The Darker Side of Life in Old Ireland III

Burke and Hare

In 1828 a bizarre proposal appeared in a London Newspaper suggesting a means to alleviate the shortage of corpses for dissection:

Let the body of every Irish pauper, who comes to this country uninvited, and dies here, be given to the anatomical schools. The plan would relieve us in a great measure from the influx of Paddies, as they would much rather deposit their bodies at home, than give at all events, a few additional subjects to our anatomists.

burke_and_hare 2It shows the attitudes held by the English for the Irish, but it was only one of a number of solutions being put forward at this time to increase the number of human bodies that could be made available for dissection, including the first ‘Anatomy Bill’ (1829). In the meantime, however, for several years two Irishmen living in Edinburgh had begun working on their own solution to the problem in that city. The names of Burke and Hare are well known to history as resurrectionists who decided it was more profitable for them to cut out the ‘middleman’, including the undertaker, in their corpse supply chain to the medical professionals. At the height of their activities they were considered ‘resurrectionists’, but they had moved on to secretly providing freshly murdered corpses to their customers. These crimes were not detected until November 1828, after they had sold seventeen bodies to the anatomist Robert Knox, sixteen of which they had suffocated to death. Part of the trouble for Burke and Hare was the fact that in 1828 Knox’s anatomy school required the huge number of four hundred bodies for its students, and the Edinburgh authorities had, in the meantime, made great advances to prevent grave robbing, which had caused Knox to import more and more bodies from Ireland.

William Burke was a native of Urney, Co Tyrone, and his companion, William Hare, was said to have come from the parish of Newry in County Armagh and was some years younger than Burke. Any real information concerning Hare is scarce, especially when looking into his birth, his life in Ireland, or the circumstances which had brought him to Scotland. Even more mysterious is that any information we may have about what happened to him is unreliable and from unofficial sources. By the time they were caught Burke and Hare had already been in Scotland for about ten years and were initially employed on the construction of the Union Canal. It appears that the men had met in Edinburgh in the mid- 1820s and immediately formed a friendship.

burke_and_hare 4
William Burke’s Skeleton on Display

On Christmas Eve 1828 the trial of Burke and Hare began and, famously, the latter turned ‘King’s Evidence’ against Burke, who was found guilty the very next day. William Burke was publicly hanged on 28 January 1829, and duly dissected like many of those he had delivered up to the anatomy students. But such was the man’s fame that a procession of thousands, including seven women, filed past to view his corpse on display. In fact, Burke’s skeleton can still be viewed in the ‘Anatomy Museum of Edinburgh University’ and a book, allegedly made from William Burke’s skin’, is apparently held by the ‘Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh’. William Hare’s wife, Margaret (née Laird), was released on 19 January and, taking their baby, went to Glasgow where she was mobbed, before she managed to board a steam ship going to Belfast. Subsequent court proceedings against Hare were unsuccessful and he was eventually released on 5 February 1829.

After being released from custody, a disguised William Hare was put on a coach for Dumfries, where, despite his disguise, he was soon recognized and forced to seek safety in a hotel by a large, shouting mob. He wanted to take the packet boat to Ireland that set sail from Portpatrick but was not permitted to board a coach to take him there. He was, however, given refuge in the town jail and, reluctantly leaving behind his cloak and bundle, was put on the road to England by the police who now washed their hands of him. Reports state that Hare was last seen about two miles beyond the border town of Carlisle’. The ‘Belfast Guardian’ reported that the mob had not beaten Hare while he was in Dumfries but suggested that wherever Hare went, he would carry the curses hatred of every human being.

‘The Northern Whig’at this time reported its belief that Hare would “take Belfast in the way of his return towards his native country” and would certainly to try to sail to Donaghadee. Stating – “A rumour having become prevalent in Donaghadee, … that Hare the murderer was on his was [sic] from Portpatrick to this town, the inhabitants flocked to the harbour to get a glimpse of the sanguinary ruffian. All were anxiety until the Steam Packet, in which Hare was said to have taken his passage, arrived. When she landed, the passengers were eyed attentively for a considerable time; at last, one was suspected, who is said to have the sullen mien of a murderer. He no sooner landed, than it was intimated to him that he was Hare; he replied that he was not Hare, but had been taken for him in Dumfries, where he had to fly from the fury of the populace. This was not satisfactory; and he had not proceeded many steps till he was in the centre of a circle, and the object of as much curiosity as the stranger with the long nose, in Strasbourg. At length, an acquaintance recognised, and asserted he was not Hare and the people quietly dispersed.”

On the 20 March 1829 the same newspaper that Hare had been arrested in Newcastle in England on suspicion of committing more murders. But there is no reliable information as to what happened to him, although there were rumours that he had returned to his family in Ireland. The truth of this rumour is said to have been demonstrated a few weeks later when Hare’s sister turned up in Dumfries to successfully recover his belongings.

Naturally the mystery surrounding Hare’s fate gave rise to many stories being told, including one that said he was blinded in a lime pit in Carlisle, or that he ended his days as a beggar on the Strand in London. There was one report from the ‘Northern Whig’ of 23 March 1829, less than seven weeks after Hare was released from jail, that told its readers:

burke_and_hare 5“On Friday evening last [20 March] , Hare the murderer called in a public-house in Scarva, accompanied by his wife and child, and having ordered a naggin of whiskey, he began to enquire for the welfare of every member of the family of the house, with well-affected solicitude.- However, as Hare is a native of this neighbourhood, he was very soon recognised, and ordered to leave the place immediately, with which he complied, after attempting to palliate his horrid crimes by describing them as having been the effects of intoxication. He took the road towards Loughbrickland, followed by a number of boys, yelling and threatening in such a manner as obliged him to take through the fields, with such speed that he soon disappeared, whilst his unfortunate wife remained on the road, imploring forgiveness, and denying, in the most solemn manner, any participation in the crimes of her wretched husband. They now reside at the house of an uncle of Hare’s, near Loughbrickland. Hare was born and bred about one half mile distant from Scarva, in the opposite County of Armagh; and shortly before his departure from this country, he lived in the service of Mr. Hall, the keeper of the eleventh lock, near Poyntzpass. He was chiefly engaged in driving the horses, which his master employed in hauling lighters on the Newry Canal. He was always remarkable for being of a ferocious and malignant disposition, an instance of which he gave in killing one of his master’s horses, which obliged him to fly to Scotland, where he perpetrated those unparalleled crimes that must always secure him a conspicuous place in the annals of murder.”

