Sunday, August 7, 2011


Not quite Mary Poppins...

The luck o' the chimney sweeps must have rubbed off on me last night. It was the perfect evening! First I posted part one of my blog about Mary Poppins, chimney sweeps, and scrotal cancer in the 18th and 19th century, then I found a charming movie full of infantile humor about two criminals who's activities contributed to the creations of England's Anatomy Act of 1832.

I ask you, what is funnier that a corpse with his crotch in the air?
(Image from here.)

Which movie was this? John Landis' Burke and Hare! What fun(1)! Of course, in real life, the Williams Burke and Hare murdered 16 people(2) to sell to an Edinburgh anatomy school for dissection. If you think teachers have a hard time getting classroom supplies these days, try being an anatomist in the 19th century. There were not enough bodies of executed criminals to go around, and market demand was high.

An example of the shoddy quality of cadavers available
from grave robbers. Ick!

In the movie, Burke (Simon Pegg) and Hare (Andy Serkis) are bizarrely sympathetic. Although there are some fantastic liberties taken to develop a dynamic plot, occasionally replacing historical accuracy. The film has a number of fine moments that communicate the culture of medical education at the time.

Tim Curry (love him!) is also in the film.
There seems to be a running gag about his character and feet.
Could it be a reference to Daft Jamie, one of B and H's victims?

An excellent read on the history of medicine, death, poverty, and criminality in pre-20th century England is Ruth Richardson's Death, Dissection, and the Destitute. Chapter 16 focuses on our heroes Burke and Hare, but if you read all 450-odd pages, you will have an appreciation for the culture from which Burke and Hare arose as they took the profession of the Resurrectionist to its next logical incarnation. An added perk is that the movie contains a lot of visual references that can be appreciated more fully if you do a little homework.

1. It's humorous only if you think it's funny when people have the contents of chamber pots thrown on their heads, or when a barrel containing a corpse gets away from our heroes and rolls through the city streets, or if you can see the lighter side of smothering someone to death.
2. Two old men, two handicapped youths, and 12 women, according to Ruth Richardson.

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