I’ve just finished At Home by Bill Bryson. Those of you who’ve read it will no doubt be nodding, grunting, smacking your lips, or whatever you do when you agree, when I say that Bill’s book is absolutely packed with facts—too many to easily recall as it happens, although in recent conversations some of them have conveniently popped back into my noggin when someone mentioned a key word. Unfortunately, not all of those recollections have been appropriate.
I couldn’t help myself at dinner the other night. We were talking about how fortunate we were in these modern times, dwelling particularly on the leaps and bounds made by medicine in the last fifteen hundred years or so, and comparing our longevity of life and general state of health with London’s less fortunate, mid-nineteenth century folk, who wallowed in a miserable miasma of ill health and often fatal disease.
As we progressed through the nourriture délicieuse—a superb lamb ragout—I began to answer a fairly innocuous
question directed to me on the subject of medical research from someone on my right. As I replied, some of Bill Bryson’s fascinating writing sprang to mind and, in no time, I was off and away chatting to my dinner partner about the ghoulish world of the resurrectionist.
In a typical year in the eighteen hundreds, there were twenty three schools of medicine in Britain’s capital, each requiring a heap of fresh bodies every day on which to hone their skills. The law specified that only the cadavers of executed criminals could be used, and as there were only fifty-odd executions out of 1600 death sentences in 1831, for example, a lively body business developed amongst the daring and insensitive.
The rush for flesh became a bit of a goldmine, with the cemeteries either unable to keep up with the demand, or too well guarded to risk life for limb, so to speak. To the infamous-to-be Burke and Hare this situation was unacceptable. In a time when the well-paid workers were earning a pound a week and a nice pinky-fresh body could bring up to ₤14, more direct measures were called for.
This ruthless, alcoholic pair went out and found people to befriend, got them drunk and then suffocated them by sitting on their chests and covering their mouths. Voila, another body ready for delivery—what excellent service. Fortunately, after fifteen (known) victims, the enterprising duo was caught, and after Hare turned King’s evidence and welshed on his mate, William Burke was hanged and, ironically, his body sent to a medical school for dissection.
I’d just got to discussing aspects of nineteenth century dissection implements with my dining companion when I felt, rather than noticed, that something was not quite right. I stopped mid-sentence and glanced around. To my embarrassment, all the other guests had ceased their conversations and were staring at me. The room had become deathly still.
I was saved by our host, who’d disappeared into the kitchen minutes earlier, missing the body of the conversation. She reappeared right on cue, carrying a large platter.
“More lamb anyone?”