This is a bit of the story of Robert Knox, Edinburgh anatomist, and the receiver of the bodies from Burke and Hare. His grandfather lived on St May's Isle, Kirkcudbright. Extracted from the book A Sketch of the Life and Writings of Robert Knox, Anatomist, by one of his pupils, Henry Lonsdale. Published in 1870. A link at the foot of the page will take you to scanned pages of the complete book.  

Robert Knox and Burke & Hare

John Knox, the Reformer, was a conspicuous figure in an epoch unusually prolific of intellectual thought and revolutionary change. As preacher, polemic, and iconoclast, he stands pre-eminent among the Scottish worthies of the 16th century. His abjuration of Papal authority, his pulpit denunciations, and "first blast of the trumpet against the monstrous regiment of women" — so directly aimed at the Court of Holyrood — exercised a marked influence in achieving the Scottish Reformation. Knox, like his co-religionist Calvin, was a fiery, contentious spirit, rude in speech and ruthless in action. His harsh words often brought tears to the cheeks of "bonnie Queen Mary;" and he would have been nothing loth to burn any Romish priest caught lingering by the ruined altars of his church, after the sway of the “Congregationists" had become paramount in Scotland, North of the Tweed, those who bear the cognomen of Knox are disposed to trace their origin to the historic man of that ilk, or the more ancient Knoxes of Ranfurly, in Renfrewshire, to which the Reformer may also have belonged. This is natural enough, as ancestry and clanship are wholesome provender to the Scottish mind proud of its nationality; and a "lang pedigree" aye helps to sweeten the bread, if it does not largely fatten the brose, of life. Among others who held for the blood of the Ranfurly or Haddington Knoxes were a family of farmers located by St. Mary’s Isle, Kirkcudbright, early in the 18th century.

Mr. Knox, who concerns this narrative, was a tenant farmer of the Earl of Selkirk. Of himself and wife scarcely anything is known beyond their having a son Robert, a lad of promise, who was sent to Edinburgh to obtain the best education of the country. There the youth showed excellent parts, and proved himself no mean mathematician and scholar. About the year 1775, this Robert Knox married Mary Sherer or Schrerer, a farmer’s daughter whose family were of German extraction, and some of whom had become enrolled as citizens of the "gude auld toun" of Ayr. For a time the young couple appear to have resided in the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright, and were favourably received at the Hall of the Earl of Selkirk.

[In 1778, whilst the Earl was from home, "My Lady Selkirk" would entertain her neighbours at dinner. Mr. and Mrs. Knox were present on this eventful, and more or less historic, occasion. The cock-a-leekie soup and the choice salmon of the Dee had been served, when a naval Captain and party abruptly entered the dining-room, and begged permission to join her ladyship's circle. The Blue Jackets proved their relish of the viands and Bordeaux. When the ladies retired to the drawing-room, the Captain and his men swept the sideboard of its silver plate, and, laying hold of all that was valuable and portable, decamped from the hall, laden with spoil and good cheer! They offered no apology for this bold procedure, they, they made no promise to pay, much less to return; but, as a mark of condescension, the Chief of the piratical crew left his card inscribed — " Paul Jones, of the Ranger."

"Paul Jones," or, more correctly, John Paul, was the son of a gardener, once in the employ of the Earl of Selkirk. A silver ladle or spoon used to be shown by Dr. Knox as the gift of Paul Jones to his mother, as a placebo to her outraged feelings on discovering in the Scots-American pirate the son of a neighbour of decent worth.]

