The write stuff: Hare by Peter Ranscombe

BOSTON, 1863. And in this fast-moving historical thriller by Peter Ranscombe, a Scottish detective hunting a serial killer comes across a suspect he last came across years ago. A certain William Hare …
There were at least two mysteries about the corpse. First of all, and quite obviously, the branding marks. Picture: GettyThere were at least two mysteries about the corpse. First of all, and quite obviously, the branding marks. Picture: Getty
There were at least two mysteries about the corpse. First of all, and quite obviously, the branding marks. Picture: Getty

‘Gentlemen, as our Lord said during his all-too brief time on this Earth, ‘Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free’.”

The rich timbre of Professor Seymour Cartwright’s voice easily filled the main lecture theatre of Harvard University’s Massachusetts Medical College. More than one hundred young men sat on the steeply-tiered benches, leaning forward on their desks and scribbling down notes as they hung on the professor’s every word.

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Gillespie slipped into the back of the lecture theatre and stood leaning against the rail behind the final row of benches, gazing down at the professor, who stood before a table at the front of the theatre, at the foot of the tiered seating. Cartwright gave an almost imperceptible nod of his head, acknowledging the police officer’s presence.

Gillespie’s strict Presbyterian upbringing kicked in and he subconsciously identified the passage from Holy Scripture as the thirty-second verse of the eighth chapter in the Gospel according to St John. The detective recognised Cartwright was taking the quote out of context but the professor’s liberal use of Scripture came as no surprise to him as the gulf between science and religion – and those who practiced in each field – appeared to be growing wider. Nevertheless, he was intrigued by Cartwright’s selection of the passage.

With a flourish of the professor’s hands, his unspoken question was answered. Cartwright lifted the white blanket that lay on the table in front of him and, with a flick of his wrists, tossed it clear over his shoulder, as if he was a magician performing a trick. Beneath the blanket lay the remains of a human cadaver, which Gillespie noted from the remaining appendages had once been a man.

“And where better to look for truth than inside our own bodies?” Cartwright mused. “The soul of this individual may have thrown off its mortal coil but this earthly form before us can reveal not only how this man lived, but how he died as well.”

Gillespie watched as Cartwright lectured his students. Before the lesson, the flesh of the cadaver’s chest had been sliced open in a perfectly straight line from the throat all the way down to the navel. The two pieces of the man’s skin had been drawn back as if it were the front of a shirt, revealing the ribcage and internal organs beneath. Cartwright proceeded to elucidate the procedure for opening the ribcage to examine the heart and lungs and then launched into a comparison of the rival techniques of Bohemian pathologist Carl von Rokitansky and Rudolf Virchow, his German compatriot.

While Blackstone frowned upon Gillespie consulting with Cartwright – and even the normally unshakable O’Malley had been given cause to leave the professor’s laboratory on more than one occasion at the sight of a post-mortem examination – Gillespie knew the techniques being employed before him were the future of policing.

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Employing the scientific disciplines practiced by Cartwright had helped Gillespie to solve many cases over the course of the previous twenty years and the detective held high hopes that the professor’s insight could lead him to catch the culprits in his current inquiries too.

As Cartwright brought his lecture to an end, he told a joke in Latin that flew straight over Gillespie’s head but elicited a ripple of laughter from the students. Cartwright was replacing the white sheet over the top of the corpse when a hand was gingerly raised from the front row of benches.

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“Professor?” the student said tentatively, encouraged by the persistent elbowing of the students either side of him.

Cartwright smiled and raised an inquisitive eyebrow. “Yes, Saunders?” he asked.

“Sir, the latest paper from the Royal Society in London arrived last week and it contained an interesting treatise on the human body – and on reanimation in particular sir,” said the student, taking his time to reach his point but emboldened by the sea of heads turning in his direction from the benches that surrounded him.

Cartwright tilted his head to one side as he considered what the student was telling him. “Go on, Saunders,” he said.

“Well, do you believe that such a feat could be achieved, professor?” the student asked. “Could a doctor bring a dead patient back to life?”

Cartwright appeared to ponder the question for a moment before replying, but the professor’s sharp mind had already pieced together an answer before the student had finished asking the question.

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“You are, of course,” Cartwright began, “referring to the writings of the eminent Prussian scientist Herr Professor Kristophe van der Waal. I too devoured his latest paper with much interest. But his conclusions, I feel, are wide of the mark.”

Cartwright turned his attention to the rest of the assembled students in the lecture theatre.

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“In his latest paper, Professor van der Waal postulates that as well as pumping blood around the body, the heart is also traversed by electrical signals, such as those that now cross our nation through Samuel Morse’s telegraph system.

“While I have read other work that confirms his theories on the heart’s electrical system – indeed, I know of colleagues in London who are studying the same phenomenon – his assertions that these electrical signals could be restarted after death to bring a patient back to life are, I feel, a step too far.”

“But why, sir?” asked Saunders, the student who had posed the initial question.

