In Dundee, body snatchers, graverobbers, or “Resurrection Men” turned over a considerable amount of business. When Cholera struck in 1832, the memories of Burke and Hare’s atrocities were still very much at the forefront of people’s minds. Even though Burke had been executed in 1829 (whilst Hare spent the rest of his years in relative seclusion, having been granted his freedom in exchange for Burke’s conviction), there were still real and valid concerns over secret pacts between the Sextons of Scotland and the medical profession. People were in a high state of alarm over the frequent exhumations made in their churchyards and it was shrewdly suspected that this was done for the purpose of supplying the Edinburgh doctors with viable dissection subjects.
The churchyard of Dundee, then popularly known as the Howff was laid under heavy contribution to the cause of science. In an effort to deter would-be grave robbers, watches were set, but, often aided by whisky to deter the cold, their vigils were often unsuccessful. The Resurrection Men were too sharp for them, for it was almost a matter of certainly that the body of anyone who died of a peculiar disease would disappear within a few days after it had been interred. However, there are records of a gun fight between the tombstones, people falling into open graves in the night during their watch, and a grave robber who couldn’t get away fast enough, and ended up with the sharp point of a bayonet stuck up his bum! So, whilst they were sometimes unsuccessful, the graveyard watchers still had their fair share of excitement from time to time.
The Logie Cemetery was another frequent location for Resurrectionists, as well as a host of drunks, highwaymen and many others of ill-repute. The cemetery was so overcrowded that graves were dug in the pathways and onto the roads. On 13th May 1824, The Dundee Advertiser ran a story about two graveyard watchers who had been assaulted by a pair of body snatchers during their shift. They managed to fend off the attack and the offending duo ran off, but a second attempt to steal from the grave was carried out the following evening. Thankfully, this attempt was also foiled, and the Resurrection men fled empty handed once more.
The most notorious of local Resurrectionists was Geordie Mill. He was the Sexton of Dundee, and was believed to have had dealings with doctors and professors in Edinburgh. His neighbour, Donald M’Nab, suspected Geordie of graverobbing, but, unable to catch him in the act, he is believed to have penned the following song:
” THE ROOND-MOO’ED SPADE.”
Geordie Mill, wi’ his roond-moo’ed spade,
Is wishin’ aye for mair fouk deid
For the sake o’ the donnal an’ the bit short-bread
When he gans wi’ the spaiks i’ the mornin’.
An’ if the tale that’s tauld be true,
A greater gain he has in view,
Which mak’s his fryin’-pan richt foo
To skirl baith nicht and mornin’.
A porter cam’ to Geordie’s door,
A hairy trunk on his back he bore,
Which the Quentin Durward frae Leith shore
Brocht roond that very mornin’.
This trunk, I’m tauld, contained a line
Wi’ sovereigns to the amount o’ nine.
The price o’ a well-fed, sonsie quine
They had sent to Monro ae mornin’.
But Geordie, to conceal their plan,
A story tauld as fause as lang,
Sayin’ the trunk belanged to a travellin’ man
That wad call for it next mornin’.
Noo Geordie doon to Robbie goes.
The doctor’s line to him he shows,
Which wished frae them a double doze
By the coach on Wednesday mornin’.
Says Robbie, ” Is the box come back ? “
“Oh, yes,” says Geordie, giein’ the purse a shak’,
“An’ we maun gae an’ no’ be slack
To flirt again ere mornin’.”
Quo’ Robbie’s wife, ” Oh, sirs, tak’ tent,
sure a warnin’ I’ve been sent,
Which tells me ye will yet repent,
Yer conduct on some mornin’.”
” Ye fule,” quo’ Robbie, ” Hush yer fears,
While I’ve the keys fat deil can steer’s ?
We’ve been weel paid for’t ten past years,
Think o’ auchteen pounds i’ the mornin’.”
Sae aff they set to Tarn an’ Jock,
The lads that used the spade an’ pock,
An’ wi’ Glenarf their throats did soak
To keep them brisk till mornin’.
The hour grew late, the tryst was lain
Amang these Resurrection men,
When each his glass did freely drain,
Sayin’, ” Here’s success to the mornin’.”
But Robbie noo does sair repent
His slightin’ o’ the warnin’ sent,
For the noise o’ a second coffin’s rent
Caused in Dundee a deil o’ a mornin’.
Such was the popularity of the song, it sparked outrage and M’Nab was brought before local Magistrates to be examined and questioned on his alleged ditty. As nothing could be proved, he was released without any charge. Geordie Mill himself, was suspended from his duties, but was never prosecuted.
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– DD Tours operates walking tours in Dundee city, covering dark local history such as wars, battles, murders, diseases, riots, disasters and executions. Walk with us for an unforgettable storytelling experience.