Serial murderers, bodysnatchers and the gloss of history

Hi Everybody

I was looking at the site of Diane Kratz, who is an authority on American serial killers, and I realised that my own country, Scotland, also had a few historical uglies of that genre. Two who sprang immediately to mind were Sawney Bean and his family, and Burke and Hare.

Now Sawney Bean was so far back in time that he has assumed near mythological status. People are unsure when he existed, or even if he was real, or just a figment of some story-teller’s imagination, but his story deserves to be retold, albeit briefly. It seems that he was the head of a family of murderers who at some unspecified date in the past haunted the roads somewhere in Galloway, in the South the West of Scotland, grabbing travellers, killing them and eating them. Bean had a wife, and children and in time, grandchildren, who all indulged in this interesting pastime of robbery and murder. As the Beans did not associate with anybody else, the grandchildren were presumably the result of incest: keep things in the family.

 In time the authorities found out and sent a men to hunt down the cannibals. The Beans ambushed, killed and ate them. But when a man and his wife were attacked, the husband saw his wife killed and a bevy of female Beans immediately begin to chew on her entrails and drink her blood. The man was about to join his wife when a party of men came riding along the road and the Beans fled. Now that there was definite proof, King James led a party in person and searched the locality until he found the Beans, all forty eight of them, skulking in a cave festooned with human body parts and littered with the belongings of the murdered people.

The Beans were executed in Edinburgh, with the men chopped to pieces and the women burned alive. Or so the story says.

More recent and just as horrifying was the case of Burke and Hare. These two worthies haunted the West Port and Grassmarket area of Edinburgh in the late 1820s. The background to their case was almost unbelievable in itself. At that time Edinburgh was a leading centre for medical research, with the study of human anatomy prominent in the university. One of the most distinguished doctors was a certain Doctor Knox, who paid highly for fresh corpses to use in his lectures. At one time there were a plentiful supply of bodies from the many executions that were carried out, but changes in the law meant more lenient punishments, so less available bodies. However the demand remained, so a new supply system came in operation as men raided cemeteries for the bodies of the recently dead. These corpses were sold for high prices so body snatching was a lucrative business.

Naturally the relatives of the deceased objected to their loved ones being sold and dissected and there were guards put on cemeteries throughout the country. There were skirmishes among the gravestones and much ill feeling against the Resurrection Men, as bodysnatchers were known.

William Burke and his wife, Helen McDougal, teamed up with a fellow Irish immigrant, William Hare and his wife, Margaret Laird, and they devised a new system of finding fresh meat for the anatomists. They murdered the vulnerable and handed over their still warm bodies.  There were a suspected 16 murders – the figures are disputed – before Burke and Hare were caught. The women escaped scot-free; Hare turned kings evidence and gave evidence against Burke, who was hanged in Edinburgh on the 28th January 1829, in front of over 25,000 spectators. His body was handed over for public dissection, while Dr Knox was hounded out of the city.

Although Edinburgh has been remembered for these murders, other Scottish cities also had their share of Resurrectionists, including Dundee. The header of this blog shows the Howff cemetery in Dundee, where watchmen and graverobbers engaged in a gunfight and one watchman thrust a bayonet into the bottom of a fleeing would-be Resurrectionist. I quite enjoyed researching these incidents for my book A Sink of Atrocity, about Dundee crime!

It is that enjoyment which gives me pause now. A modern serial killer makes the blood run cold, but one from the past is a subject for entertainment, yet to the people imvolved, Sawney Bean, Burke and Hare or even Billy the Kid or Robin Hood, would be dangerous and frightening outlaws. It is only when we realise this simple fact that we see history for what it is: a recounting of real events that happened to real people.

Sleep tight – and keep the windows locked









About malcolmarchibald

Happily married for 34 years to Cathy, I have three grown children and live in the depths of Moray in northern Scotland. I was educated in Edinburgh and Dundee and work as a lecturer in Inverness, while writing historical books, both fiction and fact.
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3 Responses to Serial murderers, bodysnatchers and the gloss of history

  1. marilynm says:

    Oooh, how deliciously (excuse the lame pun) scary. Great blog!

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