The Ruffian on the Stair: CSI Victorian London

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By | From the Collections

“In the midst of life, we are in death” – in the midst of the Library, right now, even more so.  Downstairs the Wellcome Collection’s exhibition “Death: a Self-Portrait” runs until 24th February, showing 300 objects from the Richard Harris collection on the iconography of death and our responses to it. Across town, the Museum of London’s exhibition Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men (until 14th April 2013) focuses on stories that emerged from a dig behind the Royal London Hospital in 2006, when archaeologists found themselves excavating graves that might contain three legs and no head and realised that they were dealing with body parts from the Hospital’s anatomical school, taking them into the murky territory of the grave-robbers and murderers who supplied early 19th century medical schools with corpses for dissection. Let’s go with that theme, then, and add some Victorian murder stories in the Library’s holdings to the mix.

Obtaining cadavers for medical students to work on is always difficult but the early nineteenth century saw the problem at its most acute. The supply of corpses from authorised channels – basically, the bodies of hanged murderers – in no way met the demand. It never had been a generous allocation but for a variety of reasons – an expanding medical profession, perhaps a greater reluctance by judges to give the death penalty, and popular resistance that could see hangings turn into a brawl as the victim’s friends and family tried to fight off the people charged with taking the body away – by the early nineteenth-century the system was in crisis. The need for bodies was clear: Sir Astley Cooper, the leading surgeon of the day, stated bluntly that a trainee surgeon needed to practice on the dead or he would mangle the living. With a clear demand and an inadequate legal supply, the medical profession was forced into winking at illegality, at condoning grave-robbery – or worse.

Many people will have heard of Burke and Hare, who killed numerous people in Edinburgh in 1827-28 and sold the corpses to Dr. Robert Knox, and they remain the “brand-leaders”, as it were: the verb “Burking” is used thereafter to describe murder for the purposes of dissection. However, they were by no means alone. If anything, Burke and Hare stumbled into their role: the first corpse they sold was that of a tenant in Mrs Hare’s lodging house, who had died of natural causes.

Williams, Bishop and May in the dock at the Old Bailey, 1831: from MS.7058.

In contrast, the Wellcome Library holds, as MS.7058, a collection of documents relating to a group of whom some at least knew what they were doing right from the start: Williams, Bishop and May, the “London Burkers”.

Unlike Burke and Hare they had begun as grave-robbers, exhuming the recently buried and selling them for dissection. Murder, however, gave a better class of corpse, fresher and (if care was taken) undamaged…

Part of MS.7058 comprises confessions, verified by the Keeper of Newgate prison and presumably dictated under his offices. In these documents the killers give chilling accounts of their activities. Their victims are the floating population of homeless and impoverished that would be described, twenty years later, by Henry Mayhew in his classic, encyclopaedic study of London Labour and the London Poor, people often scrambling to find food and a bed from one day to the next, without friends or family even to notice that they had gone.

Crossing sweepers, from Henry Mayhew’s “London Labour and the London Poor” (1851). Desperately poor people like these were the pool from which the London Burkers chose their victims.

Typically, the killers would befriend someone sleeping rough – a homeless woman found sheltering in a doorway, a boy sleeping in Smithfield Market after helping drive a herd of cattle from Lincolnshire for slaughter. The victim might be taken to the pub and bought drinks; in some cases they might even do nothing at this time of first contact but arrange to meet another night. Gradually, trust is won, the victim groomed for the crime to come.

Eventually, sooner or later, the victim would find themselves in a house in Nova Scotia Gardens – a slum area, near today’s Columbia Road in Shoreditch, dominated by heaps of refuse and excrement brought there for processing and sorting by the contractors who emptied London’s ash-bins, waste buckets and cesspits. Here, the killers would drug them with a drink (typically rum) spiked with laudanum; the unconscious victim would then be suspended head down in the well and drowned. Taken out a little while later and hung head downwards for the water to drain out, the corpse was ready for sale to the anatomy schools: undamaged and fresh, immeasurably better for dissection than a corpse exhumed after a few days in the grave. An engraving in the Library shows the Burkers carrying a large, suspicious basket up to the gate of King’s College, ready to offer their latest victim for sale.

The London Burkers approaching Kings College with a body for sale (in the basket): from “The history of the London Burkers”, 1832.

If anything, the corpses could be in too good condition. The fourteen-year-old boy they delivered to Kings College on 5th November 1831 was just too fresh and the demonstrator of anatomy could see that it had never been buried: clearly prepared to wink at grave-robbery but not murder, he alerted the police. (Greed had already got the burkers into trouble that night: they were eager to make maximum use of their victims and tried to cash in on the fact that, before artificial false teeth, the only way dentures could be made was by using the teeth of the dead. Frugally, May took a bradawl and removed the victim’s teeth for sale to a dentist whilst the rest of the body went for dissection: however, the dentist was alarmed to see fragments of fresh gum still attaching to the teeth, far fresher than they had a right to be, and also began to ask awkward questions.)

Handbill describing the trial of the London Burkers: from MS.7058.