There are a number of issues raised in this report that have some truth in them e.g. Hare had been reunited with his wife and a ‘yellow-faced’ one-year-old child, of unknown gender, who is recorded as having suffered from whooping cough during the trial. The suggestion that Hare blames his crimes on the effects of alcohol, demonstrates the alcoholic’s talent for manipulating the truth. But the report states that Hare was born in Armagh, narrowing his place of birth down to two townlands in the parish of Ballymore. The Tithe Books of 1830 show that a John Hare did live in the townland of Monclone. At the same time, the report also states that a Mr Hall was the keeper of the eleventh lock on the Newry Canal and this is confirmed by the ‘Office of Public Works, Directors of Inland Navigation Records (1800-30)’. They establish that in 1801 a Walter Hall was keeper of the eleventh lock at the village of Poyntzpass, the residence only being demolished around 1980. Walter Hall died in January 1821 and was succeeded by Alexander Hall, probably a son, who was still held in the post when the canal was privatised in 1830.

There are reports that suggest that William Hare eventually died within the walls od the workhouse in Kilkeel, County Down. In the journal ‘The British Weekly’ of 14th July 1921 it was reported: “it is common knowledge in the little town of Kilkeel, Co. Down, that Hare died in the Union Workhouse there, and is buried in the grounds attached thereto. While there he made an unsuccessful attempt to commit suicide by cutting his throat and was then attended by the local doctor, who was a student at Edinburgh University at the time of the murders. This information was given to my father by the doctor himself. Some years ago there was, in the ‘Weekly Scotsman’ , a very graphic account of Hare’s adventures after his escape. There it was stated that Hare was a native of Carlingford, Co. Louth, which is only a short distance as the crow flies from Kilkeel, so it is easily understood that he would make for the district he knew on gaining his freedom. Kilkeel was for long an isolated town, so this may explain why these facts were not known long ago.”

The contents of this report have proved impossible to prove or disprove since the register of inmates for Kilkeel Union has not survived, and even if it had there is a case that Hare may well have used an alias. Moreover, if Hare had survived until 1864, his death may have been officially registered, but the question remains, ‘under what name?’ Besides, the extension of the ‘Poor Law Amendment Act’ to Ireland in 1838 brought with it a form of the English workhouse system, under which the workhouse managers could dispose of unclaimed bodies for dissection. Some would say that it would have been an ironic fate if William Hare did finish his days in the ‘Kilkeel Workhouse’ where, on his death, his body would have been given up for dissection.

There is an interesting footnote to the career of Burke and Hare that occurred in ‘The Belfast Guardian’ in March 1829. It was an observation made in a letter that chiefly concerned Burke, stating: “By his conduct the public mind has been excited, long gathering prejudices against anatomists have been increased and strengthened, and odium has been cast on the Medical profession inimical to the well-being of society. The excitation of public feeling thus occasioned, if rightly improved, however, instead of proving unfriendly or injurious to the Medical Profession should, and, we trust, ultimately tend to its advantage; yes, and to prevent, too, the recurrence of such tragic scenes of murder and exhumation as have lately so often disgraced the columns of the public prints, have ranked us lower than the very savage, and have caused the warm blood of humanity to flow back in the arteries and freeze in the heart, whilst it is thrilled with horror. For it should be the means of causing those whose province it is to devise and effect an anatomical reform, then Burke was a useful member of society.”

Although we have no clues as to the writer’s identity, the letter certainly came across as a statement of common sense at a time when most criticism was the result of hysterical, albeit totally justifiable, public outrage which had been aroused by the ‘Burke and Hare Scandal.’ The letter’s author strongly recommended the importance of the authorities having full control of the licensing of anatomy schools and their licensing to teach anatomy to the student doctors. However, any idea that the scandal had brought about the introduction of ‘The Anatomy Act 1832’ is wrong, although it may have contributed to it some small way.

burke_and_hare 3.jpgIn fact, six months prior to the crimes of Burke and Hare being made public, a select committee had been established to draft an ‘Anatomy Bill’, which was first introduced in 1828. It was, however, thrown out by the House of Lords in 1829 to make way for the ‘Reform Bill.’ But the growth in the copycat crime of ‘burking’ (called after William Burke and recalling his actions.) that caused the ‘Second Anatomy Bill’ to be introduced to Parliament in 1831. In January that year there was a case of ‘burking’, which took place in Ballylesson, Co.Down in Northern Ireland. Subsequently, Charles and Agnes Clarke of Drumbo were tried for the murder of an ‘unknown person’ and Daniel M’Connell, whom they had entrapped with ‘the pretence of hospitality.’ Agnes Clarke then tried to sell M’Connell’s body to a surgeon at Antrim Infirmary who raised the alarm. Quite how she proposed to market a body with multiple hatchet wounds to the head is unclear, but she claimed that the death was the result of ‘a stone quarry falling’. Partly on the testimony of their own daughter, the couple were found guilty of M’Connell’s murder and hanged on 5 August. Their bodies remained hanging for a long time because they could not convince to give or hire a car for the removal of their bodies. Eventually, a few men were got to carry them on their shoulders’ to Down Infirmary, where their bodies were dissected.

There is evidence to suggest that at this time a ‘Burker’ dispatched his victims by offering them snuff laced with arsenic, while another grisly incidents of ‘burking’ happened in London, committed by John Head (alias Thomas Williams), John Bishop and James May. It was stated that they murdered their victims by first drugging them and then suspending them head-first down a well. Their killing spree had begun in the summer of 1830, but it was the murder of a fourteen-year-old Italian boy, Carlo Ferrari, which led to their arrest in November 1831. Carlo used to carry a revolving squirrel cage containing two white mice and a tortoise, and his death was considered particularly nasty because the boy’s teeth were removed using hardened steel awl, known as a bradawl. Bishop and Williams confessed to three murders, and the ‘Second Anatomy Bill’ was introduced in December 1831, just ten days after they were hanged. Parliament passed the Act in 1832 and came into force for the entire United Kingdom on 1st August.

