Sunday, April 5, 2009

The not-so-good and not-so-great, number 13

Unlucky for some: William Burke

He was born near Strabane in 1792, and (for the son of a Catholic cottier) well-educated. As a boy, he served in the local Manse, then as a baker and weaver, before some seven years in the Donegal militia. By then he was married, with two children. He quarrelled with his father-in-law over rights to a piece of land, and did a bunk to Scotland, leaving wife and children behind.

Burke found employment as a navvy on the Union Canal; and set up house with Nelly McDougal. Since both partners had living spouses Burke, as a Catholic, was excommunicated, and Nelly, a Presbyterian, denounced from the pulpit.

By 1827 Burke was in Edinburgh, trading in second-hand clothing, when he lost ev
erything in a fire at his lodgings. He and Nelly went out of town, to work on the harvest at Penicuik, where they became drinking pals with William Hare and his doxy, Maggie. Hare may have done for Maggie's husband, to get possession of the lodging house business as well as the lady.

Burke and Hare

The career for which Burke and Hare became famous began on 27 November 1827. A pensioner in Hare's lodgings died, owing Hare £4. To recoup the debt, the two sold the corpse for £7 10 shillings to Professor Robert Knox, for use as a dissection specimen. Realising they were onto a winner, Burke and Hare refined their operation. Live specimens were intoxicated and smothered (Hare covered the mouth, Burke applied a body press). At least 15 more corpses were delivered to Professor Knox, at sums between £8 and £14 each.

The last of their victims was a Mary Campbell (or Doherty), done to death on 31 Oct
ober 1828. Neighbours' suspicions reached the police, who found the body in a box in Knox's cellar. Hare turned king's evidence, and was acquitted.

Sir Walter Scott was in the throng to witness Burke's public hanging (see left) in the Lawnmarket on 28 January 1829. It was further ordered that Burke's corpse, too, be dissected: souvenirs of his skin were distributed quite widely. His skeleton is still on display in the anatomy museum of Edinburgh University.

Some vocabulary

Out of that came the verb "to burke", meaning as the OED has it:
To murder, in the same manner or for the same purpose as Burke did; to kill secretly by suffocation or strangulation, or for the purpose of selling the victim's body for dissection.
By 1830
, in one of the Last Essays of Elia, Charles Lamb is using the word to describe the schoolboy's Saturday Night scarifying, as he is made ready and presentable for Sunday:
Cleanliness, saith some sage man, is next to Godliness. It may be; but how it came to sit so very near, is the marvel... But to be washed perforce; to have a detestable flannel rag soaked in hot water, and redolent of the very coarsest coarse soap, ingrained with hard beads for torment, thrust into your mouth, eyes, nostrils positively Burking you, under pretence of cleansing substituting soap for dirt, the worst dirt of the two making your poor red eyes smart all night, that they might look out brighter on the Sabbath morn (for their clearness was the effect of pain more than cleanliness), could this be true religion?
From there it is a small leap in metaphor to a secondary meaning:
To smother, ‘hush up’, suppress quietly. Also, to evade, to shirk, to avoid.
That, again according to the OED, is current by 1835, when John Arthur Roebuck is writing a pamphlet on the Dorchester Labourers. We might recognise those better as the Tolpuddle Martyrs. Roebuck complained that their defence statements went unpublicised:
Those who spoke in favour of the poor men, were what the reporters call burked.
One expression that definitely does not derive from William Burke is "to look (or feel) a right Burke". This is often, and more correctly spelled as "berk". As Eric Partridge, in his marvellous 1937 Dictionary of Slang, showed, this is abbreviated from the rhyming slang "Berkeley hunt". As Partridge had it:
Berkeley, the pudendum muliebre: C. 20. Abbr. Berkeley Hunt.
Yes, there was and is a Berkeley Hunt
The Berkeley Foxhounds are the oldest pack of foxhounds in the country and can be traced back to the 12th century when they were used to hunt both the stag and the fox until the late 18th century onwards when they hunted the fox alone. The 5th Earl of Berkeley could hunt his hounds from Berkeley Castle to Charing Cross in London. He had kennels at Berkeley, Broadway, Nettlebed, Gerrards Cross and Cranfield. The season would start at Berkeley and progress to each of his kennels to London and then in stages back to Gloucestershire.
That would suggest the Berkeley was the hunt operating closest to the Londoner's experience. How he changed the pronunciation to match the spelling is another matter. However, in view of the rhyming argot, it is as well to know:


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Dewi Harries said...


Malcolm Redfellow said...

Dewi @ 8:56 PM:

I assume you are pointing towards Cathal Brugha (born Charles Burgess). If so, that's a remarkable piece of synchronicity.

I was musing on the contortions so many went through in trying to Hibernicise quite decent names. The most glaring recent example was Gene Fitzgerald, who served in Jack Lynch's government as Minister of Labour (well, they were both members of the Cork mafia). When Lynch stepped down, Fitzgerald backed the wrong horse (George Colley). Then, to widespread incredulity, in 1980 Haughey advanced Fitzgerald to be Minister of Finance. In Haughey's second government, Fitzgerald was back at Labour.

That's not the topic here: at some point Fitzgerald transmogrified into "Eoghan Mac Gearailt". Fair enough. The trouble happened when a document was submitted to the Moriarty Tribunal. It was signed by Cathal Ó hEochaidh, Padraig Ó Floinn and Eoghan Mac Gearailt. The Official tribunal record helpfully rendered the names back to their anglicised versions to give Charles Haughey, Pee Flynn and --- Owen McGarrity.

Other nonsenses were the IRA Chief of Staff, Seán Mac Stiofán (born in England as John Stevenson) or Micheál MacLiammór (born Alfie Willmore in Willesden, North London, and, as a child actor, a buddy of Noël Coward and Gerty Lawrence).

Yes: I think I feel a posting rising in my soul.

Dewi Harries said...

I'll look forward to it....

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