Monday, 5 December 2011


Saturday Musings Spectator December 09, 1905
        The subject matter is rather gruesome, but as a matter of ancient history it may not be out of place to let the present generation into some of the secrets of the doctor’s office in bygone days. The old-time doctors had a harder time of it to get thorough knowledge of their profession than boys do nowadays. They had not the help of well-equipped medical colleges nor the dissecting room, but had to dig out of the text books the material or substance used in the composition of remedies for the cure of disease. Then a doctor had to compound his own prescriptions and every office was a well-stocked drug shop. What a time the unfortunate patients had in swallowing the mixtures of half a century ago! Now the doctor carries a few remedies, compounded and prepared by manufacturing chemists, and the patient and the disease do the rest. Happy doctors. But it was in the study of surgery that the old boys had to get down to business, for they had to find their own subjects on which to take lessons in dissecting. The law now furnishes to medical colleges the unfortunate poor who may happen to die and have no one interested enough in their bodies to give them decent burial. When you and I were boys, my venerable friend, every student had to either rob a graveyard or hire someone to do it for him. The professionals were known by the name of body snatchers; and indeed at an earlier period they did not even take the trouble of robbing a grave but were guilty of the crime of murder by suffocation so as to leave no marks on the bodies they had to sell to the students. This was called burking, after a man of the name of Burke, of Edinburg, who was the first known to have committed the crime in 1819 for the purpose of selling the bodies for dissection.


        It was not an uncommon thing even as late as half a century ago for families to find that the graves of their dead had been desecrated by the resurrectionist; and it is well within the memory of some, that a well-known physician in Hamilton was riddled with shot while robbing a grave. Undertaker Blachford had charge of the doctor’s funeral. No questions were ever asked as to how the shooting occurred, hence the matter did not appear in the police court records. There was a doctor living in Berlin, Ont., a few years later, who made it a regular business to raise bodies. The doctor had an assistant and the pair robbed the graves, boiled the flesh from the bodies and sold the skeletons. At first, the doctor observed secrecy, but after awhile, he became bolder and carried on the trade in a disgusting manner. A child died and was buried and the parents, noticing that the grave had been tampered with, they opened it and found that the child’s body had been stolen. The doctor being suspected, a search warrant was obtained, and the officer and the father of the child went in upon the doctor and his assistant while they were in the act of preparing the body for the boiling process. The two men were arrested, and on trial by jury, a verdict of guilty was rendered. The doctor and his assistant escaped with the light punishment of only three months in jail.


        Isolated graveyards in country places were the ones most frequently visited by the resurrectionists , and it was no uncommon thing for friends of the deceased to keep guard of the graves for weeks after the internment. When the writer was a boy in Quebec more than 50 years ago, there was a comical ending to a country graveyard robbery. A couple of medical students had to furnish a subject for dissection, and on a cold, wintry night they made a raid on a new-made grave in a country churchyard. It was bright moonlight, and to avoid suspicion should they be met on the road to the city they put a fur coat and cap on the corpse. Coming to a wayside tavern, the students concluded that a little something warm would cheer them up after their toil in digging and their long drive, so they invited the driver of the sleigh to go in with them and warm the cockles of his heart with a whiskey hot. A couple of wags sitting in the barroom, who knew the students and suspected their mission out in that direction on such a cold night, slipped out and saw a man sitting in the sleigh, and going over to speak to him, found that it was a corpse. They lifted the corpse from the sleigh and took it into the barn, and then one of the fellows dressed himself in the fur coat and cap and took the dead man’s place in the sleigh. The students and the driver having imbibed several times of the steaming hot whiskey got into the sleigh and started on their journey cityward. When they were nearing their destination close by St. John’s gate, the corpse asked them how much farther they were going to take him. This was too much for the students and the driver, and out they jumped from the sleigh and made rapid time in getting away. The supposed corpse turned around the horses and drove back to the country tavern by the roadside, and next day sent word to the students where they would find the horse and sleigh. The friends of the deceased were notified, and the corpse returned to the grave.


