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‘Bring out the Burkers!’

  • Ruby Appelhans

What Can Conspiracies Tell Us About Society?

Cholera is a frightening bacterial disease that could become fatal in as little as twelve hours.[1] Today, we have a better understanding of this infection due to modern medicine and technology, but looking at the history of diseases is illuminating for many other reasons beyond just the disease itself. The case of cholera in Liverpool portrays this well. The fear and paranoia that cholera brought with it emphasized preexisting social conflicts. Cholera came to Europe in 1831 and highlighted the medical anxiety, the distrust of elites, and the instability that was present in various ways across the continent.[2] In Liverpool, cholera acted as a catalyst for the culmination of tensions.

Cramped and Squalid Housing Conditions, 1849, illustration, National Philanthropic Association, London, England. © Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

Cholera is a contagious infection caused by bacteria. The bacteria causing cholera is present in the stool of someone infected with the illness which can then contaminate water and food. Liverpool was struck particularly hard because of its poor sanitation system and dense population of impoverished people, many of whom lived in cellars or overcrowded rooms such as the one depicted above.[3] Its symptoms mainly include diarrhea, vomiting, fatigue, dehydration, and blue-ish grey skin in extreme cases due to water loss.[4] Cholera’s high mortality rate and aggressive symptoms along with Liverpool’s close living quarters made it impossible to ignore. 

When cholera arrived in Europe, there was already an overwhelming anti-medical sentiment in Liverpool. Scandals broke out in previous years involving grave robbing, corpse desecration, and even murder in order to sell the bodies to medical schools for dissection. Possibly the most infamous case were the murders committed by William Hare and William Burke in Edinburgh Hare and Burke killed sixteen people between 1827 and 1828 and sold the bodies to an anatomy school.[5] Although they were eventually caught, the disturbing nature of their crimes left a lasting imprint on Liverpool and even led to the term ‘Burking’, meaning to murder someone for the purpose of selling their corpse. However, this trade did not begin with Hare and Burke. Earlier, in 1826, thirty-three bodies were discovered in Liverpool with the same intent to sell them to a medical school. The authorities initially discovered a number of these bodies on the docks, but later uncovered a nearby cellar, the origin of the operation, containing barrels of corpses packed in either brine or salt for preservation.[6] Unlike the murders by Hare and Burke, these bodies were only the result of grave robbing, but their discovery stoked fear, nonetheless. The arrival of cholera in Liverpool heightened existing anxieties and illustrates the interaction between an epidemic, and other elements of the relationship between medicine and society.

As a result, Liverpool became a hotbed of conspiracies. In May of 1832, the first riot erupted as a patient was being escorted to a cholera hospital. A mob began forming and following the patient until they reached the hospital where the mob grew to an estimated one thousand people.[7] The mob yelled for them to ‘Bring out the Burkers!’ in reference to the murderer, Burke. The mob became violent resulting in injured hospital staff members and also a doctor on scene who was forced to retire.[8] The disturbances did not end here, small mobs continued to harass people entering and leaving hospitals and the carts used to transport sick people became common targets of violence.[9] Many rioters believed that the bodies of those who died in cholera hospitals were being sold for dissection, or that the hospitals themselves were attempting to cover up ‘Burking’. The panic and violence expressed by the mob, made up almost entirely of poor Liverpudlians and Irish immigrants, was a response to the powerlessness they experienced in society, in the face of an epidemic, and even in death. Furthermore, they had no way of knowing whether their loved ones or themselves would be given a proper burial and avoid desecration. With this historical context, we can see how class and power are central to understanding the cholera riots.

Conspiracy theories and the cholera riots were not limited to Liverpool. France, Russia, Italy, and more experienced riots and paranoia even if ‘Burking’ wasn’t the main concern. The cholera epidemic was unique not only for its connection to ‘Burking,’ but also because of who was being scapegoated. It is common for minority groups to face heavier discrimination and even violence during an epidemic because their outsider status makes them an easy scapegoat. However, the cholera conspiracies across Europe, held mainly by lower classes, reflected the public cynicism toward elites. Outside of Liverpool people were terrified of being buried alive, not receiving Christian burials, being poisoned by doctors, or that their own governments were systematically killing the poor under the guise of an epidemic.[10] Not all of these fears were unfounded. In Ostuni, Italy, people with status and wealth were allowed to visit their family with cholera and to perform traditional burial rites for them should they pass. However, the majority of people who had succumbed to cholera were buried unceremoniously in ditches.[11] This practice would lead to Ostuni’s own cholera riots. By widening our scope to observe all of Europe, we can see a pattern of working-class animosity against doctors, elites, and their governments.

The riots finally ended in 1832 when the Catholic Church confronted the conspiracies that were in circulation.[12] They reassured people that cholera was real and that the doctors were, in fact, trying their best to treat the illness.[13] More than just being an interesting historical anecdote, this shows the dominant role that the Catholic Church played in 19th century Europe which took precedence over doctors and even the Board of Health. This underlines the importance of studying the history of diseases, because in times of severe panic, epidemics can reveal people’s deepest fears as well as what institutions they trust and distrust. 

Epidemics are special junctures in history because they deepen our understanding of existing hierarchies and inequalities. In Europe, cholera brought to bear the sweeping suspicion the working-class and immigrant populations had for doctors and the elite. Even more than that, disease is something that connects all of us and has been a constant throughout history. Who hasn’t had a sick loved one or known someone who has died of disease? We can all empathize with people who have lived through epidemics, especially as we’re in one now, because it’s human to worry about our loved ones and our own death. Disease particularly affects those of lower socioeconomic status which is why the history of epidemics can offer a powerful perspective and magnify voices that might not be heard otherwise.

[1] Stephanie Snow, “Commentary: Sutherland, Snow, and water: the transmission of cholera in the nineteenth century,” International Journal of Epidemiology 31, 5 (October 2002).

[2] Sean Burrell and Geoffrey Gill, “The Liverpool Cholera Epidemic of 1832 and Anatomical Dissection- Medical Mistrust and Civil Unrest,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 60, 4 (November 2005): 481.

[3] Burrell and Gill, “The Liverpool Cholera Epidemic,” 480.

[4] Snow, “Commentary.”

[5] Burrell and Gill, “The Liverpool Cholera Epidemic,” 486-87.

[6] Burrell and Gill, “The Liverpool Cholera Epidemic,” 489-90.

[7] Burrell and Gill, “The Liverpool Cholera Epidemic,” 485.

[8] Burrell and Gill, “The Liverpool Cholera Epidemic,” 485.

[9] Burrell and Gill, “The Liverpool Cholera Epidemic,” 485.

[10] Samuel Kline Cohn Jr, “Cholera revolts: a class struggle we may not like,” Social History 42, 2 (April 2017): 165.

[11] Cohn Jr, “Cholera revolts,” 179.

[12] Burrell and Gill, “The Liverpool Cholera Epidemic,” 493.

[13] Burrell and Gill, “The Liverpool Cholera Epidemic,” 493.