Possessing loftier aims than the bucolic life of his family, Robert Knox left "Mill-knowe," or the “Little Mote," his father's residence; and bidding adieu to St. Mary's Isle, the banks of Dee, and Solway's silvery sands, sought his fortunes in Edinburgh. There he taught some branches of natural philosophy: he was also the mathematical master at George Heriot's Hospital. As a leading Freemason, he is said to have taken part with Dr. Cullen and other notabilities in laying the foundation-stone of the University of Edinburgh (November 16th, 1789) — on a day ever memorable to the cause of education in Scotland. On the first outbreak of the great French Revolution, he became an ardent admirer of the new order of things, and joined the "Friends of the People;" in whose ranks the free-spoken British spirits of the day were enrolled. His patriotism was not so exuberant as to permit his incurring the martyrdom that fell to many of the Edinburgh worthies for their advocacy of the politics of Marat and Saint Just; so he had the discretion to retire in good time within the safe fold of the autocratic Dundas and the lines of constitutional government. Of the character of this Robert Knox, mathematician, Mirabeauan, moralist, little more need be written, nor is there much definitively known of his life beyond his ability, acumen, and citizenship. He had six sons and three daughters by his wife Mary: the eldest child and son, born in September 1776, was named John, after the great divine; 2, William; 3, Archibald; 4, Mary; 5, Isabella; 6, Paxton; 7, Janet; 8, Robert; and 9, Frederick John, whose name betrays the family regard for the ancestral John of national repute. All are dead but the youngest, Frederick John, who emigrated to New Zealand about thirty years ago. The eighth child, and fifth son of Robert and Mary Knox, was born on the 4th September, 1791, and named Robert, after his father: his history is the one to be discussed in this volume.

[Dr. Knox's birth is taken from the Family Bible, and the same date is to be found in the records of the Royal College of Surgeons, Edinburgh. In some documents and brief biographical notices of the Doctor, the year 1793 has been assigned to his birth. ]

Robert Knox, "the darling boy of the family," is said to have been good-looking, of fair complexion, with soft flaxen hair and large blue eyes. At an early age he had smallpox in a virulent form, which cost him the vision of his left eye, and involved him in delicacy of health for years. After a good educational training at home, he was sent to the High School of Edinburgh, where he had to contend with the best youths of the city and surrounding district. Few juvenile institutions could boast of more distinguished names than Francis Horner, Henry Brougham, and Henry Cockburn; and on the long roll of illustrious alumni of the High School scarcely one showed more brilliant parts than Robert Knox. Apparently without effort, he rose to the head of every class, and came out as Gold Medallist in 1810 — leaving other competitors far behind him in the race for the "blue ribbon" of the year. Robertus Knox figures on the wall of the Academy among the “Duces Classis Graecae et Latinae,” vi. Aug., 1810. The gold medal was inscribed “Roberto Knox puero optimo merito condiscipulorum DUCI;" and on its obverse “Praemium Murraeanum in Schola Edinburgensi.” On the day of distributing the prizes to the scholars of the High School, the Lord Provost and Town Council presented Knox with a large folio volume of the Works of Virgil, " ex editione Petri Burmanni,” to mark their approval of his superior abilities and conduct.

Robert Knox joined the medical classes of Edinburgh in November 1810. His literary and historical studies, his partiality for the collateral as well as the direct medical sciences, and not less his rhetorical powers, led him to take a prominent part in the hebdomadal discussions of the learned Societies assembled under the shadow of his Alma Mater, He had evidently won his spurs early in the Royal Physical Society, as prior to his graduation he had twice occupied its presidential chair, — an honour so rare as to be almost, if not altogether, unprecedented in the history of the Society. Owing to the loss of "the Minute Book," no clue can be had to the Essays which he contributed to the Royal Physical Society, or to the mode in which he had distinguished himself so far beyond his compeers.

