“Sherlock Holmes and the Six Degrees of Separation”
What does Sherlock Holmes have to do with William Burke and William Hare, two of the most notorious real-life murderers in the history of Edinburgh, Scotland? The connection is a convoluted one and begins long before Arthur Conan Doyle was born in Edinburgh in 1859.
It really starts with Robert Knox, a famous teacher of anatomy at the Barclay’s anatomy school in surgeon’s square from 1826-1840. The flamboyant Knox had more students than all the other private anatomy tutors put together. His lectures were not for the squeamish. John James Audubon, was in Edinburgh seeking subscribers for his Birds of America. Shown round the dissecting theatre by Knox, “dressed in an overgown and with bloody fingers,” Audubon reported that “The sights were extremely disagreeable, many of them shocking beyond all I ever thought could be. I was glad to leave this charnel house and breathe again the salubrious atmosphere of the streets.”
Before 1832, the only legal supply of corpses for dissection in the UK were executed prisoners. This led to a chronic shortage as the need to train medical students grew. As a consequence, body-snatching became so prevalent that it was not unusual for relatives and friends of someone who had just died to watch over the body until burial, and then to keep watch over the grave after burial, to stop it being violated. In 1827 landlord William Hare began a new career when an indebted lodger died. He delivered the body to Professor Robert Knox, who paid him £7.10 (a tidy sum). After that Burke and his lodger William Hare set about murdering tramps and drunks on a regular basis. After 16 more transactions with Knox, in what became known as the West Port Murders, Burke and Hare were caught and the whole city convulsed with titillated horror, fed by ballads, broadsides and newspapers, at the terrible deeds of Burke & Hare: “Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief, Knox, the boy who buys the beef!” Hare betrayed Burke, testified against him, and Burke was hanged, dissected and displayed. Knox was not prosecuted, but his reputation suffered. His class finally collapsed when Edinburgh University made its own practical anatomy class compulsory in the mid-1830s.
Enter Conan Doyle
Young Conan Doyle attended the University of Edinburgh School of Medicine from 1876 to 1881. Afterward he struggled to launch both a medical career and a career as an author. His first significant published work was the first Sherlock Holmes story, “A Study in Scarlet,” published in 1886. His legendary detective was modeled, as many know, upon his former medical professor Dr. Joseph Bell, noted for his diagnostic acumen and his keen powers of observation and deduction.
Robert Louis Stevenson, “The Body Snatchers” and Henry Daniell
Doyle’s contemporary Robert Louis Stevenson recognised the strong similarity between Bell (whom he knew) and Holmes: “[M]y compliments on your very ingenious and very interesting adventures of Sherlock Holmes,” he wrote to Doyle. “[C]an this be my old friend Joe Bell?”
It just so happened that two years earlier (1884), the grisly adventures of Burke and Hare had captured Stevenson’s imagination. He wrote a short story, “The Body Snatcher,” whose characters closely resembled them and Knox.
That story was the basis for a 1945 film, “The Body Snatchers,” starring Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and the English character actor Henry Daniell, who played the anatomist based on Knox.
It also happens that during that same year, Daniell played Professor James Moriarty opposite Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce in the Sherlock Holmes film “The Woman in Green,” made by Universal Studios.
Knox » Burke and Hare » Robert Louis Stevenson » Conan Doyle » Henry Daniell » Sherlock Holmes.
I guess Kevin Bacon isn’t the only one.
(Photos: Robert Knox; Burke’s death mask and a pocketbook made of his skin, located in the The Museum at Surgeons Hall, Edinburgh, which was founded by Knox; Conan Doyle; Robert Louis Stevenson; Henry Daniell and Boris Karloff in “The Body Snatchers”; Henry Daniell and Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes in “The Woman in Green.”)
Oh this is interesting!
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