        Students do not have to do such things now, as the medical colleges are always supplied with subjects for dissection from the hospitals and from those who have neither friends nor money to secure their burial. Back in the latter part of the ‘50’s, when the writer was setting type on the Cincinnati Enquirer, he made the acquaintance of a young Canadian who was a student in the Ohio Medical college in Cincinnati . Have you ever been away from home and met one from the same part of the country where you once lived? Why, it is like meeting an old friend even though you never set eyes on him before. This student was not a Hamilton boy, but he came very close to it. He was reared on a farm within sight of the blue waters of old Ontario, and having no liking for farm work and some inclination towards medicine, his good old father made many sacrifices to give him an education to that end. Having spent a portion of his time in a country doctor’s office, the young fellow was sent to the medical college in Cincinnati to prepare for his future profession. The young Canadian was charmed with city life and dipped lightly into some of its vices, and as a consequence did not make that progress in his studies necessary to a successful graduation. Having a retentive memory, he was able to follow closely the lectures of the professors and in that time kept up his record, but the time spent in the dissecting room was irksome to him, and his absences were far more frequent than his attendance. His letters to the old folks at home were full of cheer, but they were looking forward to the time when their boy would return a full-fledged doctor. As the time was drawing near for the closing examinations at the college, the young fellow began to feel his deficiency in the science of surgery, and if he was to pass it behooved him to get a move on himself. It cost money to hire a resurrectionist to furnish him a subject, and he was not brave enough to run the risk of going into the country to rob some quiet churchyard. He was in a dilemma. One night he attended a dance in a disreputable house, and while lounging around the rooms he opened the door of one room where one of the inmates was lying dead. Quick as a flash the thought came to him that here was his opportunity. There was a large crowd of men and women in the house, and the sound of revelry rang out as the music, the clinking of glasses and the coarse jest was bandied from one to the other. Locking the door of the room where the dead girl lay, his plans were soon matured. Making a rope of the bed sheets, he lowered the body from the second story window to the side alley. The hour was in his favor as it was just before the dawn of morning. He quietly left the house  and securing his prize, he beat a hasty retreat to his room, which was not too far distant. He had a room-mate, a young southern student, and as the southerner had been a close attendant in the dissecting room, he was sure of his help. Our young Canadian made good use of his time and of his subject, and gave up the bad habits he had formed. By the time when his student days were closing, he became proficient in the use of the surgeon’s knife, and passed a creditable examination. He came to his old home to visit his father and mother, but as the outlook was not encouraging for a young doctor in this part of Canada, he returned to Ohio and began practice in a country town. When the war broke out in 1861, he was one among the first to respond to the call of President Lincoln for 75,000 men, and was commissioned on the medical staff as assistant surgeon of his regiment. As the war progressed, he was advanced till he finally became chief surgeon on the staff of a distinguished general in the army. After the war, he located in Illinois. His early habits have been forgotten, and the doctor is not only a pillar in the Methodist church, but is also prominent in the affairs of the county in which he lives. The last time I saw him we talked over old times in Cincinnati before the war, and his escapade in procuring a subject for dissection.


        Once or twice before, we have referred in these Musings to the fact that Robert Young was the first manufacturer in Canada of burners for coal oil lamps. The old lathe that was used in making the first burners is stowed away in the storehouse of James Stewart, on John street, in the same building in which it was first used in 1858. A reporter of the Spectator visited Mr. Young’s workshop in 1859, and it may be interesting to now read what he briefly said of one of the infant industries that Hamilton’s enterprising workmen were nursing into life. That was in the old free trade days, when Canada had to compete with the United States for its own market : “There would seem to be no further necessity for importing coal oil lamps, now that R. Young, of this city, has entered extensively into the manufacture of them. We visited his establishment yesterday, and were shown the various processes the lamps undergo in their manufacture. They are manufactured and sold here by Messrs. Hilton, by wholesale at about 10 per cent less than the actual cost price of those imported from the United States. The article is not only cheaper, but better than that of American manufacture; and, besides, Mr. Young makes a greater variety of lamps, any of which are more endurable than those imported. We understand that there is just now a large demand for these manufactured lamps, and there is not the least doubt that they will soon force the imported ones out of the market.” Robert Young came to Hamilton in 1854, and during the next forty years was a prominent factor in the manufacturing enterprises in this city. A few years ago, he retired from active business, but, even now, when he has passed his four score years, he keeps himself in touch with his trade in a limited way.


        The Great Western railway was nurtured into life by the citizens of Hamilton, and its slightest request to the city council was promptly acceded to; but the officers of the company never granted a favor to Hamilton if it were possible to avoid it. At the time of the great cricket match in this city in 1859, when the All-England eleven played against a picked Canadian club of twenty-two, Hamilton had put up a large bonus to secure the game, and it was natural for the contributors to the purse to expect that the number of people that would be attracted here would spend money enough in part to reimburse the subscribers. It was a big thing for the Great Western, as hundreds of people came from every direction over its road to see the game, and reduced fares were promised by the officers of the company. That all did not receive this favor is evident by the following card that appeared in the Spectator of Oct. 17, 1859 : “Several gentlemen who came up from Oakville by the midday train today, for the purpose of seeing the cricket match, beg leave to express their thanks to the responsible officer of the Great Western railway company for the discrimination used in refusing them return tickets, while the other passengers from Toronto, on the same train, had return tickets.” Perhaps there are some of the old residents of Oakville now living who were in the party that was treated so shabbily by the railway company.


        In the year 1859, the Canadian synod of the Church of England recommended that an improvement be made in congregational singing, and to carry out the plan, each congregation in Hamilton subscribed a portion of the expense of opening a singing school in the Temperance hall, with Mr. Clarke as the appointed teacher. The admission to the class was free to members of the subscribing congregations. It was deplored by the movers that sacred music was cultivated by so few, and that the congregations had little more to do than turn around and stare at the small choir that assumed part of the devotions. There were no paid choirs in Hamilton then.

No comments:

Post a Comment