Pembroke’s Clinic – The Resurrection Men, Pt 3 – Punishment

‘These men perform miracles, for they “raise the dead”, they are slave dealers, for they sell men ; they are amusing, for they furnish subjects for conversation; scientific, for they assist science. They are a species sui generis; Lycanthropes, for they live on the dead; discoverers, for they bring things hidden to light; quarrelsome , for they pick holes. Of what consequence is it to the fisherman whether the shark, the worm, or the scalpel decomposed his body?’

-Anon : The Cheilead, 1826-1827

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Alcohol: have some drinks, steal some bodies. Regular Friday night.

The London Burkers’ were a Resurrectionist gang running out of Covent Garden, London. Prior to being hung by their necks in front of a darkly voyeuristic crowd of over ten thousand, they admitted to not only the murder of a fourteen year old boy (very careless in my opinion – to be caught, I mean, not the murder) but also the exhumation of over seven hundred bodies over a stately twelve years. Quite the prolific bunch.

Through undoubtedly torture-inspired confessions, we learned the following about the murder, that the three main men of the gang, John Bishop, Thomas Williams and James May, lured to their house and drugged a fourteen year old boy with a laudanum infused concoction of gin and rum into a semi-conscious slumber. The trio, clearly in need of liquid courage for such an act (so few have the stones for this work), left the locale for a drink or five, to return an hour later. Not content with their methods, they tied the boy by the ankle and dipped him head first into the nearest well.

The young man may have fought were he not intoxicated, perhaps he may have hauled himself up the rope, but instead slowly drowned, while the killers, apparently unsure of the timescale of such matters, returned to the Shoreditch pub for a few more drinks. They returned, took the body and delivered it to their usual buyer, Richard Partridge, a renowned anatomist, who suspicious as to the the lack of burial preparation on the body, assumed foul play, sought the assistance of a constable, and the three were arrested.

Worth pulling a sick day for.

Worth pulling a sick day for.

Searches of the gang’s residence revealed multiple items of clothing, indicating more murders. The justice system, slaves to the public outcry, found them all guilty. James May escaped by some act of clemency, while Bishop and Williams were hung until dead. Perhaps ironically, the cadavers of the two men were served up to the local schools of surgery, sliced, eviscerated and laid open for the purposes of science. I am curious to how the doctors performing the procedure may have felt knowing that they were working on the very people who they had previously relied upon for this procedure.

What demons have we made these Resurrection men out to be? Serving the medical interest by providing up corpse after corpse up to the good of the medical cause and the general betterment of society, yet we throw them under the wheels of supposed ‘civilization’. What the tabloids will fail to mention, the same sensationalist rags that seek to also discredit me for my enlightened experiments, is the social conditions that brought about the trade itself. He who ignores history is doomed to repeat it, as the saying goes.

The population of England between the 1720’s and following century, swelled as does a pregnant sow almost one hundred percent from six to twelve million citizens. Industrial expansion brought great wealth to the English empire but the poorer classes did not see benefit, the wealth remaining among the aristocratic elite and merchants. The growth of the populace, coupled with poor working conditions and cramped cities, saw the infant capitalist engine grind beneath its treads countless members of the working class, causing inevitable riots, looting, criminal acts and widespread misdemeanors. While we pat ourselves on the back here in 1872 for our spurious notions of sophistication, it’s important to remind you of the short-sighted path continued upon, then as they do now, that rather than enact measures to more evenly distribute the wealth, English institutions wholeheartedly moved to increase the punishments for petty crimes to ever more severe lengths, namely the capital punishment roster, with consequent statutes rising above a healthy 200.

“We hanged for everything- for a shilling- for five shillings- for five pounds- for cattle- for coining- for forgery, even for witchcraft- for things that were and things that could not be” – Charles Phillips

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Rioting: still more fun than going to work!

Truly, a age dark enough to make the fall of the Roman Empire seem like a Brighton beach day. Millions of people toiling, dying, struggling to survive among the most barbaric of conditions, tens of thousands of young men sent to slaughter on the European battlefields, and the plutocratic tabloids dare hang out to dry brave men and women for misdemeanors as mild as a few insignificant snuffings.

Well, perhaps more than a few. Burke and Hare had 16. Confirmed. Elizabeth Ross was hanged for one, and James May and John Bishop et al had at least one confirmed murder, as well as the 500-1000 bodies to their record, exhumed in the more traditional sense. We’ll take the next article to talk about the most famous of the killers of the period, Burke and Hare.


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