From this point onward it was at the discretion of the ‘Secretary for Ireland’ to grant the licenses necessary to practice anatomy. The Act also made provision for an inspectorate to be established and the first ‘Inspector of Anatomy’ for Dublin was Sir James Murray, who had strong Belfast connections. Murray was to hold this important post for almost forty years and is known as the inventor milk of magnesia. He was also employed as the resident physician to the marquis of Angelsey, who sponsored him for a knighthood because of his services. The ‘resurrectionist’ trade was ended through this ‘Anatomy Act’ although the legislation itself was never perfect. Nevertheless, it was to remain in place until the inception of the ‘National Health Service in 1948’ and the introduction of the 1984 Anatomy Act. In Northern Ireland it was finally replaced by the ‘Anatomy (NI) Order of 1992’.

Finally, the rise of the anatomy schools and their ghastly relationship with the resurrectionists was a squalid affair and did nothing to improve the public perception of the ethics of the medical profession of the day and reflects the modern day’s growing international trade in organs for transplantation.

Dublin, the Irish capital, became an important centre for the export of bodies to other parts of the United Kingdom because of its thriving resurrection trade. Market forces and better transportation drove the traffic to new levels, which were detrimental to the supply of bodies to the local anatomy schools. Belfast and its hinterland, on the other hand, lacked a resurrection trade because there was no local, large scale anatomy school to create one. Dublin’s trade in bodies was carried out on an industrial scale while in Belfast it appeared the trade never amounted to much more than a cottage industry, but the true prevalence of resurrectionist activity in Ulster will never be known. From the frequency of contemporary newspaper reports, and even though the practice often went undetected, it is unlikely that the average annual total amounted to more than a few dozen. Indeed, even at its height in the late 1820s, it is probable that the total did not stray much into triple figures. This trade from Ulster seems to have been sustained by just a few individuals, sporadic visits by gangs of resurrectionists from Scotland and some opportunistic freelancers. The coming of regular steamships travelling the Belfast to Glasgow route from 1818 and the burgeoning demand in the Scottish medical schools did vastly improve the trade until the 1832 Anatomy Act finally put an end to it. It was, in fact, the act’s stifling of a free market, by legalizing the supply of bodies but not increasing it, which contributed to the decline in the trade, which coincided with an upsurge in the popularity and influence of the medical schools of Paris and Dublin.

The Darker Side of life in Ireland of Old

Part I

Recently I had the opportunity to read a book called ‘The Peeler’s Notebook’, concerning the work of the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) from its formation until the establishment of the ‘Garda Siochana’. To my surprise I read a snippet about the activities of men involved in the ‘Sack ‘em up’ trade, more commonly known as ‘Grave Robbing’, or ‘Resurrectionism.’ Looking further into such activities I was surprised to discover that ‘Resurrectionism’ had been a long-established practice within Ireland, which appeared to reach its peak in the early decades of the nineteenth century. There was, at this time, a growing demand for reasonably fresh cadavers to the anatomy schools that had been established in Dublin and Belfast, the surplus supporting the burgeoning export trade to those supplying the anatomy schools in London, Edinburgh and elsewhere within Britain. In the northern part of Ireland, the gruesome trade was not as widespread as that in the south and was largely carried out for export purposes. However, it was the criminal actions of two men from Northern Ireland, Burke and Hare, that brought the practice into the light and hastened the demise of the trade.

Grave Robbing 2The methods employed by the ‘Resurrectionists’ in obtaining the cadavers were greatly facilitated by the common practice of the shallow interment of the dead, and the marking of their last place of rest marked by a mound of earth. To combat the practice various efforts were employed, such as putting lamp posts in graveyards, establishing corpse-houses, constructing iron frames to guard the coffins, watch-house, and the building of ‘mort-safes’. Meanwhile, in Edinburgh’s old graveyards there were rows of iron cages standing like so many animal enclosures to prevent newly buried bodies from being stolen.

Researchers have pointed out that it was the early years of the nineteenth century that saw the ‘Resurrectionist’ movement peak, and finally began to decline after the revelation of the murders committed by Burke and Hare, both of whom were originally from Ireland. This blog has been written to outline what I have discovered about this dark era of ‘Resurrectionism’, with the emphasis being on the Irish experience and the events that led to the passing of ‘The Anatomy Act’ in 1832.


We who live in a modern Ireland can see that anatomy is an essential medical subject that is, in many cases, studied by the dissecting dead bodies. For many hundreds of years, however, superstitious beliefs, religious objections, and completely blind acceptance of existing medical teaching combined to erect a huge obstacle to practical studies by anatomists that would give us new understanding on how the human body functioned. It is also a sad reflection on humanity that from the days when men first took to burying their dead, graves have been robbed of anything of value that had been buried with the corpse. In fact, I can recall that some thirty years ago there was a widely reported case of thieves being disturbed in an old churchyard as they attempted to steal the heavy lead that had been placed around some corpses almost two centuries previously to prevent those bodies from being taken by body-snatchers.

Andreas Versalius, Flemish anatomist, physician was born in Brussels in 1514, and is often referred to as the founder of modern human anatomy, authoring ‘De humani corporis fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body)’. He was professor at the University of Padua, and later became Imperial Physician at the court of Emperor Charles V. At this time most anatomical studies were carried out upon the bodies of animals, but Versalius would change this practice. It could also be said that Versalius, who was the man who established the foundations of modern anatomy, was the first grave-robber to use his talents to expand human understanding anatomical science. There are many stories about Vesalius and his activities, one of which describes how he smuggled the body of a hanged criminal into his lodgings, with the help of a friend. Such stories, concerning the development of anatomy in Europe, are many and a considerable number of pages could be filled with them. We shall not do that but will simply state that the trade in supplying fresh cadavers for dissection flourished widely throughout Ireland and the British Isles from the mid-eighteenth century until The British Parliament passed the ‘Anatomy Act’ in 1832.