It is said that, on his first examination for the M.D., Knox was plucked for his anatomy. Such a contretemps at the threshold of a promising career brought out his Saxon mettle and roused him to a thorough sense of duty, that not only saved him from the opprobrium of a second rejection, but the more damaging position of medical mediocrity. As the anatomical teaching of Monro tertius had been of poor service, Knox went to Barclay to make amends for lost time. Under a fresh teacher arose a fresh zest for a study the cultivation of which revealed a large field of inquiry, of absorbing and increasing interest to a man of comprehensive mind like Knox. Allured to the ranks of anatomy, his course became clearly established; he abandoned the dialectics and rhetorical encounters of the Societies for practical anatomy — the basis of surgical art and the best of all introductions to the study of natural science. His second appearance before his Examiners is said to have been more startling than his previous rejection; he had anatomy at his finger's end, and could set forth his knowledge in the choicest Latin — the language in which the examinations were at that time conducted. He graduated in 1814. His thesis — “De Viribus Stimulantium et Narcoticorum in corpore sano" — though brief in extent, and professedly written in haste, showed originality of thought: it contained observations on the effects of walking upon the pulse; and the influences exercised upon the frame by alcohol and other stimulants, as well as the narcotics in common use. His experiments made to ascertain the effects of equestrian and pedestrian exercise on the state of the pulse, came to be more fully investigated before the close of the year.

In October 1812, Mr. Knox, the father of Dr. Knox, died; his mother, Mrs. Knox, lived till 1838. After his father's death the Doctor was looked upon as the head of the family.

. . . . . . . .  

On the 29th November 1827 an old pensioner of the name of Donald died in Tanner's Close, West Port, Edinburgh. He died in debt to the extent of £4 and William Hare, his creditor, in whose lodging-house he had lived, saw but one way of reimbursing himself, and that was by disposing of the old man's body to the doctors. Hare found a ready accomplice in William Burke, another of his lodgers. The body was removed from the coffin, and a bag of tanners’ bark took its place; the coffin lid was screwed down, and all made decent for the bearers. Several neighbours, who had listened to the old man's stories of the war, respectfully joined the funeral procession, little conceiving that their tears at the grave-side were shed over deal boards and tanners' bark. The same evening Hare and Burke stealthily repaired to the college, and, meeting a student in the quadrangle, asked for Dr. Monro's rooms. On discovering their errand, he, being a pupil of Knox's, advised them to try Dr. Knox's, 10, Surgeons' Square. There they sold the pensioner's body for £7 10s. So big a sum and so easily got proved sadly ominous: the two Irishmen loved their labour less and their whisky vastly more from that hour of "selling their friends carcase." They had not courage to attempt the mode of the Resurrectionists, and, as waiting for another casualty at home was "awfu' tedious," Hare, the vilest of the two monsters, suggested a fresh stroke of business, namely, to inveigle the old and infirm into his den and “do for them." 

Prowling about the streets in search of a victim, Hare met an old woman from the neighbouring village of Gilmerton "fresh with drink;" he asked her to his house, and gave her lots of whisky; she got merry and garrulous, sang her favourite ditties, drank more deeply, and then became comatose. Now was the fit opportunity. Hare placed his hands firmly over her nose and mouth to stop respiration, while Burke laid himself across her body to ensure stillness. The operation succeeded — the woman of Gilmerton was dead. The body brought £10! — a gold sovereign for every minute of time spent in the work. Verily this realized De Quincey's notion of "murder being one of the fine arts." The expertness and surety of the mode enhanced the blood-money; the vampirian thirst now took possession of Burke and Hare and their paramours who shared in their devilish gains. Widows, orphans, street-walkers, and imbeciles were allured on various pretexts to the houses of Burke and Hare, and there dosed with whisky and suffocated. Dante's Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’ entratey, should have been inscribed over the door leading to this den of infamy in the West Port. Thuggism and other horrid forms of Eastern fetichism found their counterpart in atrocity during the year 1828 in the "Heart of Mid-Lothian," the capital of "moral and Christian Scotland." Emboldened by their repeated successes, Burke and Co. murdered their victims in daylight, and drank and danced in the midst of death. The "deil's luck" befriended them fifteen times; the sixteenth turn of the wheel proved fatal to the horrid fiends. A woman of the name of Docherty was invited from the street to spend the "Halloween" in Burke’s house, hoping no doubt to meet there with 

"Hearts leal, and warm, and kin’.”