“We have known since the days of the ancient Greeks that the heart is the pump that drives blood around the body,” Cartwright explained. “Once that action has ceased, I see no way of restarting it. A physician may be able to restore electric order to the heart in the moments after such signals cease but to reinitiate the pump itself seems a far-fetched notion to me.”

A thought suddenly seemed to occur to Cartwright and he ended the lecture as he had begun, with a passage from Scripture.

“‘Thy dead men shall live, together with my dead body shall they arise: awake and sing yee that dwell in dust: for thy dew is as the dew of herbs, and the earth shall cast out the dead.’ Only Christ can raise the dead.”

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After the students had cleared out of the lecture theatre, Gillespie walked down the steps in the aisle at the centre of the benches to join Cartwright beside the demonstration table.

“Bravo, maestro,” he said, giving a slow clap with his hands as he descended the stairs. “Another good turnout for your show to boot.”

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“I’d like to see more of them,” Cartwright explained, shaking the detective’s outstretched hand. “Before the war, it was standing room only in my classes. Paying students had to stand around the edges just to hear my lectures. Now it seems that more and more young men are enlisting as field surgeons. They’re desperate to wet their hands in the butchery that goes on at the front and make a name for themselves. Week after week, it feels like there are fewer and fewer of them remaining here to learn their craft.”

“That was you once,” Gillespie offered, reminding the professor of his own time as a field surgeon nearly twenty years before in the war between America and Mexico.

“I saw sights in the desert that I would not wish on any other man,” Cartwright said. “As did you, I have no doubt,” he added. The pair had served together in the United States Army, Cartwright as a medic and Gillespie as a soldier.

Cartwright’s gaze shifted around the empty lecture theatre and he shook his head. There was a moment’s pause as he was lost in thought before he turned back to Gillespie. He looked as if he was about to say something but then thought better of it.

“That will be all for today, Jamie,” he said to his assistant. The tall young man who was standing behind the trolley with the cadaver nodded in silent acknowledgement and slipped out of the lecture theatre. Jamie Taylor had been rendered mute after a shell exploded in the trenches, showering him in shrapnel. But Cartwright had taken pity on his former student and had hired him as one of his research assistants to prepare bodies for examination and help him perform autopsies.

Once Taylor had left them, Cartwright turned back to Gillespie.

“You’ve come about the bodies no doubt?” he asked.

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“I wish it was a social call,” Gillespie replied. “But I need to confirm if the latest killing is linked to the previous two.”

Cartwright nodded. “As well as the strange branding on the chest, this victim was also asphyxiated, just like the others.”

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“And the branding came after the man was dead?” Gillespie checked.

“Yes, just like the others – you can see for yourself if you like. I was using the latest victim as a demonstration for the students.”

Cartwright gingerly folded back the white blanket as far as the body’s waist this time, his showmanship contained for the moment as he led Gillespie through the science of his investigation.

“Don’t worry,” said Cartwright, noticing the pensive expression on Gillespie’s face. “I made the initial incision before the lecture. None of the students would have seen the marks on the chest.”

Cartwright carefully placed the skin from the man’s chest back into place, revealing two circular brands on his upper body. Gillespie peered again at the marks he had become so familiar with from the two previous corpses.

“Why brand the victims after killing them?” Gillespie’s rhetorical question was left unanswered as the two men considered the body.

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“And you said he was killed in the same manner as the other two?” the detective asked.

“Yes,” replied Cartwright, reaching onto his table of instruments and passing a magnifying glass to Gillespie. “Look at the mouth.”

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Gillespie did as he was instructed and Cartwright gripped the dead man’s chin and forehead, overcoming the rigour mortis that had set in to part the corpse’s lips.

“I found the same fibres inside this victim’s mouth as with the other two. There’s also bruising across the ribs, which could indicate that two assailants were involved. It’s a technique that I believe is called – ”.

“Burking,” Gillespie interrupted the professor, tearing his eyes away from the corpse and beginning to pace the floor.

“Of course,” Cartwright nodded, remembering what Gillespie had told him when he had explained how the first two men had died. “A little bit too close to home for you?”

“It feels like a lifetime ago,” replied Gillespie, as images from his first case as a police officer in the Scottish capital flashed through his mind. The murders committed by Burke and Hare had brought a new word into common usage: “burking” to describe how a victim was smothered by one man while having his chest compressed by another.

“Well, it nearly was a lifetime ago now,” smiled Cartwright.

“Neither one of us is as young as he once was.”

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Gillespie sighed, feeling every one of his fifty-one years as he so often had of late.

“I still don’t see it,” Gillespie said. “Three bodies, all Irish canal navvies, all dumped down at the docks. No families, no quarrels with friends or other labourers, no obvious reason to brand them in such a manner.

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“Then there are the body-snatching cases too,” Gillespie added. “I have a feeling they’re linked to the murders but I just can’t see it.”

“The branding is certainly highly unusual,” agreed Cartwright, who had picked up the hand lens and was staring at the two circular marks on the man’s chest. “From the way in which the skin has been marked, I can tell the injuries came after the victims were dead – but for what purpose I can only speculate.”

A thought struck Gillespie.

