Grave-robbing and Resurrectionists

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

The papers are composed of the minutes of evidence in the Ramshorn 'resurrectionist' trial (Ramshorn Churchyard, Glasgow), 1814, and an account of a grave-robbing expedition by medical students in 1830 probably in S. E. England and entitled  Twenty four hours of my pupillage.

Administrative / Biographical History

In the 1800s, Edinburgh had become an important centre for the study of anatomy and many students flocked to the anatomical theatre to view public dissections. The classes of surgeon anatomist Robert Knox were particularly popular. At the request of the Royal College of Surgeons, one executed criminal was allocated to the anatomists each year but this proved to be insufficient to meet study demands and resulted in the trade of body snatching carried out by resurrectionists. Some graveyards in Edinburgh were encircled by walls, railings and watchtowers to keep the body-snatchers out, and graves themselves were often protected by their own railings, gates and locks. It was against this background that in 1828 Burke and Hare carried out their murders to supply the demand.

Conditions Governing Access

Generally open for consultation to bona fide researchers, but please contact repository for details in advance.

Acquisition Information

Minutes of evidence, acquired 1960, Accession no. E60.18. Account of grave-robbing expedition, acquired 1959, Accession no. E59/11. Letter to Hobhouse, acquired with other material, Sotheby, June 1971, Accession no. E71.21.

Note

The biographical/administrative history was compiled using local knowledge and the following material: (1) Guthrie, Douglas.  Extramural medical education in Edinburgh and the School of Medicine of the Royal Colleges. Edinburgh and London: E. and S. Livingstone Ltd., 1965.

Compiled by Graeme D Eddie, Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections Division.

Other Finding Aids

Important finding aids generally are: the alphabetical Index to Manuscripts held at Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections and Archives, consisting of typed slips in sheaf binders and to which additions were made until 1987; and the Index to Accessions Since 1987.

Accruals

Check the local Indexes for details of any additions.

Related Material

The local Indexes show a reference to Henry Hobhouse (check the Indexes for more details): a letter to Hobhouse from Sir. W. Rae, Lord Advocate, about George Lawrie, a resurrectionist, June 1821, at Gen. 1429/18/22. Edinburgh University Library holds other papers relating to the surgeon and anatomist Robert Knox (Check local Indexes for details) whose reputation was sullied through his association with Burke and Hare who murdered in order to supply Knox with cadavers. Look for the collection on the HE Archives Hub: Papers relating to Robert Knox (1791-1862).