DIGGIN' UP BONES: Unearthing Grave Robber Movies

By Dr. Abner Mality

Oh, the lengths we  pioneers of science have to go to in order to stretch the boundaries of man's knowledge! How do you people expect to really KNOW anything if you are too scared to take  the necessary steps to expand the world of science? Can you make an omelet without breaking eggs? I haven't found a way to do it yet...figuratively or literally!

How did science learn the secrets of human anatomy? It was all just guesswork until some bold souls took those dangerous steps to find out what really went on under the skin. The only way to find out what's in a human body is to open it up! Seems logical to me! But for far too long, respectable society utterly rejected the concept of dissecting cadavers to advance medical knowledge.

In the early 19th century, things finally came to a head. There were some medical men who had to find out what makes people matter what the cost. But since there was no "respectable" way to obtain stiffs to poke into, what could the enterprising anatomist do? Well, in many cases, they secured the services of "resurrection men"...more commonly known as grave robbers! These unsavory gents would often scour the boneyards for freshly buried corpses they could dig up and sell to curious physicians. All for a hefty sum, of course. The grave robbers would often use the poorest of the poor for their prey....and the high-bred gentlemen of science would manage to look the other way if they got the bodies they desired.

The arrangement was quite common and mutually beneficial. The body snatchers tended to be of not the best breeding and education, but any port in a storm, as a sailor would say. However, in one extraordinary case, there was a pair of grave robbers whose depravity went beyond the pale and resulted in a murder spree of the most grotesque kind. I speak of Mister William Burke and Mister William Hare... two of the most loathsome killers ever to grace the United Kingdom!

Burke and Hare and their grave robbing brethren have endured in the public mind almost two centuries after their heyday. Since the beginning of cinema, grave robbing ghouls have been a part of horror . Where would the Frankenstein movies be without cadaverous creeps digging up the corpses that would later become the Monster? But there exist certain grim films that are focused absolutely on the "resurrection" trade and some that even feature Burke and Hare themselves.

This is the plot of mouldering earth we will dig up in this particular article, with special emphasis on three classic "grave robber" movies...."The Body Snatcher", "The Flesh and the Fiends", and "The Doctor and The Devils". But before we delve into their cinematic world, let's look a little closer at the heinous real life crimes of the Two Willies...Burke and Hare.

Burke and Hare were Irish immigrants in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1827, where they had eked out threadbare living by performing a variety of odd jobs for several years. Hare's wife Margaret owned a lodging house that was rented out to the poor, which provided a meager income. That lodging house would later be the site of many of the murders the pair committed and Margaret was considered an accessory to the murders. Burke was married to Helen McDougal, who also knew of the murders...he mostly worked as a cab driver and was known to have a foul temper.

The two layabouts became fast friends and were always on the lookout for ways to make money, whether honest or not. When an old pensioner dies of natural causes in Margaret's lodging house, Hare has the idea to sell the body to Dr. Robert Knox, a prominent physician who also gave anatomy lectures at Edinburgh University. Dr. Knox often charged money to attend his lectures, where he would dissect corpses for the students...if any bodies were available. To make sure they were, he often turned to "resurrection men". Burke and Hare sold the old man's body to Knox for seven pounds, considered a princely sum.

The easy success started wheels turning in the pair's diseased brains. Why bother to dig up corpses or wait for people to drop dead when bodies could be provided by more direct means? They set their sights on a sick old man in the lodging house named Joseph, who they got drunk and then smothered to death with a pillow. The murder was quick and easy and Dr. Knox again asked no questions when Burke and Hare provided the body.

Joseph's death began a murder spree that lasted over 10 months and claimed 16 victims. Many of the victims were women who were lured to the boarding house and plied with alcohol before being smothered. Sometmes Mrs Hare helped with the killings. In one particularly brutal murder, Hare killed a 12 year old boy by breaking his  back. Of all the killings, this was the only one that caused him distress. The more murders Burke and Hare committed, the more money the oblivious Dr. Knox paid them. They became bolder and bolder...and more and more careless. The killing spree ended when Mr and Mrs James Gray, tenants at the boarding house, overheard the voice of elderly Mary Docherty crying "murder!"
The Grays went to the police and Mary Docherty's body was found in Dr. Knox's chambers, prepared for dissection.

The resulting trial was one of the most notorious in the history of English crime. Spectators by the thousands fought to get access to the proceedings, which often had the atmosphere of a circus. True to their nature, it wasn't long before the two former comrades were at each other's throats. Hare was granted immunity if he turned state's evidence against Burke, which he did...a deal which caused great outrage amongst the public. As for Dr. Knox, his good standing in the community protected him from any negative effect even though he was arguably the prime mover of the entire murder spree.