“You were talking to the students about…”

Gillespie struggled for the right word.

“Reanimation,” Cartwright offered.

“Yes. Could whoever is exhuming these bodies be investigating the same field as this Prussian scientist? Or could he have come to America?”

Cartwright thought for a moment before answering.

“It is feasible,” he conceded. “But you would need enormous resources to carry out research such as this. From what I understand of his studies, the
electric currents van der Waal was generating were not inconsiderable.

“Plus, I can say with absolute certainty that van der Waal has not travelled to the United States,” Cartwright added.

“How can you be so sure?” Gillespie asked.

“He’s dead,” Cartwright replied simply. “Killed when his laboratory burned down. The electrical equipment he was using could not have been as reliable as he would have wished. It’s morbidly ironic, don’t you think? An electricity researcher killed by an electrical fault?”

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Gillespie’s head was no clearer when his carriage reached the temporary detectives’ office and his mood was not helped by the scene of pandemonium that greeted him when he opened the door.

A mixture of uniformed officers and Gillespie’s own depleted squad of detectives were questioning several dozen Irish canal-building navvies, with the din from the labourers’ answers filling the small office. Behind the rows of crowded desks, Gillespie could see even more navvies being moved in and out of the makeshift interview rooms that the captain had encouraged his men to use.

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Andrew Fletcher, the officer who had transferred from the New York City police force, walked over to greet Gillespie. Fletcher’s clean-shaven features made him look even younger than his twenty-eight years but Gillespie noted the hard determination in the young man’s eyes.

“We’ve nearly finished questioning all of the canal workers, Inspector,” explained Fletcher, who still stumbled over the use of the British title used for Gillespie.

“It’s not good news, sir. We know that the final navvy to be murdered, O’Driscoll, disappeared between seven o’clock and eleven o’clock on Monday night. But all of the navvies have the same alibi – they were all at a union meeting on Monday evening.”

Gillespie sighed and nodded. “Where’s O’Malley?” he asked.

Fletcher pointed towards the back of the room, where the corridor led down to the cells in the basement beneath the office.

As Gillespie headed to the stairs, he met O’Malley coming up from the holding pens.

“They were all at the same union meeting?” Gillespie asked.

“All but one,” O’Malley replied. “I had the union clerk bring along his log book. All of the workers signed in to the meeting – even though they’re not citizens they still wanted to come up with some kind of protest against the Union draft – and were there all night. All the workers except for one of the foremen, a man named Laird.”

“Do you have him here?” Gillespie asked.

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“Aye, down in the cells. He wouldn’t give an alibi for the time of the murder so I threw him downstairs to think about it some more.”

Gillespie knew the evidence was circumstantial at best but the absent canal navvy was the best lead so far.

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“Right, I’ll come with you to question him again,” Gillespie decided and followed O’Malley back down the stairs to the cells.

“He’s a right queer one, this Laird,” O’Malley explained as they walked down the poorly-lit corridor, with a dozen cells leading off each side. “One calm bugger. He just sat there giving one-word answers when I asked him about the murders. There’s something funny about his eyes too,” O’Malley muttered.

The officers reached the final cell and O’Malley slipped his key into the lock. The lieutenant pushed open the door and led the way into the cell.

The only light to illuminate the cell came from the gas lamp out in the corridor and at first Gillespie could only make out the vague shape of the figure who sat on the bench, the sole piece of furniture in the small cell. He was tall, around six foot, but wiry. His salt and pepper-coloured hair was long and swept back from his high forehead.

But it was the eyes sunk deep into the face above the high cheekbones that Gillespie was drawn to. One blue, one green. And a flash of recognition passed across those eyes as Gillespie gave a murderous cry and launched himself across the cell at its inmate.

Gillespie swung his arms in quick succession, raining a stream of blows across the face of the prisoner, who brought his arms up to shield himself. But apart from the defensive gesture, Laird didn’t return the blows and sank to the floor as the attack continued.

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“Inspector,” O’Malley cried as he lunged to grab Gillespie by the coat and pull him back from the prisoner. The lieutenant dragged his commanding officer out of the cell and threw him against the far wall of the corridor before quickly locking the cell again, watching Laird lift his head to look at the small window in the door.

“What the hell’s gotten into you?” O’Malley demanded.

Gillespie’s breath came in short gasps after the exertion of hitting the cell’s occupant. His knees gave way and he rested his back against the wall, slowing sinking to the floor.

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“That man,” Gillespie panted. “His name isn’t Laird. It’s William Hare. And he’s a self-confessed serial killer.”


Peter Ranscombe spent nine years working as a journalist at The Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday, latterly as a business correspondent. He used reports from The Scotsman’s archive of William Burke’s hanging as inspiration for his debut novel, Hare, which asks what happened to William Hare after Burke was hanged for their crimes. His book places Hare in Boston during the American Civil War, when he falls under suspicion once more.

Ranscombe is from Nairn, near Inverness. He has also written for magazines including Scottish Field, Scottish Wildlife, Scotland Outdoors and The Lancet. Hare is published this week by Knox Robinson Publishing.