Overview Wester Close Lamb’s Court The Auld Box The Resurrectionists Westmost Close

A Horrific Business

As early as 1505, the Charter of Incorporation for Surgeons and Barbers demanded that every candidate for admission should know every part of the body.  

There was always a demand for fresh cadavers from medical students and private medical schools.  Grave-robbing was not uncommon as a consequence. However, the publicity and revulsion felt by the trial of Burke and Hare took this horrific crime to a new level.

Between January and October 1828, Burke and Hare murdered at least sixteen people in cold blood, delivering all of their victims, some still warm, to Robert Knox who paid a bounty on them. Hare would usually prowl the streets seeking vulnerable people — the old, the infirm, the heavy drinking — and invite them back to a room at Log’s Lodging-House, where Burke was waiting. After the managed to get their “guest” drunk Burke would immobilize the victim while Hare suffocated them.

3_3148 The view over the burial ground from the watch house window.

The December 1828 trial of Burke and Hare, their wives, and Dr Knox, resulted in a guilty sentence only for Burke, who was hanged in January in front of a huge crowd (said to be as large as 25,000).  In an ironic twist, a few days later Burke’s corpse was publicly dissected (again before huge crowds).  Burke’s skeleton was given to Edinburgh Medical School, where it can be seen today, and a pocketbook supposedly bound with his skin is on display at Surgeons’ Hall Museum.

Even before this publicised crime, public alarm caused many churches and communities to take steps to prevent Resurrectionists, or body snatchers, entering their graveyard, defiling a fresh grave and stealing the corpse. 

The Anatomist Overtaken by the Nightwatch.

While there is no evidence that such a despicable act was carried out at the Burial Ground, the Society of Free Fishermen of Newhaven took it upon themselves to mount a guard for four nights from a small room at the north end of Lamb’s Court that overlooked the graveyard.  In 1826, the Free Fishermen decided to build a small room above the old one with a window to the South over the cemetery and a door to the north (seen the the illustration 3_6403).  There, three men would keep watch throughout the night armed with “two muskets, powder and ball and all other weapons needful for that service”.  Members were expected to perform this duty on pain of a fine.  Recently, a lead musket ball was found by one of the Newhaven Heritage Garden Group members working in the old Burial Ground.  This was doubtless discharged by an impetuous volunteer in their hours of tedium.

This crime was not restricted to Edinburgh, of course, but was committed throughout the length and breadth of the British Isles.  As a result, Parliament passed the Anatomy Act of 1832 which effectively brought this gruesome trade to an end.  The Free Fishermen members still kept a watch but this was more to prevent theft or vandalism

3_6403 Lambs Court — The Door to the Watchman Lookout