The jury found Burke guilty of murder while his female companion Helen MacDougal escaped any jail time. On January 28, 1829, Burke was hung in front of a ravening crowd estimated between 20 and 25 thousand. In grim irony, his remains were taken to the University of Edinburgh and dissected in front of an anatomy class. His skeleton is still displayed there. As for Hare, his fate is more nebulous. A crowd of 8000 gathered to try and lynch him, but he managed to escape with the help of the police. Rumor had it that years later, he was caught by vigilantes and lime rubbed into his eyes, forcing him to end his days as a blind beggar. Both Helen MacDougal and Mrs Hare were also forced to leave Edinburgh due to public anger at their part in the murders. Dr. Knox resumed his position at the University, but never regained his former eminence. Angry crowds also pursued him and he finally relocated to London before dying in 1840. The entire grisly affair led to the Anatomy Act of 1832 being passed by Parliament, which outlawed the "resurrection" trade and increased legal supply of cadavers to medical establishments.

So that's the real story of Burke and Hare, the most infamous of many grave robbers active in the early 19th century. The fame surrounding their case ensured that they would be an enduring legend of crime. And of course, such a sordid event was perfect fodder for writers interested in horror and the macabre. One such writer was Robert Louis Stevenson, known for "Treasure Island" and "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde". He wrote a story inspired by the Burke and Hare incident called "The Body Snatcher", which tells the tales of MacFarlane and Fettes, two young associates of Dr. Knox and how they helped Knox procure bodies for dissection.

"The Body Snatcher" in turn inspired a superb horror film in 1945, also named "The Body Snatcher", which expanded on Stevenson's original story and added in much taken from the Burke and Hare case. The movie is one of the most highly regarded horror films of the 1940's and features what many consider to be the single best performance by the icon Boris Karloff, who played the sinister grave robber Gray.

"The Body Snatcher" was one of director Val Lewton's "classy" horrors. Whereas the Universal horror films had become mostly fun films aimed at a more juvenile audience, Lewton made his mark by doing sophisticated, atmospheric horror for adults. Such was "The Body Snatcher". The movie also marked the first major credit for Robert Wise, who would later go on to become one of the biggest directors in Hollywood, directing classic films like "The Haunting", "The Sound of Music" and "The Day The Earth Stood Still".

The film is dominated by two great performances. Boris Karloff is absolute perfection as the creepy cabman John Gray, who provides fresh cadavers to Dr. MacFarlane in much the same fashion as Burke and Hare did in real life. Karloff was really excellent in any role he took on, but the multifaceted part of Gray offered him something more than the standard bogeyman. Gray is seen to be kind to children and interacts with people in his own social strata with respect. But those poorer than himself he treats with contempt. And he reserves special venom for the hypocritical upper class such as Dr. MacFarlane, whom he torments with guilt and sarcasm. For Gray, robbing graves is not just a way to make money, but to get back at people like MacFarlane. Karloff is incredibly menacing in every scene.

The other great performance is by the underrated Henry Daniell as Dr. MacFarlane. Daniell could have easily been a horror icon on the level of Karloff if he had applied himselff in that direction. MacFarlane is not a cold fish in the same fashion as Dr. Knox, but a doctor generally seeking to do good. He has the terrible misfortune to have John Gray as his "procurer" and Gray drives the good doctor to terrible deeds himself. Daniell is tremendous.

Fans will also notice Bela Lugosi in a small part as MacFarlane's seedy assistant Joseph, who unwisely tries to blackmail Gray and pays for it. There's a great spot where Gray tells Joseph about the real Burke and Hare. While Karloff was in full control of his faculties and able to get good roles. Lugosi was sadly spiralling into drug addiction at the time and was falling out of sight. "The Body Snatcher" marked the last time Lugosi and Karloff were seen together on the screen.

The climax of "The Body Snatcher" was one of the most terrifying of any horror film. Dr. MarFarlane and his unwilling young assistant Fettes have just dug up a body themselves and are transporting it by carriage back MacFarlane's home. A storm is raging and lightning cracks the sky. When MacFarlane looks at the body he has dug up, a lightning flash reveals the corpse of Gray. In a hysterical terror, MacFarlane flees down a dangerous mountain highway, as we hear Gray's voice repeating "You'll never get rid of me...never get rid of me...never get rid of me!" More lightning reveals Gray's corpse flopping up against the terrified MacFarlane, who losses control of the carriage. In the morning, Fettes finds MacFarlane's broken body in the wreckage...and the body of someone completely different than John Gray alongside him.

Filmed in beautifully grim black and white, "The Body Snatcher" has withstood the test of time. Many horror films of the 30's and 40's, as enjoyable as they are, have dated...but not this one. It is just as compelling now as the day it was released.

