An early Spring clean at Inveraray Jail has recovered a host of macabre artefacts languishing inside the prison voted one of the spookiest places in Scotland.
The life and death masks of notorious murderers Burke and Hare along with a genuine hangman’s noose were found lurking in an old store room sparking a mystery as to how they got there.
Neither of the infamous murderers, whose reign of terror came to an end 180 years ago last month (Jan 28) with the public execution of Burke, was ever held at Inveraray nor was anybody ever hanged inside the prison
Unfortunately very little is known about either head, or for that matter the hangman’s noose, and how they came to be here.
Burke and Hare are among the most notorious of Scotland’s criminals but contrary to popular belief the two Irish Labourers were not grave robbers.
Although they supplied bodies to the anatomist Dr Robert Knox, at Surgeons Square, for dissection the pair found it easier to kill rather than dig up their victims.
Prior to the Anatomy Act of 1832, the only legal supply of corpses for medical experiments and teaching were of people condemned to death by the courts.
However as the need to train medical students increased the number of executed criminals fell so Dr Knox was only too glad to receive the fresh bodies from the Irish men without any questions.
It’s believed Burke and Hare murdered at least 16 people and possibly as many as 30 before their crimes were discovered. Hare turned Kings Evidence and escaped the hangman while Burke was publicly executed and his body exhibited before being skinned and dissected.
A number of ghoulish souvenirs were kept, including a book, business card case and a snuff box bound in pieces of his skin. His skeleton is still kept under lock and key at Edinburgh University.
The activities of the former navvies, who had originally moved to Edinburgh to work on the Union Canal, caused a sensation around the world.
At the time, a new ‘science’ called phrenology was a popular as it was believed the shape and contours of a person’s head could dictate their personality and ‘experts’ held talks across the country using casts of the heads of infamous criminals to illustrate their point.
A life mask is known to have been made of Hare during the trial and Burke’s shaven head was cast after his public execution in front of 25,000 people on January 28, 1829.
Although a handful of masks are known to still exist, with at least one in the USA, one in a museum in Swansea and copies at the universities of St Andrews and Edinburgh, they are very rare.
Although there was much public anger at the fact that Hare was allowed to go free all attempts to bring further charges against him failed and he escaped the mob to England.
He is said to have died a blind beggar in London or even emigrated to the United States.
We are now considering whether to exhibit the masks and the mysterious hangman’s noose alongside their existing house of horrors such as an original cat o’ nine tails, thumbs screws, whipping table and a tongue holder for nagging wives which are used to illustrate the history of crime and punishment in Scotland. Let us know what you think.