Edinburgh crime: Prison records from National Records of Scotland tell tales of body-snatchers and child criminals
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Nearly 200 years ago, three men stole into Lasswade kirkyard outside Edinburgh at dead of night and carried off three recently-buried bodies.
The Capital had become a centre for medical research and anatomical study and the high demand for bodies to dissect had led to a shortage of supply. A thriving illegal trade had been established in exhuming corpses to sell to anatomists.
The trio who dug up the bodies in Lasswade kirkyard during the night of February 20/21, 1829 – John Kerr, James Barclay and George Cameron – were caught and jailed. And now the records of their imprisonment at Edinburgh’s “bridewell” – a prison for mainly minor offences – are among details of thousands of prisoners made available on the National Records of Scotland’s ScotlandsPeople website.
Kerr, 34, was made an example of and sentenced to ninth months’ hard labour. His fellow “resurrection men” Barclay, 39, and Cameron, 40, were given six months’ hard labour but others involved in the crime were not prosecuted. Just a few weeks earlier, the notorious William Burke had been hanged for murder in Edinburgh after his spree of killings with William Hare to provide corpses for dissection.
The Lasswade trio were charged with “violating of sepulchres of the dead”, the legal term for removing dead bodies from a grave. The corpses they carried away from the kirkyard belonged to Alexander Kerr, a child of 21 months, Joan Swann, a village resident, and John Braid, a labourer in the parish, all of whom had been buried during January or early February 1829. Charges were initially also brought against Helen Begbie or Miller, who is thought to have told the men the location of recent burials in the kirkyard, the charges against her appear to have been dropped because she turned informant on the men.
Other records now available on searchable indexes, for the period 1798 to 1853, cover not only the Capital’s bridewell – built at Calton Hill in 1795 to replace the city’s previous prison at the Tolbooth in the High Street – but also Calton Jail, opened in 1817 as part of the same complex on the site now occupied by St Andrew’s House. And it is not only body-snatchers who feature in the registers.
Children – some as young as five – were also locked up in the bridewell, often on charges of theft and vagrancy. One Hugh McDonald, admitted on March 13, 1811, aged 13, served 30 days for the crime of “cutting on two panes of glass and stealing from a shop window”. Charles McLaren, aged six, and Ann McLaren, aged eight, were admitted on April 23, 1814, on a charge of “theft” and were given only “bread and water” during their 14 days’ confinement.
And political campaigners were imprisoned in Calton Jail. James Cumming, a leader of the Edinburgh Chartists, who held mass rallies demanding universal male suffrage and secret ballots, was charged with sedition and held in Calton Jail with three others. Cumming, 45, admitted he had been a member of the Stockbridge section of the National Guard, a Chartist movement in Scotland, but said it had been dissolved some time before. A legal challenge to the indictment against him saw his charges dropped and he was freed along with one of his co-defendants. But two others, Henry Ranken and Robert Hamilton were found guilt of “using language calculated to excite popular disaffection and resistance to lawful authority” and sentenced to four months’ imprisonment.
Archivist Stefanie Dempster, from National Records of Scotland, said: “These remarkable records are a fantastic resource for social researchers and those researching their own family tree. Alongside many petty thefts and incidents of drunken behaviour, we see crimes that were of their time, like snatching corpses from graveyards to sell to surgeons teaching anatomy. The harsh lives lived by many are clear from cases like that of a woman who had requested the magistrate send her to prison with the records stating the reason ‘being lame’. These records offer a glimpse at the grittier side of life in early 19th century Scotland.”