The next major film to deal with the depraved subject of grave robbing wouldn't just "suggest" the Burke and Hare story as "The Body Snatcher" would boldly dive right into the actual events themselves. This was the 1959 British movie "The Flesh and the Fiends", which was later retitled "The Fiendish Ghouls" and "Mania" for release in the US.

Whereas "The Body Snatcher" suggested the dark horror of the "resurrection" trade, "The Flesh And The Fiends" left little to the imagination. This was an incredibly brutal film for its time even though there was still little blood in it. The restraints of taste had loosened quite a bit in 14 years, allowing the new film to be more graphic. Yet despite its grisliness, "The Flesh And The Fiends" was also exceedingly well made and well acted. It also stuck to the factual events of the Burke and Hare case with good fidelity.

Many people mistakenly label "The Flesh And The Fiends" as a Hammer movie, which is a natural error. After all, the main star of the film was the great Peter Cushing, who considered Hammer a second home. The movie was written and directed by John Gilling, who would later helm the cult classics "Plague of the Zombies" and "The Reptile" for Hammer. And it just had the same kind of period feel as many Hammer horror films...only grimier. "The Flesh And The Fiends" took us directly into the dirty, muddy, gin-soaked hell of lower-class Edinburgh of the early 19th century. The movie was actually a production of little-known Triad Productions and is undoubtedly their most infamous film.

Peter Cushing plays Dr. Robert Knox, the real-life university lecturer who procured so many bodies from Burke and Hare. Cushing brings evey bit of his icy elegance to bear as Knox, portraying him as a supremely confident man of science who looks at his colleagues with contempt. He has much of the same superiority that Cushing used to play Baron Frankenstein in the Hammer Frankenstein series. He means well with his research, but is blind to the horrors he has unleashed. For some reason, Gilling gave Dr. Knox a disfigured, half-closed eye, which he did not have in real life. Perhaps this mark is symbolic of Knox's own moral blindness.

While Cushing gets top billing, the rest of the cast shines.  Burke and Hare are chillingly portrayed by George Rose and Donald Pleasance, respectively. This role was one of Pleasance's earliest...he plays Hare as a scheming, oily conman who is not afraid to murder to achieve his goals. The lesser known Rose is a revelation as the brutish, almost moronic Burke. With his buck teeth and slovenly appearance, Rose portrays Burke as a violent idiot, who is easily dominated and out-thought by Hare. These two have great chemistry together and in my mind stand as the best film version of Burke and Hare.

The world that Burke and Hare inhabit is full of whores, drunks and the hopeless debris of Edinburgh's poor. Everyone seems to be bombed on cheap gin or crippled or mentally damaged in some way. Burke and Hare use liquor to loosen their many victims up and make them easy pray for a pillow over the face or a rope around the neck. This is true to the methods the real duo used. Their victims are shown with no pity....a drunk old lady is smothered, a kind old Scotman from the hills is strangled and the local idiot "Daft Jamie" is brutally snuffed out in the filthy muck of a pig sty.

The evil pair are finally tripped up by their own overconfidence. They kill a student of Dr. Knox and his prostitute girlfriend, who are then recognized by the Doctor when he receives them as cadavers. Finally, Knox realizes what he has refused to acknowledge...he has been enabling the worst murder spree in Edinburgh.

True to the real life story, Hare betrays Burke once he is in custody. The disbelieving Burke is rapidly hung in front of a howling mob. Hare tries to escape, but eventually he's caught up with and, in a gruesome scene, his eyes are burnt out by a torch. As for Dr. Knox, he comes in for some ostracism and public disapproval, but true to the hypocrisy of the time, he manages to rise above the scorn and the last scenee of the movie ironically shows him lecturing to medical students and telling them to "do no harm". The real horror of the Burke and Hare story is that the rich get away with murder while the poor hang immediately.

The next film dealing with the pernicious pair emerged in 1972 and was simply titled "Burke And Hare". The film is quite obscure today and very difficult to find. It has never been released on DVD and I have yet to see it. Critical opinion of the movie is generally negative, but some have called it an unjustly neglected classic. The story did seem to be quite faithful to the historical tale, with Burke, Hare, Dr. Knox and other true-life characters being portrayed with no pseudonyms.  While being quite grisly and morbid, it lacked the lurid shock of "The Flesh and The Fiends" and seemed to be more of a historical drama than a horror film. Also, little-known actors Derren Nesbitt and Glynn Edwards played Burke and Hare and paled in comparison with the robust acting of Donald Pleasance and George Rose in the earlier film. That having been said, I would very much like to see this rare film.

It was 1985 when the next major film examining the Burke and Hare story came to theatres. This was "The Doctor And The Devils", with an all-star cast, a well known director and a screenplay written by renowned Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. Although the movie was certainly more successful than "Burke and Hare", it suffered the same fate as "The Flesh And The Fiends" and did not find much of an audience at all at the time of its release. Period horror was not much in vogue during the slasher-crazed 80's...indeed, period films in general were not popular and this worked against the movie. But for those who wondered what a full-on Hammer horror version of the Burke and Hare story would be like, "The Doctor And The Devils" provided a pretty good answer!

