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Posted by Gina Freitag
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Fleshing Out a Curiosity

(Image: “Burke and Hare Grave Robbers and Murderers”, an original Watercolour painting by James E McConnell)

By Gina Freitag

Some 14 years ago, I travelled with a couple of friends to the UK and Europe for a few months. One of the highlights for me was Edinburgh, with its shops along the Royal Mile and the uber creepy Mary King’s Close (highly recommend a visit). We made it a point to do a haunted walking tour in each city we visited, and this one was no different; our choice was the City of the Dead Haunted Graveyard walking tour. This one stood out at the time as being the sole tour to have access to both the Convenantor’s Prison and the Mackenzie Poltergeist’s home, the Black Mausoleum (love the name), two normally off-limits sites inside the very historical Greyfriar’s Kirkyard (to this day, the tour still holds the same claim of exclusivity). Our host regaled us with spooky tales and guided us from dusk to total darkness, winding through the half-sunken graves, along the lofty stone walls and into one particular eerie crypt. My friends and I agreed it was the most chilling of the haunted walks we’d ever been on, and were left with goosebumps and nervous laughter on our walk back to the hostel later that night.

Of the stories told on that tour, the one that stuck with me the most is a popular one, the notorious body snatchers, William Burke and William Hare. Some time after my trip, in a small-town Canadian bookshop, I purchased a copy of Adam Lyal’s Witchery Tales: The darker side of Old Edinburgh, a thin paperback booklet published in 1988. I wanted it solely for the pages detailing Burke and Hare’s story.

Lyal notes the gruesome practice of stealing fresh corpses from recent graves and selling them for medical research, a phenomenon recorded as early as 1738, and one that was often carried out by students from medical programs in dire need of more subjects. It goes on to tell of conmen Burke and Hare’s more sinister method of entrapping live victims and luring them to their deaths. The pair committed an estimated 13 – 30 murders (maybe more!) and were eventually exposed and identified. While Hare gave testimony against Burke before skipping town and disappearing, Burke was made to stand trial, sentenced to “suffer death on the scaffold”, and his body to be “given for dissection… [thus furthering] the advance of medical science in exactly the same fashion as all his victims” (28).

Burke’s skin pocket book.

Apparently, Burke’s presence still exists to this day: his skeleton is on display and his skin was allegedly made into — you guessed it — a book. A pocket book, to be exact, and it too is on display at the Surgeons’ Hall Museums in Edinburgh (a site I unfortunately missed during my visit). As the museums’ website suggests, the book was produced from Burke’s corpse after being dissected by Professor Alexander Monro tertius at the University of Edinburgh. On the back an inscription reads ‘Executed 28 Jan 1829’ and there is a pencil inside. How quaint.

I guess this first encounter with anthropodermic books really left an ‘imprint’ on my own morbid curiosity because flash forward to 2014: I’m standing in line at Ottawa’s ComicCon, excited for my photo op with Evil Dead‘s groovy leading man, Bruce Campbell. In anticipation of this glorious moment, I had put my crafting skills to good use and fashioned my own Necronomicon prop (no humans or animals were harmed in the making… except in the instance of the of glue, perhaps, but obviously not by my own hands). Bruce was a delight, as expected, and a good sport for getting into character with the prop; I, of course, was overjoyed.

Me, with actor Bruce Campbell, holding my handcrafted faux prop.

Things are coming full circle for me now, with Megan Rosenbloom’s upcoming lecture in which she will meld history with pop culture. Personally, while reading her book, Dark Archives: A Librarian’s Investigation Into the Science and History of Books Bound in Human Skin, I admit I was first and foremost curious to see if Burke’s skin book makes an appearance (it does), and what her verdict was on the authenticity of the item. If you get a chance to read it before Thursday’s event, please do – this tome touches on so many interesting topics and contexts around each skin book, and may even fuel your own fascination with the anthropodermic book phenomenon.


Join Megan Rosenbloom on Thursday, May 20th for her Black Museum lecture “Books of the Dead: The Real and Fictionalized Horrors of Anthropodermic Bibliopegy”, followed by a Q&A. Then stick around as we watch Evil Dead II (1987, dir. Sam Raimi), available on a streaming service near you!

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