Grave Robbing 4In the middle of the sixteenth century, while all students of medicine were required to be thoroughly familiar with the anatomy of the human body, the Crown authorities provided surgeons with a totally inadequate number of corpses for anatomical study that had been obtained from executed criminals. The considerable gap between supply and demand was filled by entrepreneurial individuals in a variety of ways. The most common method, however, saw men going out after dark and digging up recently interred bodies from the many graveyards. It appears that this task was usually undertaken by medical students, doctors, or by professional grave robbers who were commonly known as ‘body-snatchers’, ‘resurrection men’ or ‘sack-’em-ups’. In fact, the practice became so common that there were occasions when rival grave robbers, mourning relatives, watchmen, and others would become involved in fighting over the possession of corpses. One such occasion was recorded as happening in Edinburgh, which had become a major medical teaching centre. As was their habit, the students of the famous anatomist Alexander Munro, attended the public hanging of a woman, intending to secure the female criminal’s body for their studies. The students, however, were noticed by members of the gathered crowd and, in moments, a ferocious public battle erupted. Unfortunately for both sides, they were a bit too quick off the mark, and soon after the public uproar had broken out the poor woman’s life was revived by the students, and she was to live for many more years after the incident, albeit with the nick-name of “Half-hangit Maggie Dickson.

The great demand for corpses was met, for the most part, by the industriousness of the Irish resurrection men who were able to export their surplus trade to Edinburgh and other major medical training centres. But as the years passed, this source of corpses was proven to be totally inadequate to fill the constantly increasing demand. Then, in 1829, the entire dark world of grave robbers and the medical establishment was blown wide open when the career of a well-known surgeon called Knox was suddenly brought to ruin because of his dealings with an infamous duo of ‘resurrectionists’ called Burke and Hare. These two men had tried to overcome the shortage of fresh bodies for anatomical research by murdering anyone whom they believed would not be missed. These unfortunate victims were tramps, orphans, street women, and poor people. Even today the name of Burke and Hare is enough to send a shiver down a person’s spine and their infamy was recorded in song e.g.

“Up the close and down the stair

But and ben with Burke and Hare

Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief,

Knox the boy who buys the beef.”


Grave Robbing 3In the twenty-first century it is almost impossible for us to comprehend the mindset of those men that involved themselves in such a trade. One story, however, might just help enlighten us, and it concerns a certain labouring man from a town on the south coast of England whose wife died in 1800. When a close friend went to the man’s house to offer his condolences, being taken into the kitchen he saw that the coffin was empty and had been left upside down. Curious as to what had happened to the body of the man’s wife, the visitor asked his friend where it was, and he was stunned by the reply he received. The widowed husband told his visitor that, when he and his wife had first been married, she had been brought to him with a horse’s halter around her neck. At the time, the husband took this to be a sign that he would have absolute control over her and that she would be obedient to him in all matters. So convinced was he of his ‘rights’ as a husband that he had sold his wife’s body to local ‘body snatchers’ and had decided that he should keep the coffin to use as a sideboard.

A similar record of the period demonstrates just how the activities of the ‘grave robbers’ had caused the moral standards of the ordinary citizens to change. One news report gave details of a man whose son had died seventeen years previously and, when he went to the graveyard to ensure the corpse was safe, he discovered the corpse had been stolen by ‘resurrectionists’. All that was left in the young man’s grave was his coffin, which the father took home with him and used for his own burial seventeen years later.

Similar tales were all too familiar in Dublin and Belfast at the time and, sadly, a casual approach toward the bodies of dead loved ones appeared to become widespread among people. In February 1830 a city paper reported the following story:

“A few nights ago a corpulent midwife named Magennis rather aged died on the north side of the city and on the night of her burial it was discovered that the leader of those who attempted to disinter the poor woman and deliver her body up for dissection was one of her own sons. On the fellow being accused of the crime he said, ‘Sure even if I did so a tenderer hand couldn’t go over her.’”

It is evident from such records that in and around Dublin at that time family mourning was very much in short supply. The reason behind this change in attitudes was due in part, if not in full, to the spread of ‘Resurrectionism’ to almost epidemic proportions by the 1820s. The lack of human bodies for scientific study because of various religious and traditional taboos had already impeded developments in anatomy study for centuries. In previous times monkeys and pigs had been dissected by students because they were thought to be broadly similar anatomically to humans. But when these studies were extended to the actual treatment of humans there were gaps in knowledge and understanding. It was William Harvey (1578 – 1657) was the first physician who described in complete detail the systematic circulation of blood being pumped to the brain and body by the heart.[1] The accuracy of his work was due entirely to the fact that he had studied the dissected bodies of his sister and father.

In the first half of the sixteenth century a very limited number of bodies from executed criminals had been made available, by royal enactment, to surgeons in Scotland and Wales. These proved to be too few to satisfy a growing demand, and ‘The Murder Act’ of 1752 included the substitution of dissection for gibbeting in chains for the guilty. In fact, there are records that tell us that in Dublin there were many occasions when the corpse of a publicly executed murderer would be followed to the gates of the College of Surgeons by a disaffected mob of people, which included the executed person’s relatives.

It was, of course a period of great scientific exploration of all sorts including the generation and possible uses of electricity like ‘Galvanism’. This involved passing a ‘Galvanic’ current through the muscles of a dissected body causing them to jump and move as if alive, leading some to believe that such experiments were the inspiration for stories like ‘Frankenstein’ by Mary Shelley. Meanwhile, as anatomical research continued to gain momentum in medical circles the demand for bodies of the deceased grew and certain ‘entrepreneurs’ took to stealing the bodies of those who had been newly interred. These men saw no legal problem in this activity since the bodies of the deceased had no value in British law, although they did have some value in Common Law. In Scotland medical students traditionally had to source their own bodies, while in Dublin the trade in ‘Body Snatching’ had been continuous since the beginnings of the 1730s. The early nineteenth century, however, witnessed a great growth in the number of surgical students, which was due in most part to the increase in population between the mid-eighteenth century and the 1830s, as well as the increase in demand for surgeons during the wars with Napoleon.

