Down Memory Lane

The Dalkeith Watch Tower was erected in 1827 in response to grave-robbings taking place to supply Surgeon's Hall with fresh cadavers. Prior to its erection graves had been protected by a metal mort-safe placed over the grave.'The tower is built of red sandstone, is octagonal in shape and is topped by a battlement. Inside there is a timber floor, access to which is gained by a ladder and trapdoor.'William Burke and William Hare provided corpses for dissection by murdering people, but for almost one hundred years corpses had been provided from recent graves by people known as 'resurrectionists'. People had taken various self-help measures such as placing cages known as mort-safes over graves, or paying subscriptions to grave-watching societies, which meant the graveyards would be patrolled by armed guards. None of these methods was foolproof. But the crimes of Burke and Hare created so much anxiety amongst the public that in 1832 the Anatomy Act was passed which ensured a legal supply of bodies for anatomists.

The Dalkeith Watch Tower was erected in 1827 in response to grave-robbings taking place to supply Surgeon's Hall with fresh cadavers. Prior to its erection graves had been protected by a metal mort-safe placed over the grave.'The tower is built of red sandstone, is octagonal in shape and is topped by a battlement. Inside there is a timber floor, access to which is gained by a ladder and trapdoor.'William Burke and William Hare provided corpses for dissection by murdering people, but for almost one hundred years corpses had been provided from recent graves by people known as 'resurrectionists'. People had taken various self-help measures such as placing cages known as mort-safes over graves, or paying subscriptions to grave-watching societies, which meant the graveyards would be patrolled by armed guards. None of these methods was foolproof. But the crimes of Burke and Hare created so much anxiety amongst the public that in 1832 the Anatomy Act was passed which ensured a legal supply of bodies for anatomists.

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In last week’s feature we heard how John Gow and James Hewitt, along with accomplices John Kerr and John Burnett, had dug up the body of an old woman called Johanna Swan from Lasswade graveyard.

They took the body to Edinburgh sold it to Dr John Aitkin for £10. They returned to the graveyard the following night, where they dug up the graves of John Braid (40) and Alexander Kerr, the 22-month-old son of a collier from Bonnyrigg.

For some unexplained reason, they made no attempt to cover their tracks leaving the graves exposed without filling them in. They left the graveyard about 4am and hid Braid’s body under some stones about Broken Bridge. Young Kerr was carried back to Edinburgh and sold to Dr Aitkin for £2.

At 7am that Saturday, Thomas Robertson, an apprentice with David McGill, a Wright in Lasswade, went to the graveyard expecting to see David Thomson, the gravedigger, but the gates were locked.

He saw an open grave, and thought Thomson was working on it, but after calling out, he got no reply and started back home when he met Thomson on his way.

On entering the graveyard, they soon discovered the previous night’s coercions and the alarm was raised.

Meanwhile in Edinburgh, Gow and his fellow miscreants met up in a public house in the High Street and shared their booty and drank whisky. That evening, Gow and two men named Barclay and Spouse, brought Braid’s body back to town and took it to the house of surgeon John Lizars in York Place at around 8pm.

John Braid’s sister, Elizabeth, on hearing of her brother’s fate, petitioned for a warrant to search Dr Aitkin’s premises in Surgeon’s Square, where it was alleged her brother’s body had been taken. This warrant was obtained by Adam Goldie, a sheriff officer, at a late hour, but no trace of Braid’s body was found.

However, the body of an old woman and a child were seen on the premises, and it was deduced that these may be the other two bodies raised from Lasswade. Not having a warrant to secure the corpses, Goldie had to wait to report the find to the Procurator Fiscal on the Monday morning. As a result, James McKenzie, sheriff officer, obtained a warrant to search Doctor Aitkin’s premises for the bodies of Swan and Kerr. The body of a female was found in a trunk, secreted in a bartizan in the roof, the maid’s room. Dr Aitkin was instructed not to attempt to get rid of the body, as friends would be coming to identify it. No child’s body was found.

Braid’s body in the meantime was being shunted around and Mr Lizars’ porter carried a wooden box containing the body to the premises of Dr John William Turner, an anatomist in Surgeon’s Square. But, because of the searches under way in the building, the body was then secreted away and hidden.

On the Tuesday, Mr Malcolm, writer in Brown’s Square, for the relatives of Braid, obtained a warrant to search Dr Turner’s rooms, but without success. But it was agreed between Mr Malcolm and the sheriff officer, James McKenzie, that Turner knew about the body, despite denying its existence. Later that day, Agnes Brown, Agnes Gilmour and David Thomson arrived in Edinburgh as requested and were taken to Dr Aitkin’s premises.

They were somewhat perturbed to discover, despite McKenzie’s warning not to tamper with the body, that it was surrounded by students who were dissecting it about the face. McKenzie then instructed that they should desist immediately and ordered the doctor and his brother, Thomas, to attend the Sheriff’s Office. Leaving an officer on guard, they left instructions for both the missing child’s and the woman’s body to be handed over at 5pm.

The doctors did not keep that appointment, and when McKenzie called at their home, he was told in no uncertain terms by Thomas Aitkin that he would ‘neither assist or resist’, and that ‘you may do as you please’.

After positive identification, McKenzie thought it expedient to remove Swan’s body to the Park Watch House. He ordered a coffin and had the body transported back to Lasswade, where it was left in charge of the Kirk Session with the understanding to have it re-interred the following day.

Three of the doctors involved were interviewed on Thursday, February 26 and were less than helpful.

Dr John Aitkin stated that he resided in Nicholson Street Edinburgh and was a lecturer in anatomy with rooms in Surgeon’s Square. He was given the opportunity to be treated as a witness, but declined and declined to answer any further questions. Likewise, Mr Thomas Johnston Aitkin, surgeon, Dr Aitkin’s brother, stated: “I am a teacher of materia medica and pharmacy and of the Institution of Medicine Sciences for which the demonstration of the dead body is not requisite and refuse to answer all questions.”

Read more on this story in the January 2 edition of the Midlothian Advertiser, out now.