In this film, the names again were changed to protect the guilty, as it were.  William Hare became "Robert Fallon" and was portrayed by the respected Jonathan Pryce. Burke's name was changed to "Timothy Broome". Broome was played by Stephen Rea, later to find greater fame in "The Crying Game" and "V for Vendetta". Dr. Robert Knox was now known as "Dr. Rock" (likely not inspired by the Motorhead song) and was played by no less than the future James Bond, Timothy Dalton. The movie also boasted Patrick Stewart, Julian Sands and Sian Phillips in secondary roles. Perhaps the biggest surprise in the cast was one-time super model Twiggy, who actually delivered a very strong and gritty performance as the prostitute Jenny.
The movie was directed by longtime master of horror, Freddie Francis.

"The Doctor and The Devils" follows the general track of "The Flesh and The Fiends" as far as the story goes. We open with a lecture by the handsome Dr. Rock, who laments to his students about the slow pace of medical research and who wonders at the mysteries of death. Whereas Cushing's Dr Knox was cold and deformed and Henry Daniell's Dr. MacFarlane was old and learned, Dalton's Dr. Rock is handsome and full of youthful vigor. He has a lot more passion than Knox but also has the arrogance of the scientist who thinks he's above God. Once again, that makes him ripe prey for Fallon and Broome, the  bodysnatchers. Jonathan Pryce's Fallon is more intelligent and conniving than Karloff's John Grey or Pleasance's William Hare. Stephen Rea, however, plays Broome in much the same way George Rose did Burke...a cruel dull-witted brute.

One difference in "The Doctor and "The Devils" is the excellent acting of Twiggy as the prostitute Jenny Bailey. The one time modeling superstar, still attractive despite being almost 20 years past her heyday, really surprises with her acting chops. Much of the movie is seen through Jenny's eyes....and a sordid world it is. In 1985, the portrayal of a Victorian whore's miserable existence is even more graphic than before. We feel the hopelessness of Jenny's romance with one of Dr. Rock's medical associates, Dr Murray. In all the movies influenced by the Burke and Hare story, she's the one female character that really stands out.

Although the movie is well made and definitely watchable, there is a feeling that something is missing. To me, there's a sense that you are watching movie stars acting, rather than falling into the movie. Watching "The Flesh and The Fiends" and "The Body Snatcher", I often forgot I was following a movie and felt like I was really in the wretched Edinburgh of old. I never quite got that feeling out of "The Doctor And the Devils". That being said, I still recommend the film, it is a strong part of the grave robbing cinema experience.

The most recent and therefore last dig at the Burke and Hare story was a completely comedic one. After all, what's funnier than a couple of scummy entrepreneurs murdering poor folks and selling them to institutions of higher learning? This was 2010's "Burke and Hare", directed by John Landis and starring some very impressive British talent.  The devilish duo this time were played by Simon Pegg ("Shaun of the Dead", "Star Trek") and Andy Serkis (Gollum in "Lord of the Rings") and the likes of Tim Curry and Tom Wilkinson were also along for the ride. Despite all the great talent involved, the movie was roundly panned by critics and a commercial failure. I have yet to see it so I can't pass judgement myself.

I would be remiss if I did not mention 2008's independent film "I Sell The Dead", which was written about extensively by our own Solomon G here at Wormwood. While not directly dealing with the Burke and Hare story, it is certainly inspired by it. It's a quirky horror comedy detailing the sordid adventures of grave robber Arthur Blake (Dominic Monaghan from "Lord of the Rings"), who tells the story of his involvement in the resurrection trade to a priest on Death Row. This clever and gruesome film also stars Ron Perlman and Angus Scrimm. It's quite a fun watch, and you can read more about in Sol's tale HERE.

That brings us up to date as far as major grave robbing movies go. Now of course there are dozens of films in which this shady trade plays a smaller part, but the major ones are definitely "The Body Snatcher", "The Flesh and The Fiends" and "The Doctor And The Devils", with a nod to "I Sell The Dead". Any of these fine films will immerse you into the greasy, corpse-scented world inhabited by our good friends, Mr. Burke and Mr. Hare.

I dare say that violations of medical ethics will continue well into the future. But we have probably seen the last of shabby characters who prowl the graveyards by night, looking for fresh cadavers to unearth and sell for profit. Today's organ thieves are nowhere near as interesting and have many of the boring aspects of actual business. Oh, I miss the good old days...

Ah, here's a knock on my back door. It's Willie and Fabian, here with another "delivery" for me...Excuse me while I do a little business...