Grave Robbing 6The wars with France and Spain caused a great downturn in foreign trade at this time and caused the sons of the middle-class to seek careers in medicine rather than commerce. At the same time, the government wanted to bring some regulation to the business of dispensing medicines and within the terms of ‘The Apothecaries Act of 1815’ instruction in anatomy was made compulsory for the training of all recognised apothecaries. It was also a time of discovery, with voyages of exploration to all the far-flung parts of the world revealing new peoples, new foods, strange, animals, and new, extremely deadly diseases. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that this was also a time when medical scientists increased their exploration into the inner workings of the human body.

This period in the history of medical science was encouraged by a new spirit of investigation into diseases, developed in France and involving new clinical-pathological measures. The Napoleonic Wars and a new law gave anatomical students an ample number of corpses for research and their work demonstrated that a limited number of dissections might increase knowledge of human anatomy, but the dissection of many bodies with diseases at different stages gave greater knowledge of the causes of death and led to methods to prevent many of those causes. As one commentator of the time stated, “the examination of a single body of one who has died of Tabes or consumption … is of more service to medicine than the dissection of the bodies of ten men who have been hanged.” Nevertheless, when it came to the study of pathology, Ireland and the rest of the British Isles lagged far behind the advances made in France. In fact, powers in England called the exportation of corpses from Ireland as being an abominable and shameful trade, likening it to the shipping of dead or live cattle or any other cargo. One noted Irishman, Dr Peter Hennis Greene from Cork, who served on the staff of the ‘Lancet’ for years, had taken part in grave robbing expeditions as a medical student at Trinity College Dublin, and he wrote of ‘his shillelagh red with the blood of the Charleys’ (night watchmen).[2] The anatomy schools, however, were totally dependent upon the support of the ‘resurrectionists,’ whose trade by had begun to reach its peak in the second decade of nineteenth century. If compared to a modern-day illegal trade it would be like today’s drug trade, for it too was wholly consumer-driven, although in this case the purchasers, the heads of the anatomy schools, escaped prosecution criminalization. But, like drugs, human bodies represented the money that underwrote their wealth and professional influence for, by the late 1820s, bodies could command a price of between £16 and £22. Unfortunately, as it always seems to be, it was the poor who bore the brunt of the activity, because they were buried in the flimsiest of coffins in shallow, mass graves. In commercial terms, the poor had come to be worth more dead than alive.

It was estimated that in 1826, the trade in corpses for anatomical research probably exceeded several thousand bodies annually in Great Britain. Moreover, the growth was greatly assisted in that year when dissection was made compulsory in surgical studies, and all students were required to dissect one or more cadavers. One of the largest classes of students studying anatomy was under the direction of Robert Knox in Edinburgh and numbered over five hundred pupils. Such large classes were not unusual in any of the anatomical schools and many other medical researchers complained that surgeons in London, particularly, created massive competition between private schools and hospitals. There were also increasing criticism of the ‘College of Surgeons’ for its emphasis on dissection and had, therefore, caused the acute shortage of bodies and the high prices that were being charged for them. More damaging, however, was the growing attacks against the relationship between resurrectionists and anatomist as being totally dishonourable to the reputation of the medical profession. Meanwhile, in Dublin at this time, it was estimated that the number of ‘dissecting pupils’ exceeded five hundred, and the number of bodies used for dissection as being numbered between fifteen-hundred and two thousand. But Dublin was a major centre for ‘resurrectionists’ activities in the British Isles at this time and, as we shall discover, also had a flourishing export trade in bodies.


The methods employed by the body snatchers were many and varied but were made less difficult by the fact that the lid to a coffin did not lie very deep below the surface of the ground. The grave robbers often worked with short- handled, wooden spades that deadened the noise of their excavations. In some places the body snatchers used a canvas sheet to hold the excavated earth and, once the coffin lid was exposed, two hooks were inserted under the lid and pulled upwards with a rope. This would cause the coffin lid to shatter enough to allow them to drag out the corpse with sacking heaped over everything to assist in deadening any noise that might have been caused. Thereafter, the body was stripped of any shroud covering it, and this was scrupulously re-buried, because to steal it was a misdemeanour. The body itself, however, was put in a sack, which led these grave robbers to be known commonly a ‘sack-em-up men’, and the whole scene would be carefully restored to its original appearance. The entire procedure could easily be completed in an hour, even when the coffin had been buried deep.

With grave robbing having become a major commercial enterprise, its members developed their own words to describe their ‘goods’. Bodies, for example, were referred to as ‘things’, while the bodies of children and tiny infants were often referred to as ‘large smalls’ and ‘foetuses’. Other enterprising resurrectionists specialized in hair for wigs, and teeth for dentures and transplantation, as a profitable side-lines. In fact, for many resurrectionists, the greater profit from their activities could be obtained from teeth alone, which were used to fulfil the demand for transplanting teeth and the manufacture of dentures.

There were stories that some acts of resurrectionism had been carried out to harvest the fat from the corpses to supply the ready market for candle making. It was said that candles made from ‘human lard’ caused a lot of smoke and this, perhaps, led to the rumour that when used with a so-called ‘Hand of Glory,’ they were believed to put people into a trance, which made them popular with burglars. This so-called ‘Hand of Glory’ was a candleholder created from the severed hand of a murderer and used to burn candles made from the same source. One story concerns a certain Ralph Westropp, a former sheriff of Limerick, who died in March 1858 at the age of sixty years. He was buried at Drumcliff outside Ennis but, in early May, his grave was violated by unknown persons, which resulted in his body being cut open and the Stomach and some of the body fat being taken away. Initially it was thought that insurance companies were to blame the man had been heavily insured and poison might have been involved in causing his death. Suspicion, however, quickly fell on certain groups that were carrying out an evil, superstitious act i.e. the manufacture of a candle from human lard that would allow them to enter a house unseen and rob it with impunity.

[1] Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed), 2019

[2] Fleetwood, John F. “The Dublin Body Snatchers: Part Two.” Dublin Historical Record, vol. 42, no. 2, 1989, pp. 42–52. JSTOR, Accessed 8 Jan. 2020.

