In 1813 a consignment of
rags reached the Broomielaw of Glasgow from Ireland, being one of a
number that had preceded it. In consequence of some error in the
consignment papers, the rags were allowed to lie for some days, when the
effluvia from them became so great as to compel the authorities to
examine the cause. Every person was horrified to find that a number of
human bodies had been packed among the rags, and investigatiori soon
proved that the bodies had been sent to be sold to the hospital for the
purposes of dissection, and that from £10 to £20 were paid for each. The
Irish traffic then, of course, ceased, but in the interest of anatomical
science it was necessary to procure “subjects,” and the axiom that
“supply follows demand" held true here. Medical students balloted among
themselves, and those chosen had to go to graveyards in town and
country, and uplift or dig out the corpses of parties recently buried,
and, in particular, those who had died of diseases not well defined.
Sir Robert Christison
says:—“A hole was dug down to the coffin only where the head lay, a
canvas being stretched around to receive the earth, and to prevent any
of it spoiling the smooth uniformity of the grass. The digging was done
with short, flat, dagger-shaped implements of wood, to avoid the
clicking noise of iron striking stones. On reaching the coffin two broad
iron hooks, under the lid, pulled forcibly up with a rope, broke oft a
sufficient portion of the lid to allow the body to be dragged out; and
sacking was heaped over the hole to deaden the sound of the cracking
wood. The body was stripped of the grave clothes, which were
scrupulously^buried again; it was secured in a sack, and the surface of
the ground was carefully restored to its original condition, which was
not difficult, as the sod over a freshly-filled grave mu3t always
present signs of recent disturbance. The whole process could be
completed in an hour, even though the grave might be six feet deep,
because the soil was loose, and the digging was done impetuously by
frequent relays of active men.”
As soon as this practice
became generally known, however, the general public took alarm, and
devised measures to defeat the surreptitious abstraction of the bodies;
possibly of friends or relatives. Parties were organised to watch the
graveyards night and day, and many who could afford it had their family
“lairs” covered over with strong iron bars to prevent them being
About this time a girl
called Marion Cowie, daughter of William Cowie, farmer, Oxgang, observed
three men in the churchyard of the Old Aisle busily digging with spades.
Her suspicions being aroused, she ran down the Haw Loan Road, and gave
the intelligence to the first person she met, the news thereafter flying
like wildfire to Kirkintilloch and Waterside. Very soon the inhabitants
streamed from these places towards the Old Aisle, but the three men had,
in the meantime, disappeared. The people, however, divided themselves
into search parties for the purpose of unearthing the scoundrels, who
might be under hiding.
Their exertions for a
while were fruitless, but at length one of them called Robert Kinniburgh
or Kinney who was examining a drain, happened to tread on the hand of a
man who lay concealed, which made the fellow cry out. He was urged with
furious threats to tell where his two companions had gone, but indeed he
had nothing to tell, as all three had acted, each for himself, and
absconded on the first alarm.
The crowd, which was now
very great, and much excited, was divided in opinion as to what should
be done with the prisoner; some demanding that he should be hanged on a
tree near the belfry of the Old Aisle, where they were congregated.
Better counsels prevailed however, and it was resolved to take him to
the Tolbooth of Kirkintilloch, whither he was escorted by the whole
crowd. The journey was a severe one for the captive, as many were
exasperated against him, and tore up the fences on the roadside to
furnish weapons with which they belaboured the poor wretch at intervals.
At last he was lodged in jail, and the crowd dispersed, but he was
removed early next morning for greater safety, and afterwards tried for
the offence; receiving a few days’ imprisonment as punishment.
The three men had managed
to exhume the body, which was the object of their operations; and had
doubled it up, and forced it into a sack, which they had placed against
the west side of the boundary wall of the old cemetery. The two men who
escaped were never afterwards captured. The body was that of Mrs.
Murdoch, known better by her maiden name of Jennie Scobbie.
A tragedy of greater
import happened about this period, when the inhuman deeds of Burke and
Hare were shocking the ears of the people of Scotland. Arthur Walker,
who was then carrier between Kirkintilloch and Glasgow, was a thriving
industrious man, and had built the property known as “The Beehive” in
Townhead: he went daily to Glasgow with his cart.
A simple and inoffensive
old man, who was generally accounted half witted, lived in what was
known as “The Back Row.” His name was James M'Kenzie, but he was known
best by the appellation of “Daft Jamie.”
Jamie had formed a strong
attachment for Arthur Walker, his horse, and his occupation; and was in
the habit of going every night along the road to Glasgow to meet Arthur
coming home; and Jamie not only returned with him, but helped him to
unload his cart and deliver the parcels which had been entrusted to his
care. Jamie’s services did not end here, however, for not until the
horse was fed, groomed, and littered down for the night, would he
consent to retire homewards.
One night Jamie went to
meet his friend as usual, but he never appeared to Arthur, who came home
alone. The alarm got abroad and search was made for poor Jamie in every
direction, but without avail, he was never seen or heard of afterwards;
and the belief then and since entertained is, that he was kidnapped and
murdered and his body sold.
In St. Mary's or the “Old
Church” burying-ground, the body of a Mrs. Dickson had been interred;
and her son, Thomas Dickson, flesher, was keeping watch along with other
friends, he being armed with his butcher’s-axe or cleaver. Hearing some
sound they rushed out and saw a man clambering over the wall; when
Dickson gave him a stroke with his weapon wielded with all his force,
but the fellow disappeared. It was currently reported to have been a
Campsie man thus nefariously engaged; as he did not reappear in Campsie
for some weeks after, and then with a wooden leg.
We give the following
from an active agent and eyewitness, A girl named Duncan died, and was
buried in the Old Aisle. Shortly afterwards her father was told that the
body had been stolen, and he became so uneasy that he went along with a
friend (our informant) and exhumed the coffin which was found to contain
the body all right. Very soon after a rumour spread that the head was
stolen, and the father along with the same friend made another
examination, this time finding the report true, for the head had been
sawn off and abstracted.