Hazel McHaffie

body snatching

The Resurrectionist

On Monday this week I stood in front of the real skeleton of the legendary body snatcher/anatomy murderer William Burke. I had to stand still and quiet to absorb that fact.Anatomical Museum

We, a small number of writers from the Society of Authors, were being given a private conducted tour of the Anatomical Museum in the old Medical School in Edinburgh – a fascinating visit. In a former life I’ve given many a lecture (though never a dissection!) in the steeply-tiered theatre in that same building where anatomists used to do public demonstrations on human corpses, but this was my first trip to the third floor.

It’s quite spooky to be inches away from all these remains – bones, cross sections of various parts of the anatomy, pickled organs, even a full size corpse from the 1880s showing the lymphatic system filled with mercury – and realise that these were once actual living breathing people. OK, some of them may have been vagabonds and criminals, some of them solitary unloved creatures, nevertheless they had beating hearts and brains and thoughts and motives and rights. So it’s hugely reassuring to hear that today these human remains are being treated with enormous respect and care, and that they’re protected by strict ethical codes (hence no photos). I couldn’t help a wry smile standing in front of Burke’s bones though. Ironic that, in death, this man, who was hung for his crimes at the age of 37, is now being accorded far more reverence than he ever showed others during his life, although of course, his hanging took place in front of a crowd estimated at between 20,000 and 25,000 in spite of the torrential rain, and the following day his body was publicly dissected in the anatomy theatre of the University’s Old College (now the Faculty of Law buildings). We’ve come a long way since those barbaric days.

Standing in the austere and echoing back courtyard where bodies were smuggled in to the medical school three hundred years ago … listening to tales of the great anatomists who are honoured still … putting flesh on the bones and muscles and organs in front of me … my mind went back to an evocative account …

In their sacks they ride as in their mother’s womb: knee to chest, head pressed down, as if to die is merely to return to the flesh from which we were born, and this a second conception. A rope behind the knees to hold them thus, another to bind their arms, then the mouth of the sack closed about them and bound again, the whole presenting a compact bundle, easily disguised, for to be seen abroad with such a cargo is to tempt the mob.

A knife then, to cut the rope which binds the sack, and, one lifting, the other pulling, we deliver it of its contents, slipping them forth onto the table’s surface, naked and cold, as a calf or child stillborn slides from its mother. The knife again, to cut the rope which binds the body to itself, the sack and rope retained, for we shall use them again, much later, to dispose of the scraps and shreds.

The ResurrectionistSo begins James Bradley in his novel The Resurrectionist, a dank, fetid, bleak tale of corruption and murder, which has received a lot of very bad reviews as well as the accolade of being a Richard and Judy Summer Read.  The year is 1826 (the same era I was in at the Anatomical Museum). Gabriel Swift has arrived in London to be apprenticed to the great anatomist, Edwin Poll. Step by step we follow him as he washes the bodies methodically with water and rags and vinegar, ‘wiping the grave from these stolen dead’, noting as he goes with an almost forensic eye the markings and emissions and anomalies. Just as methodically he shaves them, tidies away the sacks, rinses and dries the rags, writes up the accounts.

We watch with his scientific curiosity the careful incisions, internal explorations, surgery, autopsies. We accompany him out to a silent wasteland where no birds sing, the barren earth scorched and filthy, the barrows disguised with wood heaped upon the sacks of human remains for their passage through the streets. And see the hell of a pyre fire spitting and crackling where it encounters human fat; flesh bubbling and blackening; limbs jumbled, broken, burning; oily black smoke clinging to clothes like a stain as the remaining embers are beaten until all the evidence is obliterated.

It’s a brilliantly evocative opening chapter, the Dickensian style of writing perfectly fitting the times, the context, the nature of the profession. But perhaps more macabre still is the rest of the book, viewing life through the eyes of a grave robber, a murderer, eeking out a meagre living in an age where life is cheap, seeing how boundaries for what is acceptable can become increasingly blurred. Bradley’s writing, his unusual perspectives, bring to life the darkly seamy and sinister underworld of Georgian London in the 1800s, the abject poverty of the underclasses, when a ha’penny piece would buy you enough food for a week and enough opium to deaden the hateful aspects of everyday life.

The ResurrectionistLife for Gabriel becomes increasingly compromised as competition for bodies, and questionable loyalties, challenge his moral code. He finds himself drawn to his master’s nemesis, Lucan, the most notorious and powerful resurrectionist and ruler of his trade in stolen bodies. Now he lives constantly under the threat of imminent detection, arrest, hanging, keeping company with evil traitorous men and desperate prostitutes.  ‘No one refuses‘ the offer of bodies though they be increasingly fresh, mutilated even, decidedly suspect. Life is indeed cheap.

Little by little we see how easy it can be to segue from witness to spectator to collaborator to active participant. Gabriel moves ever deeper into crime until even murder becomes ‘such a small thing, to take a life‘, no harder indeed  than drawing a tooth. Asking himself why? ‘I did it because I could.’ ‘I should care I know, but I do not.’  In his head he manages to distance himself from the act of killing, even whilst acknowledging that by doing so he has now moved outside the boundaries of decent civilised society. But in time, years after the event, he feels ‘a sort of hopelessness, a loathing for this thing I am, this half-thing of lies and circumstances’. He feels compelled to reinvent himself and eventually concludes: ‘It is so easy, to forget one’s self, to mistake the masks we wear for the truth of us’.

I’m not at all sure Bradley intended this to be a moral tale, but it holds salutary lessons for us all, to take stock, and not let ourselves become insidiously brutalised. Far better not to begin that process by condoning the dubious; be neither a passive witness nor a party at any level to anything unseemly or wrong.

So, did I enjoy it? Yes, I did. Would I recommend it? Yes, I would. Admittedly it’s rather thin in places, disjointed at times, and you need to work at keeping the secondary characters firmly in their place, but it captures a grim time and place too often romanticised by writers. Hats off to a man brave enough to tread a bleaker truer path.

 

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