Irish Traditional Cures

The Wisdom of the Ancestors


Throughout the world, there are tales of Shamans; Medicine Men; Witch Doctors; Faith Healers; Quacks; Bone-Setters who are known to the people of their district for having cures for a wide variety of ailments, hurts, and diseases. t was no different in the Ireland of bygone years, when the majority of the population were poor, peasantry who could not afford proper medical assistance and depended on such people as these to aid them in their need. There were certain women, often called ‘Wise Women’ who had no education but were able to work their charms to help those who were ill. By some means, natural or mysterious, they had discovered the healing power contained within certain plants. In an island of green fields, woodlands, mountains, and lakes they knew the plants and herbs that gave some relief to every part of the body, both internally and externally.
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There were tales that these healers had lived among the fairy folk or other strange unearthly people from whom they had learned their magic charms. Some even specialised in their area of expertise and became known as Fairy Doctors, Cow Doctors, and Horse Doctors, each one being educated by the unseen spirits in their own Irish language. Their success in the different districts in which they worked made some famous all over the whole island as their reputations grew and people sought them out in their desperation. Not all of these healers could cure all the ailments that people had, but there were a few who could almost do the impossible and became famous for their cures, especially those who succeeded in healing a patient whom the medical doctors had failed. Some healers were acclaimed by a superstitious people to be able to bring back the dead with the ‘Slanlus’ and the ‘Garblus’ which were the same herbs that revived the Lord after his death on the Cross.

‘Slanlus’, a ‘Ribwort Plantain’, which is a perennial weed with almost worldwide distribution and grow aggressively. The leaves would be plucked fresh, cut, chewed up and applied to the sore. Apparently, it was known to prevent blood poisoning and encourage healing. ‘Garblus’, better known to us as the ‘Dandelion’ was considered as being able to cure the world … “and it was these brought our Lord from the Cross, after the ruffians that were with the Jews did all the harm to Him. And not one could be got to pierce His heart till a dark man came and said, “Give me the spear, and I’ll do it,” and the blood that sprang out, touched his eyes and they got their sight.
And it was after that, His Mother and Mary and Joseph gathered their herbs and cured His wounds. These are the best of the herbs, but they are all good, and there isn’t one among them but would cure seven diseases. I’m all the days of my life gathering them, and I know them all, but it isn’t easy to make them out. Sunday evening is the best time to get them, and I was never interfered with. Seven “Hail Marys,” I say when I’m gathering them, and I pray to our Lord and to St. Joseph and St. Colman. And there may be some watching me, but they never meddled with me at all.”Lady Augusta Gregory, Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland, 1920).
There were also healers who were known to have cures for cattle and other animals, as well as cures for human being diseases and injuries. There were those, like many today, who claimed that they have the cure for a bald-head and can make hair grow on any skin irrespective of age. Below is a shortlist of ailments and some of the cures suggested for them, quite a few of which are still in use today.
Jaundice – “Jaundice” itself is not a disease, but a medical term that describes yellowing of the skin and eyes. Although it isn’t a disease, Jaundice is a symptom of several possible underlying illnesses, many of which are serious and can lead to death if untreated. It is formed there is too much bilirubin in a person’s system, Bilirubin being a yellow pigment created by the breakdown of dead red blood cells in the liver. In normal circumstances the liver would rid the body bilirubin along with old red blood cells, exhibiting Jaundice may indicate a serious problem with the function of your red blood cells, liver, gallbladder, or pancreas, caused by such things as Hepatitis; Cancer; Anaemia; Liver Failure; etc.
Trad Cure 2Modern medical advances have helped make Jaundice less severe than it used to be in times when it was not known what it indicated. There were several holistic cures practiced by the Healers in Ireland, one of which was made from a weed (Chickweed), the seedless plant and not the female variety. The weed was pounded into a pulp to extract the juice, which was then boiled in stout and sweetened with sugar. The resulting mixture was then squeezed, strained and given to the patient, and was said to be a sure remedy. It doesn’t sound to be a particularly pleasant concoction for a person to drink but, maybe, not as much as some other remedies that were used. One other remedy required ten snails to be boiled in a cup of water until they disappeared, and the cup was then strained and given to the affected person to drink. Some patients were even encouraged to drink their own urine, which was made sweet with sugar and lemon juice and was said to cure the sufferer when other remedies failed them.
Whooping Cough –  We all know the dangers to children who suffer from whooping cough, or ‘Chin-cough’ as it was once know in Ireland. Before vaccination and modern medicines helped reduce the instance of this terrible child disease, it was a major cause of infant mortality and was not unknown to visit the older people of a community. The Healers in Ireland used a small white flower shaped like a chalice, which was known as ‘The Blessed Virgin’s Chalice’, or ‘Lady of the Valley’, which was boiled in milk. Another cure employed to relieve the suffering of the infected was heated asses milk, given to the patient to drink in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. In some cases, the milk that a ferret leaves behind after it has eaten is heated and given to the patient to drink. A more strange cure for ‘Chin-cough’ was a hair from the tail of a white horse being boiled in milk, which is then given to the patient to drink. One tale spoke of a person in the house. where the sick person is, would see a man driving or riding a white horse  and going to him would say, “Man with the white horse give me a cure, for the chin-cough” The man on the horse would then give the hair from the horse’s tail to be boiled in milk, or Poitin.
Trad Cure 3Warts – Warts are one of those things that can plague both humans and animals. I have heard of one remedy for warts in animals that was said never to fail, and the truth of that statement is in the story that the ‘Wise-Woman’ was visited by ailing animals being brought to her from all parts. The remedy that she is said to have used for curing warts in animals was said to contain the following ingredients i.e. 1 oz Tincture of Spanish Fly; 3.5 ozs Compounded Camphor Liniment;  3.5 ozs Soap Liniment; and a bit of soot which was said to thicken the mixture. The accuracy of this prescription cannot be vouched for and this may have been only some of the ingredients required.
Warts on human beings is a widespread ailment which, I would say 90% of us have suffered, and used modern treatments to have them removed or medically burned off. In the days of the healers, when these modern medicines were unknown, people were told to acquire a black snail and stick it on a thorn from the Whitethorn Bush (‘Fairy Tree’) and the wart subsequently rubbed against the same snail each morning, for nine mornings, before breaking their fast. It was said that as a result, the wart would fade away as the snail withered on the thorns. A less gruesome remedy, however, called for warts to have ‘fasting spit’ rubbed upon them each morning for nine mornings and this would cure them.
Some patients were told to carry a bag of stones, one for each wart, which was then thrown one by one over the shoulder in the hope that the warts would be passed on to the finder of the stones and removed from the sufferer. Another stone, known as ‘Bluestone’ is considered to be a cure. “Bluestone” is a cultural name often given to a number of building stone varieties, including limestone, which is quarried in Counties Carlow, Galway, and Kilkenny. This was also considered a cure for ‘wildfire’ on the lips.
Some of the other old prescriptions for warts included the patient carrying dampened Washing Soda in a pocket and then, rubbed on the wart several times a daily. There was also the scrapings from the inside of an Oyster Shell mixed into a paste and applied to warts. In the same way, the juice from the stems of a ‘Dandelion’ should be smeared on the wart daily. It was also said that if you were journeying someplace and, by chance, came across a small hollow in a limestone block that is filled with water then the wart should be bathed in that water at least three times, and it will fall away. There was also the tradition of rubbing a piece of bacon on the wart, which is then taken from the house and placed under a stone. In a few days, the patient would do the same thing, followed a few days after that by a similar action, then the wart was said to vanish when the bacon had gone.
‘The Spool of the Breast’ – The spool is a bone which is found under the middle – rib of a person’s chest, and it can be displaced by overexerting yourself or straining yourself by lifting heavy weights at the front of the body, causing the spool to fall down on the stomach.  It was said that the raising of the spool of the breast was a cure peculiar to the local bonesetter. People become very weak and unable to work when their spool falls, and the bone-setter is immediately called. It was a complaint that affected people both young and old, and the ‘Bonesetter’ raises the spool of the breast by using his fingers in a specific manner, which took at least five minutes to complete. During the ‘operation’ the patient would sit in a chair and would often faint during the procedure. On occasion, the ‘Bone-setter’ would raise the spool of the breast using a lighted candle or cup, although I am personally unsure of how this procedure was carried out. Although these operations were continuing in the middle of the twentieth century, the medical fraternity gave no credit to the cure much as they do today with holistic medicine. There have been, incidents when sufferers were sent to the hospital and x-rayed, and doctors could not cure it. But, the local ‘Bone-setter’ was successful where the doctor failed.
Chilblains and Corns – Chilblains are small, but itchy swellings on the skin which arise as a reaction to cold temperatures, and they most commonly affect the extremities of the body e.g. toes. One common cure prescribed by the local healers was to rub in the affected areas a mixture made from salt and lemon juice, or rubbing in Paraffin Oil. Other remedies used included measures of whiskey or Poiteen briskly rubbed into the areas affected. Also, at this time, it was widely held that unsalted butter was good for both chilblains and rashes of the body. Local tradition, in fact. said that unsalted butter was a great cure for anything, even on the outside of the body, while a drop of good, hot poiteen was a cure for the flu or any ailment of the body’s interior.
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Corns, much as they are today, were a regular and common ailment among people, on all areas of their feet. For Corns that appeared on the soles of the feet, people were told that they should wear insoles with holes cut in them where the corns are. But a common remedy for Corns that was employed in these days was the use of ‘Comfry’, which is a weed-like ‘Docken.’ This plant was cut fresh and the root was washed in clean water. The plant would then be pulped into a paste and, when cold, applied to the area in a cloth bandage and prevents them from becoming inflamed. As a first resort, however, some would be told that they should walk in their bare feet through the bog, assured that this would cause the corns to fall out.