She danced and sang, and joined in the revels of the night, that were wound up by her roaring "a horrid murder shout," 

"In dreadfu' desperation!" 

Next morning her dead body is seen under some straw by two lodgers, who gave information to the police. Burke and Helen McDougal and Hare and his wife were then apprehended on the charge of "Wilful murder."  

[At the trial of the prisoners (December 24, 1828) Hare, the most hideous of scoundrels, and his wife turned approvers, and so escaped the gallows, only to be hunted, however, from town to town like wild beasts. They returned to their native country (Ireland), and were no more heard of except in the pages of fiction till a few months ago, when Hare was reported as being seen in London. Burke was hanged and dissected; his skeleton is to be found in the Anatomical Museum of the University. His cranium resembles that of a woman, and could hardly have been taken for that of a murderer. Helen McDougal's guilt was “not proven." She is said to have died in Australia in 1868.] 

. . . . . . . 

In the midst of all the excitement, unfortunately the name of Knox mingled with that of Burke, and the British vocabulary was ransacked for epithets of defamation to his character. At the corners of streets, at the mouths of narrow wynds, and issuing from lairs of iniquity, women half nude, half drunk, and more than half savage, stood in groups, clamorously egging on both men and lads to act a desperate part towards Knox. The lowest rabble of the Old Town, full of menacing oaths and ferocity, rushed out to Newington and attacked Knox's house in the expectation of securing his person and hanging him along with his effegy by the lamp-post in front. Here was a surging plebs in all its wrath like a hostile mob with a “No Popery" cry, and rising with the occasion of having a philosopher instead of a Captain Porteous to burn and destroy. 

Knox was daily exposed to Jeddart-law justice, which means hang your victim first and try him afterwards; yet all the while there was not a single circumstance in his behaviour to which blame could be attached, much less any act of criminality. The Procurator-Fiscal of Edinburgh had made his searching inquiry; the Lord-Advocate of Scotland had fathomed all the facts of the case; but nothing could be adduced to show Knox in any way accessory to the West Port atrocities. 

. . . . . . 

Relying upon his entire innocence in the "Burking business," Knox allowed the winter of a nation's discontent to pass over without making any public declaration that might have appeased the raging clamour. He expected the excitement to subside, and that the better classes would never believe in so dire a motive as his connivance with criminal acts of fearful enormity, much less his associating with monsters of the deepest dye of infamy. He calculated wrongly for himself. Silence cannot be comprehended by a clamorous mob. The people were infuriated that he had not been indicted along with the West Port murderers, and not less maddened with disappointment at Hare's escape; so Knox had to bear the whole weight of the city's wrath, increased by covert enemies in every quarter. Two months after Burke’s condemnation, and his confession exonerating Knox from all blame whatsoever had been given to the world, Blackwood's Magazine, in its “Noctes Ambrosianae (March 1829), written by John Wilson, Professor of Moral Philosophy, alias " Christopher North," made every effort to blast the character of the anatomist. Literary ruffianism is too mild a term to apply to the foul words used by Wilson, who, not content with holding up Knox to public execration, rushed with the savagery of the warwhoop and tomahawk upon an unoffending anatomical class for showing an affectionate regard for their great teacher. 

Knox's silence over January and February 1829 might not be good policy, but his refusal to bring his enemies to account when he could have obtained heavy damages for their foul libels, was peculiarly creditable to his feelings and forbearance. His regard for science amounting almost to a passion, his hope that the late atrocities would induce the Government to take immediate steps quoad the supply of the Anatomical Schools, and his belief that justice would be done to his character sooner or later by the thinking minds of England, served to restrain his pen for months. The appointment of a committee of distinguished citizens to inquire into the whole affair caused Knox to break his long silence by the following letter:— 

"To THE Editor of the 'Caledonian Mercury.' 

