Burke and Hare

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… recent developments in Edinburgh connect to stuff that happens in that book.

Someone who gets quite a bit of mention in The Edinburgh Dead – even though he’s long dead at the time of the story – is Major Weir, Edinburgh’s most infamous, notorious warlock. The book’s hero, Adam Quire, even ventures into Weir’s derelict, haunted former residence. I had to improvise a bit for that scene, since Weir’s actual house isn’t there any more. People who tried to stay there after his execution reported all manner of distressing manifestations and supernatural goings-on, and it was eventually demolished.

Or was it? Someone thinks it survived, and they reckon they’ve identified it. So perhaps Edinburgh’s most famously haunted and creepily-historied building is, in fact, still here. Amongst us. Watching us. It was apparently absorbed into the building pictured on the right.

I’m instinctively a bit sceptical, to be honest, but who knows? Anyway, if true, it amuses me that Weir’s house was apparently incorporated into a chapel building, which is now the Quaker Meeting House. I confess, that building’s not quite where I chose to put Weir’s house for The Edinburgh Dead, but I was only off by about fifty yards, which isn’t too bad I reckon.

The tale of Major Thomas Weir is, by the way, crazy and creepy – worth a read if you’ve not heard of him – and also perhaps kind of sad, since it seems more than a little likely he was, like many people in the past, unpleasantly executed basically for being mad.

Slightly more tenuously connected to The Edinburgh Dead, but included here because it’s pretty: there’s been an exhibition of Chinese lanterns in the University’s Old College this week.

The Edinburgh Dead‘s based on the true history of grave-robbing and the illicit trade in corpses for medical dissection, and quite a few of those corpses ended up in Old College. Indeed, in one of fate’s most wry and satisfying twists, William Burke – who was one half of the Burke & Hare duo who murdered to meet the demand for corpses, and who appears in The Edinburgh Dead – ended up on a dissection slab in Old College. After he was hung, his corpse was publicly dissected there. There was such demand to witness the butchering of his body that there was a near-riot when audience space proved inadequate.

Anyway, nice lanterns don’t you think? Based on the famous terracotta army, of course.

Check out the Edinburgh Dead photo-trailer for lots more visuals and history that connect to the book.

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As a sort of addendum to The Edinburgh Dead photo-trailer, I thought it’d be fun (for me, anyway) to run through a few of the people, and maybe a couple of the places, appearing in the novel that – it might surprise some folk to learn – I didn’t make up, but plucked from the real and true history of the city.

Burke and Hare, of course.  Don’t need much of an introduction for most people: infamous murderers, who killed at least 17 innocent folk and sold their corpses to the anatomists of Edinburgh for dissection.

All I’ll say about them here is that I think, despite its notoriety, their story has actually received less popular attention than it deserves.  Jack the Ripper is often thought of as the first ‘modern’ serial killer, but Burke and Hare predate him (whoever he was) by decades, and there is – to me, at least – something fascinatingly modern about their crimes.  They killed for financial gain, in the ‘service’ of famed and ambitious scientists, preying on the vulnerable.  When their misdeeds became known, the public uproar was pretty much unprecedented, and prefigures the kind of media-driven hysteria we see nowadays, including exclusive confessional newspaper interviews, exhaustive reporting of every gory detail, public disorder and so on.

Robert Knox, who the hero of The Edinburgh Dead, Adam Quire, encounters in Surgeon’s Square, is entirely real, and his appearance and demeanour in the novel are – as best as I could manage – historically accurate.  Self-important, abrasive, with only one good eye and a collection of gruesome anatomical specimens.  He did, as described in the novel, treat injured survivors of the Battle of Waterloo during his early years as a surgeon, and was, by 1828, by some distance the most successful and sought after private teacher of anatomy in the city. (A remarkable oddity of the time: there were plenty of such private teachers, operating outside the established University – or any other institution – busily dissecting cadavers for the edification of paying students).

And he was, as the novel hints but does not fully describe, undone by his hubris and his … let’s call it, to be charitable, morally questionable judgement.

And I’ll add in passing that Surgeon’s Square, was, of course, a real place.  It’s been more or less completely built over nowadays (by University buildings), but there’s a plaque on a wall pointing out its site.

Robert Christison.  Easily my favourite discovery in the course of research for the novel.  This guy was, if you ask me, remarkable.  In a lot of ways, I’d have liked to give him an even bigger role to play in The Edinburgh Dead than he has, just because I find him so interesting.  He was one of the great pioneers of what nowadays we would probably call forensic medicine, almost before it existed as a clearly defined concept.

In The Edinburgh Dead we see him pretty early in his career, when he was becoming recognised as a serious expert on things like poisoning.  (He even took poisons himself to more thoroughly understand their effects).  He went on to greatness, producing definitive texts and eventually even being appointed a physician to Queen Victoria.  A perfect example, in many ways, of the fruits of the inquiring, imaginative ambition that took hold of Edinburgh’s thinkers in the late 18th and early 19th centuries: he went after the secrets that the emerging scientific understanding of the human body unlocked, and applied them to the real world.

His expertise led him to be involved in many high profile criminal investigations, including that resulting from the misbehaviour of Burke and Hare.

James Robinson really was in charge of Edinburgh’s police force in 1828, and was indeed a former military man.  What happens to him in the course of the novel is, broadly speaking, what actually happened to him in the course of that year, though it didn’t necessarily happen for precisely the reasons I suggest.

Andrew Merrilees (Merry Andrew) was a real bodysnatcher, as were his cronies Spune and Mowdiewarp.  (They all sound to me like refugees from Gormenghast).  They provided the esteemed anatomists of Edinburgh with a great many fresh corpses.

They’re examples of what you’d call the ‘professional’ corpse-thiefs: a criminal underclass that emerged to service the needs of the professors.  Bizarrely, at least as many corpses were dug up and stolen by the anatomists themselves – or more often their over-enthusiastic and infatuated students – so you almost had two different classes of bodysnatcher operating at the same time: the dodgy and distinctly unsavoury criminals, and the highly educated ‘amateurs’ who moonlighted as dastardly resurrectionists.

The Holy Land, the Happy Land and the Just Land.  I wish I could take credit for making these places up – or at least inventing their names – but I can’t.  They were real, and notorious tenements (i.e. apartment blocks, for anyone not familiar with the term) populated almost entirely by prostitutes, their pimps and assorted criminally-inclined hangers-on.  I have shifted them slightly from their historical timing, since the references to them actually place them a little bit later than 1828, but I don’t actually know when they acquired their unpleasant reputation so it’s not toally inconceiveable they were as I describe them even in 1828.

They’re all named, as I say in the book, with ‘dour irony’, since not a one of them was remotely Holy, Happy or Just, but for what it’s worth, the Just Land was allegedly not quite as bad as the others, since it contained only prostitutes, with no pimps.

The Dancing School was also a real place, but also one I’ve moved back in time a bit, just because I thought it was kind of fun.  As in the book, the teaching of dancing was in fact pretty low down on its list of priorities.

John Ruthven is not real.  But his (presumed) ancestors were.  There were at least a couple of members of the high-ranking Ruthven family, back in Scotland’s past, with a dark reputation for dabbling in the arcane.  They seem to have escaped any of the then-popular punishments for those accused of witchcraft, but got in various kinds of trouble on account of their political manouevrings and conspiratorial tendencies.

And there’s more – quite a bit more – but that’s probably enough for now.  Can always come back to some further examples of historical truth some time in the future, should it seem like a good idea.  Those wanting more on the historical background to the novel can always browse the rest of The Edinburgh Dead photo-trailer.

 

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