We Know Where The Bodies Are Buried – a catalogue of lost internments
Fifty years ago, on 15 August, 1963, Henry John Burnett was hanged at Craiginches Prison for the murder by shooting of Thomas Guyan, with whose wife, Margaret he had been having an affair. Burnett had the dubious honour of being the last man in Scotland to be executed. A few seconds after 8am on that fateful day, executioner Harry Allen operated the lever which opened the trapdoor beneath Burnett’s feet and sent him into Eternity. Forty-five minutes later, his body was removed, certified dead by a doctor, and was buried in the prison grounds following a short, private service.
Last week, the Evening Express featured Burnett’s baby-faced image on its front page, proclaiming that his remains were to be exhumed due to the imminent closure of HMP Aberdeen, as it will be officially replaced in March 2014 by a new “super jail” at Peterhead. This is a real novelty, as all executed persons’ bodies become property of the state, and normally the relatives are never able to visit the burial spot. However, Burnett’s surviving siblings will be given the chance to inter their brother somewhere more pleasant than the empty space outside the old classroom block of Craiginches.
Burnett’s case may sound unique, but there are other criminals whose remains are very likely still under our feet. Craiginches was preceded by the East Prison, built in 1829, itself a replacement for the ancient Tolbooth in Castlegate. Our current police headquarters stand on the site of the East Prison. The latter was remodelled to become the offices of Aberdeen City Police in 1891, before the present building replaced it in 1970.
Four sets of killers’ bones lie there. The last man to face the gallows in public was John Booth in 1857. A native of Oldmeldrum, Booth had gone on a drunken rampage, threatening his wife with a clasp knife, believing she had been unfaithful. He ended up stabbing his mother-in-law as she tried to protect her unfortunate daughter. He was held in the East Prison until the day of his execution, after which his body was buried in the prison grounds. Alongside him were the remains of the brutal murderer, George Christie, who had hacked to death Barbara Ross and her young son at Kittybrewster. He was dispatched by English hangman, William Calcraft in 1853. Another Burnett, James, the Boyndlie poisoner, was also interred there, after being executed in 1849 for poisoning his wife in order to marry his lover, Janet Carty. James Robb, rapist and murderer was the only other known criminal buried there. There is no obvious evidence that any of their remains were moved after the police HQ opened. The Queen Street building is also due to disappear from our skyline in a few years, as plans emerge of a move for the police to new premises, so will there be an excavation then?
However, it is not only criminals who have had their bones trampled underfoot; many innocent members of the Society of Friends suffered a similar fate. The unofficial burial ground of the Quakers on Porthill, Gallowgate, a former kailyard, which the group purchased in 1671, was firstly disturbed by the council, who fined members of the group for “improper burials”. Thomas Milne had two of his baby sons removed from the ground and reinterred at St Nicholas kirkyard. Eventually the persecution of the Friends faded away and they were left to remember their dead in peace. The last internment was in 1811; the Friends built a meeting house above the site which remained there until 1907. However, there is no mention that the Quaker dead were removed. Thus the residents of Porthill Court, the 1970s towerblock which stands partially on the site, could still be walking over a burial ground to this day.
Historians took years to find the body of the much-maligned English monarch, Richard III; so who knows what other bodies still lie under the concrete and clay of our own city? At least Harry Burnett’s bones might finally rest in peace, a young man whom many believed at the time should have been reprieved on the grounds of diminished responsibility.