Audio Point Six – Body Snatchers and Princess Street Gardens.

A short sample from Edinburgh Audio Guide – Audio Point Six.

Body Snatchers

As you walk along King’s Stables Road you will come to a small cemetery which sits in the shadow of Edinburgh’s Castle.  At the western corner of the cemetery there is a small round tower called the Body Snatcher Watchtower.

The tower was built in 1827 in a vain attempt to keep grave robbers away from stealing freshly buried bodies and selling them to medical schools for use in dissection.

In the 18th and early 19th centuries Edinburgh was the centre of medical research. The main legal supply of bodies for use in dissection and anatomy lessons was from convicted and executed criminals.

The demand for cadavers was high, and the legal supply was limited. As a result, Edinburgh’s cemeteries were plagued by “resurrectionists” or “body snatchers,” who dug up newly buried corpses to sell them to the anatomy schools.

A well-known Scottish anatomist Robert Knox and other anatomy lecturers at Edinburgh University paid about 8 guineas for a corpse of a man and 5 for a corpse of a woman without asking any questions.

For the unscrupulous residents of Edinburgh digging up graves and stealing corpses was an easy way to make good money.

The most notorious body snatchers were two Irish emigrants, William Burke and William Hare.

Burke and Hare embarked on their career when they sold the body of an elderly lodger who fell sick and died in Hare’s lodging house.

After selling the body for 7 guineas and 10 shillings Burke and Hare attempted stealing cadavers for cemeteries but it proved to be too difficult and risky. The graves were guarded and coffins were often protected by a giant metal box called a ‘mortsafe’.

Instead of robbing graves, Burke and Hare began to murder people.

They lured vulnerable people, such as the elderly and travellers into their lodging house with the promise of a drink and a place to stay. Once inside, they would kill the victim and sell the body to Dr Robert Knox, a prominent anatomist and lecturer at the Edinburgh Medical College.

To keep the body intact they developed their own method of killing called ‘Burking’. The victim was killed by being restrained while their mouth and nose were covered by hand.

In total they killed about 16 people.

Eventually Burke and Hare were caught when one of the students recognised a well know resident on the dissection table and informed the police. They were arrested but there wasn’t enough evidence to convict them.

Hare was offered immunity from prosecution if he testified against Burke. Hare testified and confessed to all 16 murders.

Burke was hanged shortly after the trial and his body was given to the medical school to be dissected.

William Burke’s skeleton is now on display in the anatomical Museum of Edinburgh Medical School.

Princes Street Gardens.

Princes Street Gardens is a scenic park located in the very heart of Edinburgh in the valley below Castle Rock. This beautiful, tranquil area was created in the 1820s following drainage of Nor Loch – a long and narrow body of water which served as a natural defence on the northern side of the Castle Rock.

Before Nor Loch was drained 50 thousand residents of overcrowded medieval Edinburgh used the site as a huge repository for sewage and household waste. It also was a place where corpses were dumped and where suspected witches were tested by ‘ducking’ or ‘swimming test’.

The accused were tied up and thrown into Nor Loch to determine whether they would sink or float. Sinking indicated that they were innocent and floating indicated that they were guilty – rejected by the baptismal water.

It is estimated that more than 300 men and women were subjected to ‘witch ducking’ in the Nor Loch and many of them were strangled and burned at stake on Castle Hill.

Until 1816 West Princess Street Gardens was a private park where dogs, smoking and cricket were prohibited; people wishing to use bath chairs had to present a doctor’s certificate that they are not suffering from contagious ailments.

Despite the objections of “the Princes Street Proprietors” the park was passed from them to the council and opened to the public.

The Ross Fountain.

One of the most picturesque attractions in Princess Street Gardens is the Ross Fountain. This outstanding example of 19th century sculpture includes cherubs, mermaids, walrus and lion heads. The top of the fountain features four female figures representing science, arts, poetry and industry.

The fountain was purchased by the local gun maker, Daniel Ross in London at the Great Exhibition of 1862 and gifted to the city.

Not everybody in Edinburgh was pleased with the gift featuring bathing nymphs and naked female flesh. A minister of St John’s Episcopal Church, described it as ‘grossly indecent and disgusting; insulting and offensive to the moral feelings of the community and disgraceful to the city.’

Despite the objections of the more conservative residents of Edinburgh the fountain remained in place and has since become a much-loved part of Princess Street Gardens.

Unfortunately, David Ross never saw his gift to the city completed – he died one year before the fountain was officially opened in 1872.

The fountain was restored to its former glory in 2018 and now it is one of the most photographed landmarks in the city.