Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Belfast Grave Robbing and Clifton Poor House

I just returned from Halloween in Edinburgh, an amazing city and one that really seems to relish its darker side.  Home of the notorious Scottish grave robbers “Burke and Hare”, ironically it turns out they were neither Scottish nor grave robbers. William Burke was in fact born in Urney, near Strabane and William Hare was from either Newry or Derry. Far from being grave robbers they were in fact serial killers would murder people by suffocating them in a manner that came to be known as "burkeing" then sell the bodies to Dr Robert Knox who dissected the bodies as part of human anatomy lectures

Here’s a bit of background to how grave robbing came about as a practice

“Before 1832, there were insufficient cadavers legitimately available for the study and teaching of anatomy in British medical schools. The University of Edinburgh was an institution universally renowned for medical sciences. As medical science began to flourish in the early 19th century, demand rose sharply, but at the same time, the only legal supply of cadavers—the bodies of executed criminals—had fallen due to a sharp reduction in the execution rate Only about 2 or 3 corpses per year were available for a large number of students, as compared with the 18th century. This situation attracted criminal elements who were willing to obtain specimens by any means.” (Wikipedia)

Now what does all this have to do with Belfast I hear you cry, well grave robbing wasn’t just a Scottish phenomenon such was the demand for bodies that many came from Belfast. I recently visited the former Clifton Street Poor House and Cemetery. You could write a book about this place such is the amount of local history involved, It never fails to surprise me how things link up in Belfast. We see donations from Belfast’s early Masonic Lodges to the poor house and the McCracken family appear again. Henry Joy McCracken who I talked about last time is actually buried in the Clifton Street Cemetery with his sister Mary Ann McCracken who devoted her life to helping the poor of Belfast via the poor house is buried with him. The Graveyard itself was not just for the poor of belfast it was set up as a fundraising mechanism as plots could be sold and the money then used by the poor house. For instance the Dunville family are buried there a hugely wealthy family of the time and whose name lives on in Dunville park on the Falls Road.

I was watching the programme made by Joe Baker of the Glenravel History Project (attached below) and he talks about the practice of grave robbing in Belfast as well as the measures taken against it.
The grave robbers would not dig up the whole coffin instead they would dig down using the quieter wooden shovels to the top half of the torso, smash open the lid and then pull out the body with a rope round the neck. With little local demand, the bodies were then placed in a barrel and sent off via sea to Scotland (which commanded the best prices) or London, or by coach to Dublin
The well off of Belfast Built vaults or placed huge granite slabs on top of the grave in order to prevent the removal of bodies,the less well off would often stand guard over a relatives freshly buried body for a number of days until it would be of no use to the grave robbers. Metal cages were also placed round the coffin to prevent the bodies removal you can still see one of these cages in Clifton houses reception, these actually were of little use as the robbers pulled the body out via the holes. A greater deterrent was provided when Clifton cemetery employed armed watchmen, you can see the musket issued to the watchman in the board room of Clifton house today.

The days however of the body snatchers were brought to an end with parliament passing the Anatomy Act of 1832. People could now leave their bodies to medical science thus providing the bodies needed by the schools of anatomy, a practice that continues today with medical students at Queens University dissecting cadavers as part of their studies.

William Burke was hung for his part in the murders while William Hare was able to escape after agreeing to tesify against burke.His hanging was a huge spectacle with over 25,000 attending to watch. 

Burkes body ironically was then given over to science. Pieces of his skin were tanned and made into a pocket book by students and his skeleton and death mask remain in edinburghs surgeons hall to this day.

You can view Joe Bakers programme here:

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