Sore Back, Sore Head, and Sore Throat – It was common for the healers to make an embrocation that could be used on a sore-back. I have heard that the following is a recipe for just such an embrocation, but I cannot guarantee that this is complete – Mix one noggin of Whiskey/Poitin; One noggin of Turpentine; One noggin of Vinegar; The white of two eggs; one pound of ‘Castile’ Soap;  60 grains of Sulphur Zinc; 120 grains of ‘Sugar Lead’. I have also read that some people would go to a local (monastic) graveyard and entered through a hole in the wall and went out again through another hole in the wall to cure the pain in their back. In fact, it is told that certain men came to rob the monastery at one time and they were immediately struck dead and turned to stones. it is said that these stones are still to be seen, standing up in the field, just outside the graveyard wall at ‘Tempaill Mologga’ near Mitchelstown, Co. Cork.
For those who suffered a sore head or headache, the remedy was to use a ribbon around the head. This was no ordinary ribbon, but one that was put out on a window sill, or in the open air, on Eve of St. Brigid’s Feast day. The faithful believed that the ribbon grew in length during the night and was empowered by the Irish Saint. However, even in the early years of the twentieth century, the best cure for a headache was known to be the melting of  ‘Aspirin’ tablets in a cup of water, which would be subsequently used as a  and gargle it in your throat.
Of course, there were occasions when people developed a sore throat, and the recommended cure was the wrapping of your stocking around the throat at night time.  In extreme cases, however, it was recommended by healers that a piece of fat bacon be roasted on a fork and then placed in a flannel that would be held against the throat as hot as it possibly could be. Another cure that was widely recommended for curing a sore throat was to put some bread soda into a cup of water, stir it and drink. Now, Mumps in those days was much more serious than it is today and healers often recommended putting warmed salt into a stocking, which would be tied around the patient’s neck. It was also used as a means of relieving the pain of Neuralgia.
One particularly odd cure was used occasionally to cure a child’s sore mouth, which was to permit an old man, who was fasting, to blow into the affected mouth.
St. Anthony’s Fire and Ringworm – ‘Erysipelas’ is a bacterial infection of the skin that typically involves the lymphatic system. It is, however, also known as ‘St. Anthony’s Fire’, which accurately describes the very real fiery intensity felt by sufferers of the rash. To cure the affliction healers were told that blood should be drawn from an old man’s finger and rubbed it into the sore. Another clue was said to be to write the afflicted person’s name around the spot on the face. This was also known to be a cure for ‘Ringworm’, a disease which grows in the form of a ring and usually appears on the head of an infected person, causing that patient’s hair to fall off and the skin rots away. It was traditionally known that the ‘Seventh Son’ had a cure for this nasty ailment, and there is a story in Mayo about a man from Newport who had the cure for ringworm. It is reported that he cured a boy in the district after the young man had spent a while in Castlebar hospital, and was sent home because the doctors could not cure him. Those who have seen the cure in practice tell that the seventh son simply rubs his hand on the earth before placing his hands over the ring-worm. there is testimony that states the ring-worm gradually disappears, but the hair will rarely ever grow on that spot afterward.  The mysterious thing about this all is that tradition tells us that when the seventh son is born a worm must be put into his hand, and if he possesses the cure then the worm dies.
Stomach Complaints and the Fear a Gorta – Everyone of us has suffered from a stomach complaint of one kind or another and have taken antacids, Epsom Salts, laxatives, and even warm milk with sugar to help us get some relief. Prior to the outbreak of World War One, however, ‘Flummery’ was an article of food that was in common use in Ireland. When a farmer used to take his crop of oats to be ground in the mill, he also brought home with him the bran and pollen of the oat grains. It was from these that he would make a drink, which was called ‘Shearings’. This was said to be a cool thirst-quenching drink, which when boiled became ‘Flummery’, a thick, jelly-like food that was brownish in colour. It was said to be a  little sour to taste and some people would add sugar to sweeten it. However, this was considered a good cure for indigestion and provided a great pick-me-up for those who took it. Others swore by the curative properties of Buttermilk with regard to the stomach, and hot buttermilk was often taken by those suffering from a cold. Wild garlic was picked by healers and boiled in milk, or eaten raw to cure colic.
But when it came to stomach complaints the superstitious peasants also feared the approach of the ‘Fear a Gorta’, the sudden and terrible feeling of hunger that was said to overcome a person who passed over a place where some poor person who had died during the famine was buried. The traditional remedy for this was a handful of oaten meal, and a farl of the oaten-meal cake was carried by many people in those days when they went on a journey, to cure the ‘fear a gorta’ if they were unfortunate enough to get it.
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Minor Hurts – People are always vulnerable to picking up a variety of minor injuries and complaints. For skin complaints like pimples, people were often prescribed oatmeal powder to be put in the water the person washed with, while for a scratch on the skin-bone the cure was said to be the person’s own ‘fasting spit’ spread upon it. If someone was suffering from a sore ear they would be advised to take a piece of cotton with some home-made ointment put on it and placed into the ear for a cure. Other more odd-sounding cures were those like a ‘Dog’s Lick’ is a cure for a running sore or the sting of a nettle being used to cure rheumatism, and the pumping of a cow’s udder to help cure a fever. When it came to cows, should they take ‘the staggers’ the farmer would cut the cow’s ear and bleed it as a cure to make the ‘staggers’ leave.

