Unearthing the city’s original bodysnatchers

TO the two women living in poverty in Edinburgh’s slums, it must have seemed like easy money. All Helen Torrance and Jean Waldie had to do was convince a medical student that a weighted-down coffin actually contained the body of a dead child.

The two neighbours from Fairlie’s Close on the Royal Mile saw nothing wrong in cashing in on Edinburgh’s roaring trade in dead bodies for dissection by medical students. Their plan fell through, however, when the mother of nine-year-old John Dallas - the child they planned to pretend had died - refused to co-operate.

But the lure of five shillings in payment for a corpse was just too attractive to resist. And in 1751 they became Edinburgh’s first bodysnatchers to murder their victim.

It all happened almost 80 years before Burke and Hare terrorised the city, murdering and selling bodies. Yet few remember the names of Torrance and Waldie.

They plied John’s mother with drink at Torrance’s flat before Waldie slipped out to find the boy at home alone in nearby Stanielaw’s Close.

"Waldie gathered the child in her arms and carried him back to her apartment in Fairlie’s Close," says Norman Adams, who recounts the macabre story in his new book, Scottish Bodysnatchers.

"Torrance later joined her. The kidnapped victim was probably forced to drink ale and was probably suffocated by Torrance."

The women called in medical students and haggled over a price for the poor child’s body - and accepted two shillings in part payment, adds Adams. "Torrance was given an extra ten pence to buy a dram and received a further sixpence for carrying the corpse to a student’s lodgings in the Cowgate in her apron."

But the medical students panicked and dumped the body with "evident marks of it having been in the surgeons’ hands". Waldie and Torrance were put on trial for murder and hanged in the Grassmarket in 1752.

Long before the notorious Burke and Hare, Adams says this was only one incident in a long line of scandals linked to the sale of corpses, as surgeons and their students had to rely on a meagre supply from poor houses and the gallows.

But it was highly unusual for bodysnatchers to murder their victims - most of the bodies sold on this blackest of markets were actually "resurrected" from the grave. In the 17th and 18th century, thefts of freshly buried bodies were a common occurrence in Edinburgh graveyards.

The first bodysnatchers were medical students desperate to advance their knowledge of human anatomy, but unable to get access to bodies for dissection. They were quickly catered for by ghoulish thieves, and soon Edinburgh’s residents lived in fear of the "resurrectionists".

And, according to Adams, the first likely case of bodysnatching recorded in Britain can be traced to Edinburgh in 1678. Four members of a gypsy family, the Shaws, were hanged at the Grassmarket for murdering a man and his pregnant wife during a brawl. "The executed gypsies were thrown into a pit in Greyfriars Churchyard and lightly covered with earth," says Adams. "The next morning, the youngest had disappeared."

Adams, a retired journalist who lives in Banchory, Aberdeenshire, says that a contemporary account speculates that the body had been "snatched", indicating that the practice was well known at the time.

Before the Anatomy Act in 1832 - which was passed shortly after Burke and Hare’s murders came to light - demand for bodies from surgeons and their students had steadily increased. The situation became so bad in Edinburgh that walls were heightened around cemeteries, more watchtowers were built and graves were fortified with iron "mort safes" to keep thieves at bay. Some graves were even booby-trapped.

As well as a revulsion for the desecration of the grave, people were fearful of not reaching the afterlife in their entirety, and it was commonplace for amputees to have their limb buried in the graveyard until death reunited them.

"There was a repugnance for dissection, and this was a block to anatomical research," says Adams. "But people also believed that you wouldn’t go to heaven ‘whole’ - it was the idea of the entire self appearing whole before the maker."

The practice of bodysnatching was even publicly condemned by surgeons themselves. In May 1711, the Incorporation of Surgeons protested: "Of late there has been a violation of the sepulchres . . . by some who most unchristianly have been stealing, or at least carrying away, the bodies of the dead out of their graves." A decade later, in 1721, the Royal College of Surgeons forbade its apprentices to steal bodies, but that didn’t stop the plundering of graves.

Adams reveals that Greyfriars was targeted so often in the early 18th century that the boundary walls of the old kirkyard were raised by eight feet in 1738.

But as Edinburgh’s medical school began to forge a formidable international reputation, the demand for cadavers would only increase. By 1742, professional bodysnatchers were doing a roaring trade in the supply of fresh corpses to medical students, leading to riots on the streets of the city. Violence was sparked by the discovery of a corpse in a house near a shop run by surgeon Martin Eccles.

An angry mob wrecked his shop, and Mr Eccles and five of his apprentices were cited to stand trial as accessories to the lifting of dead bodies, but the charges were later dropped. A few days after the mob targeted Eccles, they turned their attention to George Haldane, the beadle of the West Kirk, who was suspected of supplying corpses to surgeons. They looted his house and set fire to the remains.

Days later, as Mr Haldane protested his innocence in a public notice in newspapers, vigilantes set fire to the home of Peter Richardson, a gardener suspected of stealing corpses from Inveresk churchyard.

A decade on, Adams says, Edinburgh was once again "gripped by wild rumours of apprentice chirurgeons [surgeons] kidnapping citizens for dissection". The powerful chair of anatomy at Edinburgh University, Alexander Monro, was forced to move after his premises were ransacked.

But the most notorious of all were, of course, Irishmen William Burke and William Hare, who found murder far more lucrative than grave-robbing.

Burke moved into Hare’s lodging house at Tanner’s Close in 1827. A short time later, a guest died without paying his bill, and the two men decided to take advantage of the booming "resurrectionist" trade.

They bundled the body into a sack and delivered it to the assistants of Dr Robert Knox, at Surgeons Square, who paid them the huge sum at the time of 7 10s.

During an 11-month killing spree, Burke and Hare killed 16 people, usually plying their victims with drink and smothering or strangling them. Their last victim was Madgy Docherty, who they murdered on Hallowe’en 1828. But her body was seen by Burke’s lodgers, and the police later found it in a tea chest at Surgeons Square.

Burke was hanged in January 1829, and ironically his body ended up on the surgeon’s dissecting table. But Hare escaped death by turning King’s evidence. Knox, the eminent surgeon who had almost certainly turned a blind eye to their crimes, escaped prosecution but his career never recovered.

It was the chilling story of Burke and Hare that first sparked Adams’ interest in bodysnatching. "It’s a subject that’s always interested me since I used to hear, as Edinburgh children do, stories about Burke and Hare," he says.

Adams discovered that people lived in fear of the grave-robbers for many decades after the practice had ended.

"Certainly, right up to the end of the 19th century, people still were in awe of the bodysnatchers," he says.

And Adams reveals that evidence of the fear they instilled is very much in evidence across the city. Examples of mort safes are still apparent in Greyfriars Kirkyard, where a macabre skeleton also dances a jig with surgical instruments in a grotesque memorial above the grave of a surgeon, John Borthwick of Stow. At the West End, a watchtower stands guard over St Cuthbert’s graveyard, formerly known as the West Kirk, while a similar structure still stands at New Calton Graveyard.

"Edinburgh has a profusion of reminders of the time of the resurrectionists," says Adams. "It is a quite terrifying history which still curdles the blood today."

♦ Scottish Bodysnatchers, by Norman Adams, is published by Goblinshead priced 5.95