"Sir, — I regret troubling either you or the public with anything personal, but I cannot be insensible of the feelings of my friends, or of the character of the profession to which I have the honour of belonging. Had I alone been concerned, I should never have thought of obtruding on the public by this communication. 

"I have a class of above 400 pupils. No person can be at the head of such an establishment without necessarily running the risk of being imposed upon by those who furnish the material of their science to anatomical teachers; and, accordingly, there is hardly any such person who has not occasionally incurred odium or suspicion from his supposed accession to those violations of the law, without which anatomy can scarcely now be practised. That I should have become an object of popular prejudice, therefore, since mine happened to be the establishment with which Burke and Hare chiefly dealt, was nothing more than what I had to expect. But if means had not been purposely taken, and most keenly persevered in, to misrepresent facts and to inflame the public mind, that prejudice would at least have stood on right ground, and would ultimately have passed away, by its being seen that I had been exposed to a mere misfortune which would almost certainly have occurred to anybody else who had been in my situation. 

"But every effort has been employed to convert my misfortune into positive and intended personal guilt of the most dreadful character. Scarcely any individual has ever been the object of more systematic or atrocious attacks than I have been. Nobody acquainted with this place requires to be told from what quarter these have proceeded. 

"I allowed them to go on for months without taking the slightest notice of them; and I was inclined to adhere to this system, especially as the public authorities, by never charging me with any offence, gave the only attestation they could that they had nothing to charge me with. But my friends interfered for me. Without consulting me, they directed an agent to institute the most rigid and unsparing examination into the facts. I was totally unacquainted with this gentleman; but I understood that in naming Mr. Ellis they named a person whose character is a sufficient pledge for the propriety of his proceedings. 

"The result of his inquiries was laid before the Dean of Faculty and another Counsel, who were asked what ought to be done. These gentlemen gave it as their opinion that the evidence was completely satisfactory, and that there was no want of actionable matter, but that there was one ground on which it was my duty to resist the temptation of going into a court of law. This was, that the disclosures of the most innocent proceedings even of the best-conducted dissecting-room must always shock the public and be hurtful to science. But they recommended that a few persons of undoubted weight and character should be asked to investigate the matter, in order that, if I deserved it, an attestation might be given to me which would be more satisfactory to my friends than any mere statements of mine could be expected to be. This led to the formation of a Committee, which was never meant by me to be anything but private. But the fact of its sitting soon got into the newspapers, and hence the necessity under which I am placed of explaining how that proceeding, in which the public has been made to take an interest, has terminated. 

"I have been on habits of friendship with some of the Committee; with others of them I have been acquainted; and some of them I don*t even yet know by sight. I took no charge whatever of their proceedings. In order that there might be no pretence for saying that truth was obstructed from fear, I gave a written protection to every person to say what he chose about or against me. The extent to which this was in some instances taken advantage of will probably not be soon forgotten by those who witnessed it. 

"After a severe and laborious investigation of about six weeks, the result is contained in the following report, which was put into my hands last night. It is signed by every member of the Committee except one, who ceased to act long before the evidence was completed. 

"I cannot be supposed to be a candid judge of my own case, and therefore it is extremely probable that any opinion of mine on the last view adopted by the Committee is incorrect, and theirs right. If it be so, I most willingly submit to the censure they have inflicted, and shall hold it my duty to profit from it by due care hereafter. My consolation is, that I have at least not been obstinate in my errors, and that no sanction has ever been given in any fair quarter to the more serious imputations by which it has been the interest of certain persons to assail me. Candid men will judge of me according to the situation in which I was placed at the time, and not according to the wisdom which has unexpectedly been acquired since. 

"This is the very first time that I have ever made any statement to the public in my own vindication, and it shall be the last. It would be unjust to the authors of the former calumnies to suppose that they would not renew them now. I can only assure them that, in so far as I am concerned, they will renew them in vain. 

"I have the honour to be, &c. &c 

(Signed) "R. Knox. 
"Edinburgh, 10, Surgeons' Square, 
17th March, 1829." 


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