The antics of Burke and Hare can still be hyped up to make some form of profit nearly 195 years after their crimes were discovered and they have certainly stolen the spotlight when it comes to all things macabre in the City.
But before these two men came on the scene, there were others who were just as eager and willing to supply the anatomy schools of Edinburgh with teaching material.
In a time when Dr Knox is reputed to have spent over £700 on cadavers in one dissecting season alone, real body snatchers were plying their trade throughout the City’s anatomy schools, and the most cunning of them all was ‘Merry Andrew’.
The most prolific and notorious of all Edinburgh’s body snatchers, Andrew Merrilees or ‘Merry Andrew’ was the head of a five-man gang and before Burke and Hare came on the scene, used to supply cadavers to Dr Knox. Legend has it that he allegedly sold his sister to the anatomists, giving her a kiss goodbye beforehand.
‘Merry Andrew’ is often overlooked when talking about body snatching in Edinburgh, and although information known about him may be limited, he was one of the ‘originals’, operating in the City before Burke and Hare.
It’s time for them to step aside for even the briefest of moments and let the stories of Edinburgh’s real body snatchers be told. It’s time to hear a tale or two from ‘Merry Andrew’.
Andrew Merrilees or ‘Merry Andrew’
Best known by his nickname ‘Merry Andrew’, Andrew Merrilees or Lees made quite a name for himself in Edinburgh in the first decades of the nineteenth century.
Once a county boy whose home overlooked a graveyard, Merrilees was forced to flee to Edinburgh after not being able to stop bragging about his body snatching exploits to the locals.
It is said he drank up to sixteen glasses of whisky a day, so it is hardly surprising that he became a little loose-tongued on occasion.
Tall and thin in character Merrilees had a tendency to jerk when he walked, which subsequently made his face twitch. He was said to be so scrawny that he couldn’t’ get clothes to fit him and was the subject of many a joke from the medical students who he sold cadavers to.
By all accounts, he wasn’t a nice character. Double-crossing gang members and anatomists at the earliest opportunity, Merrilees thought nothing of making a few extra shillings at the expense of others.
Selling Cadavers to Dr Knox
Merrilees was certainly selling cadavers to the anatomy schools of Edinburgh at the same time Burke and Hare were active.
A letter, dated 28 October 1828, only two days before Mary Docherty Burke and Hare’s last victim was found dead, Merrilees sent the following to Knox:
Doctor am in the east, and has ben doin little busnis, am short of siller send out abot aught and twenty shilins way the carer the thing will bee in abt 4 on Saturday mornin its a shusa, hae the plase open.
To translate, cause my Scottish accent isn’t that great either, absolutely useless in fact, Merrilees had a cadaver for Knox which he refers to both as a ‘thing’ and a ‘shusa’.
Body snatchers had their own way of putting things. Burke and Hare called the cadavers they dealt in ‘shots’, and the Borough Gang in London, like most involved in the trade, referred to cadavers as ‘things’.
‘Shusa’ is a word particular to Scottish grave robbers, used to refer to the cadavers that they extract from the coffin.
In all my years of researching body snatchers, I have only heard this term once, twice at the most and always in connection with Scotland.
Edinburgh’s Body Snatching Gang
Unlike the Borough Gang in London, who were, and still are recognised by a specific name, Merrilees’s gang remains nameless.
I have found no mention of other Gangs operating in Edinburgh at this time and perhaps this can be confirmed by the lack of a gang name? I find it highly unlikely however that Merrilees’s gang was the only one operating within the City.
The gang was made up of a miss-match of men. By all appearances, the outcasts of society and yet all had a specific role to play in the partnership.
As with all gangs, there were the key members and with the Edinburgh gang, these were Merry Andrew himself, Spune and Mouldiwarp.
The other members were not permanent fixtures and would join the group as and when required.
The most frequent addition was Praying Andrew who would constantly be found wearing a black suit and white collar to add to the illusion that he was a man of the cloth.
