by Lynne Wilson
“Within a few months past we have conversed with gentlemen who have visited the North and South, and the centre of Europe; and they all concur in stating that there is more want and misery in this country than in any other they have seen.”
The Scotsman, 1827, Article on ‘The Prevalence of Crime in Edinburgh’
Crime was, of course, prevalent in all cities in Scotland at this time as the excerpt above points out. Edinburgh, as the capital city and a city which was establishing itself as a centre of learning, culture and respectability, was no doubt more under the spotlight than any other when it came to its failings. The reasons for crime in Edinburgh were the same as they were everywhere, in short, a high level of poverty, disease, death and misery in many parts of the city gave rise to theft, substance abuse and crimes perpetuated through anger.
The population of Edinburgh, as with other cities, had rapidly increased in the 1820s due to the influx of people from rural areas who had found themselves out of work due to the industrialisation which was occurring. Manual labourers who had been used to steady employment suddenly found themselves replaced by machinery on farms and in factories. Many flocked to the cities trying to find work there, but inevitably there were far more people than jobs, and areas within Edinburgh became overcrowded, and with a lack of sanitisation they quickly became dirty and unsanitary. Alcohol and laudanum abuse became widespread as people tried to block out the misery of their situations.
|The execution of William Burke|
When another tenant of the house, a man named Donald, died owing Hare rent money, the pair took the body to the medical school knowing that they would pay for a fresh corpse to dissect. It was then, when they realised how much money they could earn for a body, that they began to murder to obtain corpses to sell on.
|Graveyard Watchtower, New Calton Burying Ground, Edinburgh|
© Kim Traynor
As the medical school would pay very well for fresh corpses in good condition, a great many criminals considered that stealing bodies from graveyards was a risk worth taking, particularly as this crime was not viewed by the courts as serious and only attracted a short spell of imprisonment or a fine. This being the case, many relatives of those recently deceased would take turns to watch over the grave until such time as the corpse would be old enough to be of no use for anatomy. Men were also often employed to watch over the churchyards to prevent the activity of grave robbing.
By Lynne Wilson, author of the historical non-fiction ebooks 'A Year in
Victorian Edinburgh' and 'Crime & Punishment in Victorian Edinburgh'; and the paperbacks, 'Murder & Crime in Stirling' and ‘A Grim Almanac of Glasgow’.
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