By Richard P. Holm, MD
Stories of curiosity, mystery, and murder—invented or real—have fascinated people for many years. The first in this genre, the tale of Frankenstein’s monster, was published in 1818. During the author Mary Shelley’s life, the study of anatomy was gaining considerable interest. But there was a problem: aspiring anatomists were short on bodies to dissect. The grim solution to that problem came in the form of grave robbing.
Shelley’s story evolves with the scientist Victor Frankenstein searching for body parts, although his purpose was more sinister than studying anatomy. He pondered: “The moon gazed on my midnight labours . . . who shall conceive the horrors of my secret toil as I dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the grave . . . I collected bones . . . with profane fingers . . . where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption.”
Ten years later, a true story also highlighted the difficulty of finding human bodies for dissection. Dr. Robert Knox, a Scottish anatomist at Edinburgh University, was desperate for bodies to dissect. A lodge keeper, William Hare, had a tenant pass away who owed Hare money. Understandably, Mr. Hare sought to clear the tenant’s debt by selling the body to Knox’s anatomy lab. He received the surprisingly large payment of about $800 in today’s money. After that, Mr. Hare, with his friend Thomas Burke, began murdering the working-class people living in or near Hare’s boardinghouse. Over the next ten months, the bodies of 15 others were sold to the unsuspecting Knox.
The jig was up when Mrs. Gray, another tenant, noted Burke acting suspiciously, and her curiosity prompted her to investigate after Burke had left the hotel. Mrs. Gray found a dead body and called the police. After careful investigation, Burke’s ties to several murders became evident. Dr. Knox convinced a jury he didn’t know of the murders but lost his job; Hare was granted immunity for spilling the beans but had to escape the country; Burke became the fall guy, was hung, and, ironically, his body was dissected in front of a crowd. His skeleton is still on display in the Anatomical Museum of Edinburgh. Wow! A true and intriguing story demonstrating greed, murder, and gruesome justice.
Twelve years later, the American writer Edgar Allan Poe wrote the first detective story The Murders in the Rue Morgue, and some 46 years after that, British author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle began writing about the brilliant detective Sherlock Holmes. Both authors frightened their readers with inventive and gruesome tales.
Stories of curiosity, mystery, and murder—invented or real—have and will continue to fascinate and captivate audiences for years to come.