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The Anatomical Museum: Edinburgh's Cabinet of Curiosities

Shortly after eight o’clock, the procession set out for the place of execution. Bailies Crichton and Small, with a party of town officers, first ascended the scaffold and they were followed by Burke, supported by two Catholic Clergymen. He was dressed in decent black clothes, and was perfectly firm and ­composed. The moment he appeared the crowd set up an appalling shout, which continued for several ­minutes. The murderer and the Catholic clergymen knelt down and spent a few minutes in ­devotion. During the time a deep silence ­prevailed among the assemblage, but the devotions were ­succeeded by vehement cheering from every quarter, mingled with groans and hisses. When the cheers had subsided, the wretched man was assailed with every epithet of contempt and abhorrence.

As soon as the executioner ­proceeded to do his duty, the cries of “Burke him, Burke him, give him no rope,” and many others of a similar complexion, were vociferated in voices loud with indignation. Burke in the meantime, stood ­perfectly unmoved, and gazed around till the cap was drawn over his face, and shut the world forever from his view.

-From the Scotsman’s newspaper article of William Burke’s public execution

The above is an excerpt from an account discussing the public execution of William Burke- one half of the infamous murdering duo, Burke and Hare. In 1828, they gruesomely killed at least 16 people and then sold the bodies to Edinburgh anatomist, Dr. John Knox, who used the bodies for his dissection lectures.

I thought it appropriate to open and highlight the latest instalment of our museum series with the Burke and Hare story as this past Monday, the 28th of January, was the 190th anniversary of the hanging of Burke for the killings. His skeleton can be found at the Museum, and we’ll come back to this a little later.

Before I dive into our macabre tale, I would like to apologise upfront for the lack of pictures in this post. Pictures are only allowed in the entrance/foyer to the Museum, but not in the Museum proper. Quite understandably, this is due to the Anatomy Act of 1832 which regulates how remains are displayed. I’ll come back to this important law a little later in my story.

As I’ve professed in past posts, I have a fascination with anthropology, and, in this case, forensic anthropology and bones. Therefore, when I saw online that the Museum was having it’s opening day for the year, I quickly pencilled it into my plans for the weekend. The Anatomical Museum is part of and located at the University of Edinburgh. It covers the history of medical teaching at the University, and houses an incredible collection of skeletons, human and animal remains, and artefacts collected over its history.

The University of Edinburgh’s campus is filled with architectural gems, and the building that houses the Anatomy Museum- the Old Medical School Building- does not disappoint. As soon as you enter the building, you are greeted with beautifully, vaulted ceilings and gorgeous stonework surrounds you. Make sure to look down and try to spot the skeletal feet that ‘guide’ you to the Museum entrance.

After climbing up a flight of stairs, you come to the entrance of the Museum with an exquisite, wrought-iron gate beckoning you in (see picture below). This foyer room deserves a careful look through before we leave for the main part of the Museum, so off we go…

The vaulted ceilings continue within this space and the stone floors and stone work are quite charming; they add a special historical character that is missing in so many museums today. Starting counter clockwise from the entrance, you see a few copies of famous works of art. Most noticeably is the Venus de Milo sculpture whose original can be found in the Louvre in Paris. Appropriately, there is also a copy of Rembrandt’s, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicholas Tulp.

As a nice tribute, encased in a protective glass cabinet, is a Book of Remembrance. This book honours those who have bequeathed their body to Anatomy at the University of Edinburgh. In this same location, just above the glass case to the left, make sure to look for the photo of the Museum and how it looked in 1898. It’s a fascinating glimpse into its glorious past and all its Victorian splendour.

So now we should address the elephant in the room…literally that is.

For what probably captures one’s eye the most when you enter the Museum foyer are the two giant elephant skeletons. They are quite interesting specimens to take in and exam.

When you leave the foyer, it’s necessary to climb up some stairs to get to the main room of the Museum; this is where my photos are lacking. However, I’m sure you’ll understand as we must obey the law and respect the human remains that are housed there.

Once I entered the main room of the Museum, my breath caught a wee bit as I had clearly entered a world that is so often absent in newer, renovated museums that are sometimes cold, minimalist, and lacking in character. This is the not the case at the Anatomical Museum at the University of Edinburgh.