After a trial that captured the public imagination (and was documented in pamphlets and broadsides, some of which are also in MS.7058), Williams and Bishop were hanged; May, who was not present at the killings and claimed all along he had believed these to be corpses got through “mere” grave-robbery, escaped with his life.

The case of Burke and Hare gained particular significance from the fact that it took place at the very time a Parliamentary Select Committee was considering the supply of bodies for dissection: it was to this Committee that Astley Cooper gave the evidence quoted above. The cases of Burke and Hare and their London counterparts fed into a general feeling that inaction was no longer an option, and in 1832 the Anatomy Act regularised the system, providing that any unclaimed body in a workhouse or similar circumstances could be directed to the anatomy schools. This was not without its problems: there was popular resistance, on the grounds that the poor had little in life and were now to have their last possession, their own body, commandeered in death; but the shady world of the grave-robber was on the way out.

Murder of course was not. Regular readers of this blog will remember James Patterson, the young Manchester-based teacher of the “deaf and dumb” (to use the terminology of his time), whose diaries are held in the Library as MSS.7352-7353. Patterson spends the Christmas and New Year of 1858/9 staying with relatives in London and a previous blog post has described the Patterson Challenge organised by Londonist website in homage to the marathon walk he and his uncle take around London on December 27th. Patterson lists the sights they take in as they trek from Camden to Greenwich and back; most are things we recognise immediately today, but there is one highly cryptic reference, to “Waterloo Bridge … where the man was picked up some time ago cut to pieces.”

The British Medical Journal of 1857 takes up the story. A bag left on Waterloo Bridge was found to contain human body parts: not a complete body, but a proportion of one that had been sawn into small pieces. The BMJ for October 31st 1857 reports the findings of Dr. Alfred S. Taylor, to whom some of the body parts were passed for analysis. Taylor’s first concern was to put together what he could of the jigsaw and see if all parts came from the same body. The possibility had clearly been raised that these might be the remnants of anatomical dissections.

Waterloo Bridge, in 1915, from RAMC/720. Many years after the murder, of course, but the same structure on which the bag of body-parts was found (replaced by a more modern bridge in the mid-20th century).

As mentioned above, the archaeologists working behind the Royal London Hospital began to discover graves containing not merely disarticulated body parts but the wrong number of them, which indicated that they were waste parts from the anatomical school: Taylor, similarly, began by counting what he had and finding out if he had any duplicates. The BMJ records his report to the court that these were the remains of one person only. Furthermore, the body had been cut apart very inexpertly, sawing brutally through places where surgical skill could have achieved the same ends more elegantly: “The joints had been sawn through, evidently with great trouble, at points where a scalpel in the hands of even a young anatomist would speedily have effected a separation of the limbs.” Those joints, too, were locked in strange and awkward positions, suggesting that the body had not been laid flat when rigor mortis set in and that the cutting up had taken place when the body was still locked in this position. Identifying features had been removed: the genitals were gone, apparently in an attempt to obscure even the sex of the victim, although Taylor identified him as male from the form of the pelvis and from what he describes delicately as “a portion of the anatomical structure of the male still adhering to the arch of the pubis on the right side.” (He was also dark-haired, at least five feet nine inches tall and probably in his thirties or forties.) Even more peculiarly, the body parts had apparently been boiled and soaked in salt: Taylor surmised that this was to prevent putrefaction of the flesh and thus a smell that might lead to discovery.

A dustman, from Henry Mayhew’s “London labour and the London Poor” (1851). The London Burkers’ base in Shoreditch was surrounded by the piles of refuse and other waste that these men moved every day.

Thus far the forensic analysis of the Waterloo Bridge murder victim, in a style familiar to us from many police procedurals. Scientific analysis breaks down, however, when the authorities investigate on the spot: the investigation of the murder seems, from this distance, to be a catalogue of missed opportunities. An elderly lady seen some days before leaving a bag on the bridge was never traced, and the many cab drivers who used the bridge as a stand where they waited for custom were not questioned until much later. As in the “Jack the Ripper” murders at the end of the century, there seems not to have been an awareness that the scene at which a crime was committed, or discovered, could be treated with the same minute scrutiny as Taylor treats the body, looking for the same tell-tale fragments of evidence: here, Sherlock Holmes is well ahead of his real-life counterparts. The Waterloo Bridge murder remained unsolved and of course is a mystery to this day. At this distance only fiction can come up with an explanation of how and why this well-built middle-aged man was killed, cut up and dumped in one of London’s busiest locations: if you’ve ever had the desire to write a Victorian whodunnit, here’s a plot for you to go to work on.

We’ve spent a lot of time in the company of Victorian crime and low-life. Let’s stay in that milieu and end on a suitably mordant note with the opening stanza of W.E. Henley’s fin de siècle poem that sees life as a prostitute and death as the pimp who mugs the client on his way out:

Madam Life’s a piece in bloom

Death goes dogging everywhere.

She’s the tenant of the room,

He’s the ruffian on the stair.

Chris Hilton

Chris Hilton

Dr Christopher Hilton was until August 2017 a Senior Archivist at the Wellcome Library.

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