Now then! A Yorkshire Almanac for 2023

1835/01/26 - Sheffield printer William Burgin publishes a sensationalist account of the horrors discovered by a pyromaniac mob in the Eyre Street anatomy school

William Burgin. 1835/01/31. “The New Dissecting House Dissected, Or, the Extraordinary Affair in Eyre Street, Which Took Place Yesterday: With the Discovery of Several Dead Bodies, With an Attempt (it Is Reported of Two Men) to Burke a Woman.” In Sheffield Independent. Sheffield: William Burgin. Libraries (experimental): Bradford/Kirklees/Leeds/Middlesbrough/Sheffield/York/British Library.

Excerpt

Yesterday, Sunday, a most mysterious affair occurred in Eyre Street, Sheffield. A new dissecting house having been established in a house situated at the above place. About noon yesterday, a loud and horrid cry of “Murder!” was heard, and a report was circulated that they were attempting to Burke a woman. A mob began to assemble, and very shortly the door was forced open, and two men were taken into custody. A general rush now took place, and it is said that the woman had sustained great injury about the neck, and that the men were attempting to strangle her. Human bones were carried about in different directions; there was one body found and partly dissected, his bowels were taken away, and some other parts were cut off; he had one of his stockings on. Crowds of people now assembled about the place, and had it not been for the timely and praiseworthy interference of the police, the work of slaughter and destruction would have been immense. Nothing could exceed the fury of the mob, who cried out all of a mind, and they groaned most hideously: and not withstanding the house was strongly guarded by the police and watch of the town, the windows of the house were assailed with stones, and the landlord of the house shouted with a loud voice, “Burn, and destroy!” About 8 o’clock this morning, Monday, the scene of destruction commenced; the house was forced open by the exasperated mob, and every window of the house was, in a moment, dashed to pieces. The furniture was hurled through the gutted windows, and beds, forms, chairs, etc. in frightful succession, were heaped together and set fire to by the mob. The street’s one complete blaze, and the city of Moscow, when on fire, is a fool to this terrible conflagration. Human skeletons were hanging upon the lamp post, near the premises. The Riot Act has been read, the fury of the mob is terrible beyond comprehension. The fragments of the household furniture, and the tools used in dissecting human remains, were now piled up in one huge mass, in the middle of the street, and the whole was set fire to, and are now consuming to ashes by the fiery element. The yells and shouting of the multitude is truly terrific. Different parts of human bodies have been exhibited in the neighbourhood of the house, an attempt was made to bring the fire engines to the place, but they could not succeed until the soldiers came to the assistance of the engine men.

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Original

[As reproduced, allegedly literally, in the Sheffield independent]

Yesterday, Sunday, a most mysterious affair occurred in Eyre Street, Sheffield. A new dissecting house having been established in a house situated at the above place. About noon yesterday, a loud and horrid cry of MURDER was heard, and a report was circulated that they were attempting to BURKE a woman. A mob began to assemble, and very shortly the door was forced open, and two men were taken into custody. A general rush now took place, and it is said that the woman had sustained great injury about the neck, and that the men were attempting to strangle her. Human bones were carried about in different directions; there was one body found and partly dissected, his bowels were taken away, and some other parts were cut off; he had one of his stockings on. Crowds of people now assembled about the place, and had it not been for the timely and praiseworthy interference of the police, the work of slaughter and destruction would have been immense.

Nothing could exceed the fury of the mob, who cried out all of a mind, and they groaned most hideously: and not withstanding the house was strongly guarded by the police and watch of the town, the windows of the house were assailed with stones, and the landlord of the house shouted with a loud voice, “Burn, and destroy!”

About 8 o’clock this morning, Monday, the scene of destruction commenced; the house was forced open by the exasperated mob, and every window of the house was, in a moment, dashed to pieces. The furniture was hurled through the gutted windows, and beds, forms, chairs, etc. in frightful succession, were heaped together and set fire to by the mob. The street’s one complete blaze, and the city of Moscow, when on fire, is a fool to this terrible conflagration. Human skeletons were hanging upon the lamp post, near the premises. The Riot Act has been read, the fury of the mob is terrible beyond comprehension.

The fragments of the household furniture, and the tools used in dissecting human remains, were now piled up in one huge mass, in the middle of the street, and the whole was set fire to, and are now consuming to ashes by the fiery element. The yells and shouting of the multitude is truly terrific. Different parts of human bodies have been exhibited in the neighbourhood of the house, an attempt was made to bring the fire engines to the place, but they could not succeed until the soldiers came to the assistance of the engine men.

449 words.

Comment

Comment

“At the head of this precious production, was a most barbarous wood cut, representing it is difficult to say what,” adds the paper.

Testimony from Robert Leader suggests the riot was based on an enthusiastic mishearing:

a second medical school which had been established in Eyre street, corner of Charles lane, was completely gutted, and the building set on fire. The mob got an impression that it was a place where “resurrection men” sold the bodies they stole. I recollect that a small case containing the body or skeleton of a child found on the premises, was nailed up by the mob on a house opposite, to serve as an incentive to the work of destruction. The origin of the riot was a quarrel that took place on the previous day (Sunday), between the keeper of the school and his wife. This caused a disturbance, and the place bore such an evil name that the quarrel of these two persons ended in the destruction of the building, excepting the walls, on the following day. I recollect on the Monday night a great part of the mob, crying “All in a mind for Overend’s,” passed my father’s shop, and went along Orchard street to Mr. Wilson Overend’s house and surgery, causing much alarm, but doing little mischief (Leader 1876).

The Sheffield independent represents the view of what you might call the liberal elite:

It is our duty, as faithful chroniclers of the times, to put on record in event which we cannot but regard as disgraceful to the town, and contrasting strongly with the pretensions to intelligence, civilization, and refinement, of which we in England, in the nineteenth century, so often boast. The popular prejudices which have produced this event can only he classed with those which, centuries ago, caused the persecution of old women as witches, of Jews as usurers, and of corn dealers, under the idea that they were the producers of scarcity, which it was the natural tendency of their operations to mitigate. The extension of knowledge, the advancement of science, and the amelioration of the condition of the human race, are subjects on which we hear much declamation; yet there is a body of men, who, to qualify themselves for the proper treatment of our physical disorders, go through a course of training which requires the greatest self-denial, the most disagreeable investigations, and with which is connected no small danger to life and health, – and they are opposed, thwarted, their property destroyed, and their persons threatened, by the very people who are most interested in having cheap and skilful medical assistance. It would be far pleasanter for medical pupils to study the human frame by books, casts, and engravings, than by dissecting, with minute and painful care, putrefying carcasses; but what would be the fate of the patients of men so instructed? (Sheffield independent 1835/01/31)

But John Knott’s “Popular attitudes to death and dissection in early nineteenth century Britain,” an excellent introduction to this and similar contemporary troubles, explains why the poor found the business so disturbing:

In their enthusiasm for the Anatomy Act, medical historians rarely mention that the bodies were obtained from workhouses and hospitals, and never that the poor and labouring population viewed the Anatomy Act with absolute horror… Peter Bussey, the Chartist, told a meeting at Bradford in June 1838 that the New Poor Law and the Anatomy Act were part of the same oppressive system. ‘If they were poor they imprisoned them, then starved them to death, and after they were dead they butchered them.’ [The Times, 8 June 1838] (Knott 1985/11).

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