Remains found in garden are body snatcher victims

The bones dug up from the garden. Picture: contributed
The bones dug up from the garden. Picture: contributed
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HUMAN remains found in a shallow grave behind in a garden of a townhouse near Haymarket are believed to be among the victims of the callous body snatchers made infamous by Burke and Hare.

Five skeletons found in Grove Street have been dated directly to the period in which the theft and sale of cadavers was rife.

The discovery by construction workers was made in September 2012 in a garden to the rear of the house which was undergoing renovation.

Experts say the bodies of four adults and one child may well have been victims of the “resurrectionists” who plied their trade in selling recently dead bodies to medical schools.

Altogether, around 60 bones were found, including four adult jawbones and others believed to be from a child.

But it is only recently archaeologists have determined that the remains date back to the early 19th century following studies by Historic Scotland and consultants Guard Archaeology. The bodies are thought to be those of criminals or dwellers of the poor houses. Those that were not claimed were frequently used for either dissection, to be anatomical skeletons, or both.

Irish immigrants William Burke and William Hare murdered 16 people in Edinburgh in 1828 and sold the bodies as dissection material, but it is thought unlikely that the pair were responsible for the five found in Grove Street as the notoriety of their crimes means that all their victims are believed to have been accounted for.

John Lawson, from the Edinburgh City Council Archaeology Service, who examined the remains at the site said:

“At the end of the Enlightenment period there was significant demand for cad­avers which indeed outstripped supply, and that led to a thriving illegal trade, with Burke and Hare clearly the most infamous of those who supplied bodies to medical schools.

“We can’t rule out that those found on Grove Street were sold by the resurrectionists, as they were called, although it might be a stretch to say it was Burke and Hare themselves, given their crimes are well-documented.”

He said that most would be used for dissection by students.But he admitted he was still unclear why they would have been buried in the garden.

He added: “It is possible that, given the fact they may have been acquired illegally and that someone should wish to bury them”.

Maureen Kilpatrick, a lead archeologist at Guard, said: “We found they were likely to date back to the early 1800s, and although there were no medical professionals living in the house, we believe they had friends who were.”

amcewen@edinburghnews.com