Body of work: New Burke and Hare exhibition digs up murderous past

Mary Archibald and Joyce Gunn Cairns with their effigies of Burke and Hare. Picture: Neil Hanna
Mary Archibald and Joyce Gunn Cairns with their effigies of Burke and Hare. Picture: Neil Hanna
Have your say

ARTISTS Joyce Gunn Cairns and Mary Archibald have created an unsettling exhibition examining the ‘careers’ of West Port murderers Burke and Hare in a provocative new light at the Central Library’s Fine Art Library

wILLIAM Burke and William Hare are names which still have the power to send shivers down the spine.

The pair, who murdered 17 people and sold the corpses to Dr Robert Knox to use in the teaching of anatomy to Edinburgh University students, captured the ghoulish imagination of the public back in the late 19th century – and it seems do so even today.

Indeed, 185 years after their exploits scandalised the city, the tale of the murderous Irish labourers continues to fascinate historians, filmmakers, writers and artists alike.

Just two years ago, Hollywood director John Landis rolled into town to film scenes for his comic horror starring Simon Pegg, based on the story of the serial killers who sold the bodies of their victims for dissection, while on Market Street the Edinburgh Dungeon features a whole section dedicated to the pair.

You can take a Burke and Hare 
murder tour in which many of their regular haunts are explored and long before he became the tenth Doctor Who, David Tennant played the dim-witted Daft Jamie, their penultimate victim, opposite Colin Baker’s sixth Doctor in a radio play called Medicinal Purposes.

Two years ago, Burke And Hare: the West Port Murders, a darkly gothic graphic novel by Pete Renshaw, was published by Driftwood Books and there is even a musical version of the grisly tale.

Now, two Edinburgh artists – Joyce Gunn Cairns and Mary Archibald – have collaborated on an exhibition which aims to make people question the anomaly of the horrific acts carried out by Burke and Hare and the benefits we have all received through the work by Dr Knox, his students and all those who came after.

“It is a real problem, isn’t it?” says Joyce. “Murder is abhorrent, but then you wonder how much was learned from the work of Dr Knox which has benefited all of us ever since – even today. Are we all ultimately culpable?

“And, of course, it’s such a fascinating story. It’s a mixture of greed and a drive for progress and the ultimate crime. The fact that they even developed their own way of killing their victims – “burking” – by compressing their victims’ chests and suffocating them so as not to leave telltale signs of a violent death – that kind of premeditation sparks people’s interest and fascination. Which is why so many turned out to see Burke hanged.”

She adds: “But then you have the brilliance of a mind like Knox’s which has benefited us all, so it raises the question does the end justify the means? It’s hard to reconcile, but there’s no way he couldn’t have realised what was going on. He surely had to be suspicious.”

He was certainly very popular, and his method of teaching – which involved each student having his own corpse to dissect – meant bodies were in big demand. It was because of that demand and the money Knox paid to Burke and Hare which enticed them into murder.

Ironically, though it was their actions which prompted the introduction of the Anatomy Act in 1832, which meant that medical students and professors could finally dissect bodies legitimately. “There’s the anomaly,” she laughs.

Joyce, who has been described by art critics as “one of the most highly individual artists today” and “a maelstrom of creative energy” and who recently exhibited with Alasdair Gray, has spent the last few years drawing in the Royal College of Surgeons museum, where William Burke’s skeleton is kept.

For in an another twist, as part of Burke’s punishment the judge laid down that as his crimes were so atrocious, his body should go on display for all eternity – though that was after it was first dissected and then spat on by the 25,000 who turned out to see his carcass.

“I was asked to take part in an exhibition the museum had on plastic surgery through the ages, and they’ve kept my work up, but some of it has been useful for this exhibition as it relates to the same era,” says Joyce. “For instance there’s a drawing of a skeleton of a woman who had a malformed pelvis.

“She had seven children, six of them gouged out of her, but the seventh was by caesarean – she was the first women to have one in Edinburgh. Unfortunately she died, but the child 

“It’s hard to comprehend the life people had then – the life that Burke and Hare had. Which is why getting so much money for delivering a dead body would have turned their heads.”

Inspired by her time at the museum, she and Mary decided to take the Burke and Hare tale, and use their different artistic abilities to bring it to life.

While the exhibition is not as grisly as that at the museum, it still conveys a certain creepiness between Joyce’s drawings of skeletons and contorted faces and Mary’s effigies of the murderers, their anatomist employer and even the small heads of their victims.

In fact, her doll-like bodies of the murderers resemble the 17 tiny coffins and corpses which were found in a cave on Arthur’s Seat around ten years after Burke and Hare were caught, and which are now kept in the National Museum of Scotland.

“I’ve always made doll figures, so doing something similar with Burke, Hare and Knox seemed obvious,” says Mary. “I read a lot about them and discovered images from the time of how they looked and how they would have been dressed and went from there – to me it’s as though Knox is saying ‘I know nothing about it’, Hare’s saying ‘it wisnae me’ and Burke ‘I’m awfy sorry’.

“I think they were men who took a very wrong turn because of money. After all the first body they delivered to Knox was of a lodger who’d died naturally. But they were paid so much for it – I think they were led astray by greed.”

The venue for the exhibition also feels rather apt. Up a winding staircase in the Central Library on George IV Bridge is the Fine Art Library where among the shelves heaving with books, Joyce and Mary’s works are now displayed.

“There’s not a lot of room to be honest, but it gives the works a different dimension,” says Joyce.

Physician, heal thyself

ROBERT Knox was 36 years old when he first came across Burke and Hare.

The eighth child of a maths teacher, he went to the High School on Calton Hill and, in 1810, aged 19, he started medical classes.

After graduating, he worked for a year in London before joining the army as an assistant surgeon. Indeed, it was his work at the Brussels military hospital (near Waterloo) which impressed upon him the need for a comprehensive training in anatomy if surgery were to be successful.

In 1821, he left the army and went to Paris to study anatomy, returning to Edinbugh after a year, becoming conservator of a new museum of comparative anatomy, which he had proposed.

From 1826, he also ran Barclay’s anatomy school in Surgeon’s Square, Edinburgh, and is said to have had more students than all the other private tutors put together. Unfortunately, he then started receiving fresh corpses from Burke and Hare.

The case ruined him. He was not prosecuted, but his house was attacked by a mob, and although the Royal Society of Edinburgh exonerated him, the Royal College of Surgeons demanded his resignation as curator of the museum he had founded.

His lecturing career also collapsed and he moved to London to start again. Unable to resurrect his reputation, he worked in medical journalism.

• Burke, Hare and Knox: The Dangerous Trio runs at the Central Library’s Fine Art Library until August 31.