I had intended to post a more serious blog today but, because we’ve been working in the vineyard, I haven’t had time to finish it so here is a slightly less serious effort. I’ll post the serious one next time.
Excuse the title but this was the ‘big one’ or so I was told. Yes it would be if the title is correct. If I missed every other visiting speaker make sure you come to this one, the vice chairman said. The context was my old gits group, specifically attending presentations from outside speakers. I have already briefly alluded to this aspect of my retirement and with some embarrassment. I haven’t written about the talks other than referring briefly to the one about article writing. You will, I hope understand why I have chosen to go public with this one. As I said, in a previous blog, this is something I said I would never allow to become a part of my retirement timetable. Yet here I was, hanging on every word. And what words. For example, did you know that Nelson’s body was ’embalmed’ in a barrel of vermouth to get him home in one piece after his death at Trafalgar. This did not stop thirsty sailors drinking the vermouth. They drilled a hole in the barrel and out came the spirit, job done. Apparently, and again I did not know this, this became known as ‘Tapping the Admiral’ which became slang for having a drink. As Michael Caine might have said, well, you know.
My defence for and the reason I joined this group of retired people was not that I wanted the company, the social support but rather that I wanted a target group of retired people that I could get to know and discuss with them aspects of retirement including the impact of retirement on self-esteem. One of my key themes for this blog as you will know if you’ve read any others. However, it quickly became apparent that I had chosen the wrong group. This group of retirees were well past worrying about self-esteem in a retirement context. They were, even by retirement standards, quite elderly. Perhaps I should have resigned on the spot but I didn’t. I stuck with it. So after several weeks of fortnightly meetings, through talks on story writing, the Brontes, stately homes and gardens and so on we came to today and the ‘big one’.
And the topic of the ‘big one’ today, for this elderly group? Well, the topic was grave robbing. The talk was delivered by Mike Green, a recently retired Professor of Forensic Pathology. I wondered about the appropriateness of this talk on two levels, one, was this a suitable topic for the elderly and two, would some of them make it through the hour long talk? One old gent, left the room hacking and coughing and apparently on the point of finding out first-hand what the talk was about, i.e. death. Even Mike had a coughing fit causing me to unkindly think, no, don’t go now, this is really interesting. Fortunately Mike survived to the end. Beyond that I’m not sure.
The talk was fascinating. Broadly the title was The Leeds Resurrectionists, subtitled ‘A Grave Situation in Leeds’. The subject was grave robbing. It all started in the reign of King Henry the Eighth when the ‘surgeons’ of the day training at the newly established medical colleges decided they needed to develop their skills on actual bodies, dead ones of course. Although maybe not ‘of course’ given the bloody history of those days. King Henry allowed them 4 bodies a year, those of executed criminals. Apparently relatives of the non-criminal deceased were not at all keen on giving their loved ones bodies up for dissection because they strongly believed that their dear departed needed to arrive in heaven (or even the other place) with, as Mike put it, ‘all their bits so they could hold their harps or shovels’. Four bodies was not enough for the rapidly expanding field of medical science and so naturally a business opportunity opened up. A trade in illegal dead bodies sprung up. And Leeds, it seems, was an important exporter of said dead bodies. The city, which luckily had a lot of poor people dying – dead Irish labourers were particularly popular – exported the bodies to Hull, Newcastle, Manchester, Edinburgh and Glasgow (where the medical colleges were being established).
The bodies went by stage coach, canal and sea-faring boat in packing cases. The wooden cases arrived at the coaching inns in Leeds, neatly folded (so Mike said) inside the box and off they went with the alive people. When people began to object to the smell enterprising exporters, in an effort to disguise what was in the case, wrote on the packing case –glass handle with care / this way up. Bodies could also be obtained from the workhouse if a relative didn’t claim the body within 24 hours, leading to some dubious time-keeping from workhouse owners who got paid for the bodies of course. Well, not everybody had a watch in those days.
Did you know that taking the body was not, in itself, an offence. A legal judgement at the time ruled that a dead body had no legal status and was said to be (in Latin) ‘a gift to the worms’. However, stealing the shroud or any items on the body was an offence, hence it was typical to find the discarded shroud etc. by the open grave. Furthermore, as soon as the body was sold for profit then it became a crime but taking the body purely for your own entertainment that was OK.
Fascinating and do you know how the family of the deceased protected their loved ones bodies? No? Well in a number of ways in fact – burying them 12 feet down rather than the more typical 6 was one way; employing night time guards in some graveyards; keeping the body in a specially protected by railings ‘dead house’ in the cemetery; keeping the body at home until it was so rotten as to be useless to the surgeons, that would keep the neighbours as well as the body snatchers away; placing half ton stones on top of the grave; the use of ‘safety’ coffins with padlocks and chains. By the way, Mike told us, covering the loved ones body in quick lime doesn’t work, it forms a hardened skin on the body but leaves the interior good as new, so to speak. Priceless information I think you’ll agree. Incidentally we inevitably touched on Burke and Hare, the famous Scottish body snatchers. One of them was hanged, the other released from prison and told to leave town. He was seized by the mob angry at his release, blinded with quicklime – useful chemical this one – and then disappeared, fate unknown. Mike helpfully explained how to strangle somebody without leaving any fingerprints (from behind with the forearm at the joint of the elbow if you’re interested) and this was known as being Burked (after the man). I have to admit when I left the house I had not expected to learn about how to strangle somebody. This is quality information.
Mike finished up with two final, useful bits of information – dissections are not today a part of a doctor’s training. People, who at one time, were quite happy to donate their loved ones body for the good of others began to change their view. Now bodies are not dissected, they are MRIed. Mike says scanning is a waste of money but that’s another story. Now keyhole surgery is everything but if something goes wrong (like a cut artery during gall bladder removal via keyhole surgery) then surgeons have no experience of how to open up the body and repair it because they haven’t had the training see. Glad that Mrs Summerhouse and I didn’t know this when she had her gall bladder removed courtesy of keyhole surgery. He told us the current head of the Leeds medical school had told him that dissection was disgusting, obscene and unnecessary. He didn’t agree and had that always been the case he would not have been able to write (this was his final bit of information), what he described as, his best-selling book entitled 30 years of cutting up dead bodies, or something like that.
So how did this audience of elderly retirees respond to this talk? They’ve had ‘Horsforth in Slides’; ‘Aunty was an evacuation train marshal’; ‘Waterways of the Russian Tsars’; ‘Gardens and Stately homes’; ‘Brontes behind Closed Doors’ and so on. All well, if somewhat politely, received but nothing to match the rapturous applause that this one received. Only when Mike referred to one of the early surgeons – Thackerah – now Thackeray and the man who gave his name to the medical museum here in Leeds, as having died of the ‘bloody trots’ did the audience fall quiet. A little close to reality perhaps. Hernias and Hey’s (another doctor of the time) ligament were better received. But, this apart, they were ecstatic, fascinated, entranced. This old guy in front of me turned around and said – that were really great. So this is retirement for me, sitting in a room listening to a learned ex-professor talk about digging up dead people. Who’d have thought it?
PS. On the very day of this talk I took Millie for a walk and, as usual, we went through the local graveyard. I let her off the lead as we entered – as I usually do if there’s nobody about. Unusually she disappeared I walked on to catch her up and found her digging at the earth on one of the graves. She has never done this before – or since. Hmm.