Friday 28 October 2016

On Halloween, St Andrews Historian Dr Norman Reid tells the gruesome tale of the King James Library’s skeleton.

The tale begins in January 1707, when the University messenger, we are told, committed suicide. One, much later, source tells us that he did this by hanging himself from the banister of the staircase that leads to the gallery of the King James Library – but this cannot be verified. The record shows that one David Murray had been appointed to the position in 1704, and we may assume that it was this man who died in 1707. In those days suicide was regarded as an outrageous sin, and the University’s professors are said to have decreed angrily that since he was fond of hanging, he should continue to hang, and should remain nameless for all time to come. They handed over the body for public dissection, and commissioned a Dundee surgeon, Patrick Blair, to articulate the skeleton and return it to St Andrews. (Blair later found fame as the first man in the British Isles to dissect an elephant.)

The first part of the story is not recorded in official record. The tale does pick up in the minutes of the University Senatus, however, when on 30 January 1707 the Senatus agreed payment to a Mr Arnot, surgeon, “for his assisting at the dissection”. On 17 February there are payments for transporting “the bones for the skelet” to Dundee, and again on May 22nd the significant sum of 100 merks Scots (about £5.50 in today’s terms) was paid to Patrick Blair for “his pains and expences for making the said skeleton & bringing it over”. Small payments were also made to Blair’s servant for “drink money” and for incidental expenses. In July workmen were commissioned to make a case for the skeleton, and the final entry in this period comes a few years later, when in 1714 an inscription was presented to the University by Patrick Blair explaining the circumstances (but still omitting the name of the offender), which was attached to the case.

For many years, the poor postie hung in his box in the Library. He was still there in 1889 when an article about the incident was published in The University News Sheet, (although by then he had been placed in a cupboard, rather than in full view). It is said that one professor had, some years earlier, been rebuffed by the Senatus in an attempt to have the remains decently interred, but there is no record of any such discussion in the minutes.

By 1941, the box and skeleton were in the loft above the top of the staircase on which the poor man reportedly had ended his days. It was removed on the instruction of the University Librarian and Mr J.B. Salmond, a member of the University Court. The skeleton was passed to the Professor of Anatomy, who (having first studied the method of articulation used in the early 18th century) arranged for the proper disposal of the bones. The box (which at that time was reckoned to be of 19th century date – presumably having been replaced at some point) was destroyed. The inscription was said to have been handed over to the University Museum; what happened to it is not known, however, since it no longer appears to exist within the collections, and all that remains is a poor photographic copy which was made at an unknown date.

Inscription on box and skeleton

The incription reads:

You behold the remains of an unfortunate and infamous man, once the Messenger of this University of St Andrews and thereafter never to be named for all time to come: incensed at his monstrous action, in that he laid wicked hands upon himself and sought death by hanging, the sacred University, desiring to obtain the greatest advantage from one who had so criminally destroyed himself, resolved, first that his corpse should be publicly submitted to the dissecting knife, then that his bones should be articulated into a skeleton, on the 25th January in the year 1707 of the Christian Era; employing for that purpose the zealous services of one who at that time was Pharmacological-Surgeon and Botanist of the Dundee Society but now is a Doctor of Medicine of the Royal Society, Patrick Blair.

The traditional tale suggests an element of retribution on the part of the University’s professors in their attitude to the unfortunate postman. It is possible, however, that the tale has grown in the telling. In the eighteenth century, religious and social attitudes to suicide were harsh. In some parts of Europe, the bodies of suicides were even mutilated, and it was normal for them to be refused burial in consecrated ground. In post-reformation Scotland, it was the responsibility of the heritors (the principal landowners of the parish) to provide burial facilities, and the University itself being the primary landowner of St Andrews parish, it is likely that the Senatus was indeed responsible for the satisfactory disposal of this body. At the same time, the issue of medical education at St Andrews was under discussion. Although the first Professor of Medicine was not appointed until early 1722, it had been a subject of debate within the University for some years, and from the beginning of the century negotiations had been taking place with the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh regarding the regulations for the awarding of medical degrees. The difficulty of obtaining bodies for anatomical study is well known, having been later immortalised through the nefarious careers of Edinburgh’s Burke, Hare and Dr Knox. In a letter of 1720, it was noted that in St Andrews “an anatomist may be ten years in looking for a body to dissect”. Was the University being pragmatic in solving two problems at once: the disposal of a suicide body, and the provision of a rare teaching aid

Whether the rage of the professors lay at the heart of the issue, or their desire to solve an awkward problem (or two) will probably never be known. There is a footnote, however, which shows that the issue of misbehaving postmen did not disappear. Clearly, in the early weeks of 1707, the University needed to find a new postman. On 17 February (at the same meeting at which the payment was made to Mr Arnot for assisting at the dissection), “the University agreed and enacted that in all times coming the University post should be chosen every year at Martinmas and to continue in his post for a year”. One John Balmanno had been appointed for the ensuing year. It was perhaps an appointment made in desperation, since he had previously held the post, but had been removed from it in 1698 because of serious misconduct, and when Murray was appointed in 1704, it was in face of a rejected petition from Balmanno for reinstatement. Sadly, only one day after his appointment, the Senatus heard a complaint from several of the professors that Balmanno was going about his duties while drunk, and agreed that should it happen again he was to be “deposed from his office”. It seems to have been a position fraught with difficulty: over the next few decades one office-holder was dismissed because of “bodily infirmity”, another for embezzlement, and a third for stealing! Current incumbents in the mail room – beware!

Norman Reid


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