Like many gangs, there were the inevitable arguments, often, if not always, centring around money.
After one recent spate of body snatching, the gang gathered to share their takings and Merrilees, never one to miss a trick tried to cheat the other members out of their share, shortchanging them by 10s each.
It wasn’t long before an opportunity to exact revenge on their leader presented itself when just a few weeks later, Merry Andrew’s sister Sarah died in nearby Penicuik.
A Trip to Penicuik
Deciding that they would make up the deficit by selling Sarah’s body, Mouldiwarp and Spune hired a cart and headed out on the dark road to St Mungo’s Churchyard in the centre of Penicuik.
Learning that something was amiss and that his sister was about to become teaching material on Dr Knox’s dissecting table, Merry Andrew quickly made his way to the church, hoping to reach it before the others did.
Spune and Mouldiwarp arrived shortly after midnight but they were a little too late, for Merry Andrew had already arrived in Penicuik and was lying in wait behind a nearby gravestone.
Watching quietly as Mouldiwarp and Spune exhumed his freshly buried sister, Merry Andrew remained motionless as he witnessed her being laid on the grass next to her grave.
Waiting until her body had been put into a sack, and the pair had started to backfill the grave, Merrilees leapt out from behind the headstone covered in a white sheet!
Of course, you can probably guess what happened. The pair fled, leaving both the cart and Sarah behind.
How much of the next part of this story is folklore and how much of it is true is unknown, but, it is said that after bidding his sister farewell with a kiss on the lips, Merry Andrew tied her up in the sack, slung her over his shoulder and made his way to the anatomy schools of Edinburgh.
The final tale in the saga of Merry Andrew took place a small close in Edinburgh, probably in the Old Town where Merry Andrew and his gang congregated.
While waiting for an old lady to die whose body he’d been promised upon her death, Merrilees was spotted by a student who decided to play a small prank on the body snatcher.
Sneaking up behind him he whispered the words ‘she’s dead’ into his ear and disappeared. Taking this as a sign, he entered the squalid home to carry out the exchange.
Rather surprisingly, he came face to face with the old woman sitting in bed who was still very much alive. But alas, not recovering from the shock that she was to be sold to the anatomists, she died of fright the following evening.
It is at this point that Merry Andrew returned to the house to do a trade with the woman’s nurse.
But a few days had passed since the promise of the transaction and the nurse, in fear of the devil, had changed her mind.
A light has come doon upon me frae heavan and I canna
she exclaimed. Things were not going to plan.
Spune, who had accompanied Merry Andrew on his task, left to buy whisky so that the nurse may be a little easier bribed, all the while Merrilees tried to make the woman see reason.
He whipped out a pound note and waved it in front of her face in a hope that it would tempt her to change her mind. It did not.
But that’s only ane [one] and ye ken ye promised three
So another two pounds were produced and the deal was finally sealed.
Suddenly, completely unexpected by everyone, the door of the room burst open and in walked a stranger, cap pulled down over his face, his greatcoat wrapped tight around him.
Announcing that he was the old woman’s nephew, he walked over to the coffin claiming that he wanted to see the corpse before burial. Beating a hasty retreat, Merry Andrew and Spune fled through the City streets.
Folklore says that the stranger was either the old lady’s saviour and had saved her from the clutches of the resurrection men or that he was the student who had whispered into the ear of Merry Andrew just a few nights ago and had come to claim the cadaver for himself.
We shall never know.
Researching ‘Merry Andrew’
If you read around the subject of body snatching, you may be lucky and come across ‘Merry Andrew’ and his antics at Penicuik. Some authors offer the body snatcher just a few short lines in their work, others like Martin Fido and Norman Adams, dedicate a number of pages to his antics.
His links with anatomist Dr Robert Knox are known but I believe remain unexplored, for one of Edinburgh’s most prolific body snatcher’s dealings with anatomists is scant.