Turn to Stone
There is an expression we have here in Northern Ireland,’Turn any Stone and there is a story’, and it is almost true. I guess we are a small country with a long history, a varied geology and a culture of myths and legends.
What brings me to this topic is the film about Burke and Hare that is on current release, coincidentally for me, in that it is directed by John Landis who directed American Werewolf in London and the 15 minute long video for Michael Jackson’s Thriller, both of which I saw as part of the Halloween celebrations by Newcastle Community Cinema, a small community driven cinema that puts on interesting films once or twice a month usually on a Friday night, worth checking out if you are staying in the area.
However back on message, Burke and Hare were both Irish, Burke was born in Strabane in1792 and Hare was born in Scarva possibly in the same year, they both reputedly worked on the construction of the Newry Canal, the first canal dug in Britain since the Romans, 20 years before the famous Bridgewater Canal that brought coal into Manchester and often cited, incorrectly, as the first canal in Britain; coincidently the Newry Canal was also constructed to move coal from the coal fields in Tyrone to the port of Newry, we even have a town called Coalisland in Tyrone.
See, there goes that ‘Turn any stone’ thing again, not any canal but the first in Britain, our own Coal mines.
I heard a local historian on the radio today mention that Burke and Hare worked on the Newry Canal but by my reckoning it was finished a good 50 years before they were born, perhaps they worked on it’s extension or a branch, in any case the used this experience of working on canals to move to Scotland to work as navvies there. Being a ‘Navvie’ as it is known, from the term Navigation Canals would be with out doubt hard work, cutting trenches through solid rock on occasion, Burke and Hare soon spotted an easier way to make money using there digging skills.
Edinburgh had a well renown Medical School and Medical Science was becoming important as a study, medicine was moving away from the old Apothecary to the beginning of modern Medicine, Jenner had just discovered vaccination, Davy had developed the first anaesthetics, the first stethoscope was made in 1816, and the first blood transfusion in 1818. Doctors could now be trained, but, just as they do to this day, they needed cadavers to study anatomy but just as the demand increased the supply decreased. Up until the 1800’s the source of dead bodies were people hanged for committing crimes, and under what became known as the Bloody Code, lots of crimes could be punishable by death, hanging for pick-pocketing was only repealed in 1808, writing a threatening letter could be a hanging offence. At one time there were 222 crimes punishable by death, but in more enlightened times Judges started to find people not guilty as they knew a guilty verdict was certain death, and combined with the repeal of these laws and the increased use of transportation as the ‘punishment of choice’ the numbers of bodies declined to only a few actually guilty of murder.
The word got out that the Medical schools would pay well for recently deceased bodies and so began the practise of Grave Robbing, where a freshly interred corpse would be dug up and sold to the Medical Schools, on a ‘ask no questions be told no lies basis’. Burke ad Hare saw this as an opportunity to make use of there digging skills and for that matter the digging was easy, not rock but freshly backfilled soil.
The Percy French song ‘The Mountains of Mourne’ has a few lines about the naive Mourne Man in London coming across people digging in the streets, obviously digging pipe trenches etc but they spin him a yarn,
They don’t sow potatoes nor barley nor wheat But there’s gangs of them diggin’ for gold in the street. At least, when I asked them that’s what I was toldSo I just took a hand at this diggin’ for gold;
Well Burke and Hare did take ‘ a hand’ a the digging and got as well paid as if they had been digging for gold, they got paid up to £10 per corpse, the average workers wage at the time was £1 per week. But that was not enough for these two entrepreneurs, whether it was all that digging or that it was becoming more difficult to get into graveyards, guards were being employed and cages were being erected over fresh graves and left until decomposition would have set in, but Burke and Hare decided to short circuit the process by killing there own bodies. In all they killed 17 persons and were only caught when they left a body under a bed in a lodging house kept by Hare’s wife Margaret and one of the other lodgers returned unexpectedly to search for some clothing.
The evidence against the pair was weak but the Lord Advocate in Scotland offered Hare immunity if he would confess and testify against Burke which he readily did. Burke was hung in January 1829 and with a touch of irony he was publicly dissected in Edinburgh Medical College.
Hare was released the same year and began a nomadic life, some say he was blinded when thrown in a pit of lime and for a time was a blind beggar in London and last seen living in Carlisle. At some point he must have made his way back to Northern Ireland because he is buried in Kilkeel, something I need to check out for myself.
Talk about turn any stone, from a Gravestone in Kilkeel to a a blockbuster film by a leading Hollywood director.
A little foot-note Hare is not a common name here in Co Down and Co Armagh, but O’Hare is and I would assume that was Hare’s correct name but it may need a little research just as I would like to link the O’Hare name here with that of O’Hare Airport in Chicago, named after a WWII flying Ace Edward ‘Butch’ O’Hare, interestingly the son of Al Capone’s lawyer Joseph O’Hare who helped provide evidence against Capone on his tax evasion charge, and there lies another interesting story, the subject of another blog I think.