, drawings and implements outlining the relationship between doctors and the Resurrection Men.
Things to know:
*The exhibit is not for the squeamish and not recommended for children under 12 (museum’s suggested age restriction).
*Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men is open until 14 April 2013. Information and advanced tickets here.
* I am 99.99% sure the heraldic crest I created in 6th grade is accurate and my surname connection to Burke/Burker/Burking is only by unfortunate coincidence.