Stranger still was the cure for toothache recommended to some sufferers that called on them to visit a graveyard at night to acquire a skull in which to collect water that the sufferer would then drink. A more common cure for a toothache, however, was to put a bottle of hot water under the jaw and go to bed. Similarly, warm water and salt were supposed to be good for styes in a person’s eyes, or they might be recommended to look through a widow’s golden wedding ring three times.
Many people, including myself, have suffered from in-growing nails and found it to be very painful. in my case, I was told that I should finely pare the middle of the nail and then cut straight across the top. It worked for me, but I didn’t realise that this was a cure that was also given to sufferers by the wise women and healers in bygone days. In the same way, I have been told that whiskey can be applied to an open wound since it acts just like iodine or another disinfectant, but did you know that scraped raw potato could be used on a burn to ease the pain, and a paste of bread-soda could be put to a scald? From my childhood, I always knew that a nose bleed could be stopped by using the age-old remedy of putting a cold object, such as a key or ice pack to the nape of the neck. As for a wound that is bleeding, in bygone days a clean cobweb would be applied to the wound to stop the bleeding, or the heart of a dock leaf was also used for the same purpose.
For Muscular Cramp, called ‘Taulagh’, the cure given was to tie a piece of dried eel skin tightly around the affected wrist. On occasion, an ordinary leather strap could be used on the wrist as a preventative measure, while another recommended cure was to tie a silk thread around the wrist that was affected. As for a sprained wrist or ankle, it was recommended the patient hold the injured part in a rushing stream of cold water and, afterward, tie it up in a spraining web got from a weaver.
An age-old remedy for boils, which I still recommend to people, is a poultice made from bread and salt, wrapped in a cloth or bandage and applied to the boil as hot as possible to draw out the contents. In a similar way, as in the treatment of Corns and Chilblains above, a plaster made from ‘comfrey’ roots was another method used for drawing and healing boils.
Those who suffer from weak, tired or sore eyes the recommended cure was to wash them in cold, clear water before going to bed while bathing with cold tea was said to be particularly good for relieving weak eyes, and honey was a popular remedy for sore eyes. On occasion, however, our eyes become scratchy or gravelly and the old cure for this condition was said to be the juice, or sap, from the Dandelion, which was commonly known as the ‘Pissy-Bed’. The use of water from a ‘Holy Well’ was also said to cure many things, including any eye trouble a person might have. there is a story told of a man whose trouble was threatening him with total blindness and was cured by washing his eyes in the water of the well. It is also said that a person who sees a trout in the well is guaranteed a cure, whatever the affliction they suffer may be.
Unfortunately, up to the middle decades of the twentieth century ‘Rickets’ was the curse of the poorer and undernourished people, and in particular the children of the peasantry or urban poor. To cure them, the children would often have been sent to the local blacksmith for a cure, which involved holding the child over the anvil and, while drawing some blood, speaking some mysterious words.
Trad Cure 1Some of you might recognise old cures that are still used in the family, and others might write them all off as nonsense. let me say, however, the ones that I have used have invariably worked. There is one cure that I have not tried because I have only heard about it recently. The old cure for those people who had a weak heart was said to be Water-Cress, which is said to put a new heart in people. Suffering from congenital ischemic heart disease I have decided to start eating the posh Water-Cress sandwiches that always seem to make an appearance in the afternoon teas taken by the ‘quality’. I will certainly let you know how I progress with the recommended cure…..