Doing a quick scan, I saw that I was about to cross the threshold into a true cabinet of curiosities, and I knew that I was in my happy place. Please don’t be disturbed by my fascination with skeletons and artefacts- it’s not meant to be taken as morbid, but more of the thrill at having a look at history and the stories to be told.

Throughout the room you find cabinet after cabinet packed full of captivating artefacts. Of course, I could write a book about everything in the Museum, but for the sake of brevity and your patience, dear reader, I’ll stick to the highlights.

So back to our opening account of Burke and Hare. Not too far into the main room, you come across a glass cabinet that holds the skeleton, life, and death masks of William Burke. One thing that immediately caught my eye is just how small his skeleton seems; it doesn’t seem that he was a big man. It’s hard to imagine he and Hare killing people and transporting their corpses around the city. There is also a life cast of Burke’s partner in crime, William Hare. Hare turned king’s evidence and was granted immunity from prosecution. No one knows where he ended up.

William Burke
William Hare

It’s also important to note that Dr. Knox is mentioned in the Burke and Hare exhibit. He was not legally convicted as part of the case, but he certainly played a role in enabling and encouraging the two men to carry out their crimes. Perhaps it’s a bit of historical commentary on class and privilege that allowed Dr. Knox to be able to escape prosecution. Although he didn’t escape public persecution- many in the community were outraged that he was not charged. Eventually he ended up losing his right to teach in Scotland and, due to lack of work, was driven away to London, England.

Dr. Robert Knox

Sharing the glass cabinet with Burke’s skeleton is the skeleton of John Howison (c. 1788- 1832)- also known as the ‘Cramond Murderer’. Nearby the glass cabinet, and part of the exhibit, is an image of a facial reconstruction of Howison bringing you ‘face-to-face’ with the murderer. In 1831, Howison gruesomely killed a woman in Cramond by entering the house and, without any obvious motive, sliced the woman’s face open with a garden spade. The Howison case is notable for a few reasons. First, Howison’s advocate tried to enter a plea of insanity (an uncommon and novel plea at the time) since he believed that his client was clearly mentally ill and not in control of his actions. The museum’s exhibit points out that most experts now agree that Howison was probably suffering from severe paranoid schizophrenia. Witnesses (including his landlady) reported a tremendous change in his personality with Howison suffering from hallucinations, and significant changes in appetite and appearance. However, schizophrenia wasn’t medically recognised as an illness in 1832. Therefore, the plea was rejected due to lack of medical evidence. Howison was sentenced to public hanging and for his body to be given to the University of Edinburgh, for dissection.

Howison’s case is also notable because his was the last body, in Scotland, to be given for anatomical dissection as part of a criminal sentence (and without consent). This is where the Anatomy Act of 1832 comes back into play as it is the law that put an end to this practice.

A few other fascinating artefacts found in the Museum include wall length glass cabinets filled with life and death masks of a host of famous people in history. From Voltaire to Bonaparte to Jean-Paul Marat- it’s interesting to be able to investigate the ‘faces’ of these people we’ve always read about or seen in paintings. But there’s something more personal and human about looking at their face masks. They seem a little more accessible or ‘real’. One part of the display had a little irony that was not lost on me because they have George Washington’s face mask on a shelf just below King George III’s…a cheeky move for sure.

So, there you have it- the second instalment of our Museums of Edinburgh series. I hope you enjoyed our journey through this delightful ‘cabinet of curiosities’. Edinburgh’s museums have so much to offer, and what they have are top-notch collections.

If you have the pleasure of visiting us, please take the time to stop by the Anatomical Museum at the University of Edinburgh (although check the dates and times they’re open as they are quite limited). It’s free (donations accepted), and a great way to engage with some enthralling history, albeit a little chilling at times.

After your museum visit, we would love to show you more of what the city has to offer. If you’re interested, please check our homepage for more information on the various walking tours of Edinburgh we offer- both scheduled and private. Our golden retriever tour guide, Sawyer, would also love to meet you. However, if you can’t make it to Edinburgh, you can always follow Sawyer’s (and our) adventures on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

Until next time- Explore & Discover

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