Black Cook, The
DESCRIPTION: One of three sailors, a black cook, has an idea to "rise cash." They sell his body as a corpse to a doctor. When the doctor goes to dissect the corpse it stands. The doctor runs to his wife, who bars the door and asks him to "leave off dissecting"
EARLIEST DATE: before 1911 (broadside, Bodleian 2806 c.14(57))
KEYWORDS: trick corpse humorous cook doctor sailor Black(s) money
FOUND IN: Canada(Newf,Ont) Britain(Scotland(Aber)) US(MA,NE)
REFERENCES (6 citations):
GreigDuncan2 297, "The Black Cook" (1 text)
Peacock, pp. 856-858, "The Black Devil" (1 text, 1 tune)
Fowke-Ontario 7, "Three Jolly Jack Tars" (1 text, 1 tune)
Guigne, pp. 58-61, "The Black Devil (Three Jolly Jack Tars; The Black Cook)" (1 text, 1 tune)
Ives-Maine 19, "The Black Cook" (1 text, 1 tune)
Freeman Bennett, "The Black Devil" (on PeacockCDROM) [one verse only]
Richard Pennell, "The Black" (on MUNFLA/Leach)
Bodleian, 2806 c.14(57), "The Black Cook" or "The Doctor Outwitted," James Lindsay (Glasgow), 1851-1910; also Firth b.27(445), "The Doctor Outwitted"; Harding B 26(141), 2806 b.9(12)[many illegible words], "The Docter Outwited by the Black" (sic.)
NLScotland, L.C.178.A.2(078), "The Black Cook, or The Doctor Outwitted," unknown, c. 1870
cf. "Burke's Confession" (subject: sale of dead bodies for anatomical studies)
cf. "Larry O'Gaff" (tune, per Fowke-Ontario)
NOTES [1280 words]: The shortage of cadavers for dissection which gave rise to this song is by no means exaggerated. Adams, p. 6, notes that, as early as 1505, Scottish surgeons were required to learn anatomy -- which meant finding bodies to take apart. The problem was so bad that the great William Harvey had to dissect his own father and sister (Roach, p. 42)! Anatomists need bodies; so do beginning medical students. And few people have been willing to donate their bodies to such causes. The well-to-do were buried, and that was that.
That left two sources of dead bodies: Executed criminals, and paupers. Sapolsky credits Henry VIII with passing a law giving dead bodies of criminals to the doctors. And Jameson, pp. 24-25, notes the various American "Anatomy laws": "Massachusetts in 1784 passed an act providing that the bodies of those killed in duels or executed for killing another should be given to the surgeons to be dissected.... Massachusetts in 1831 passed the first liberal law for the benefit of anatomy in any English-speaking country, giving to the surgeons the bodies of criminals and of State paupers who died without leaving relatives. But the New York law of 1789 had given judges the power to order the dissection of executed criminals as part of their sentence."
According to Roach, p. 40, this was considered an extra punishment to the convicted because of the belief at the time in the literal resurrection of the body -- meaning that a sliced-up body would need a lot more resurrecting!
These measures were inadequate in two ways. First, they did not provide enough bodies (especially since, according to Palmer, p. 66, there were people who thought that the dead bodies of executed criminals had medicinal effects and tried to make off with them, or parts of them). Second, and worse, the cadavers so obtained were not typical.
The bodies of the Henry VIII's criminals were usually healthy, but they had suffered from execution -- and, before death, had suffered the brutal conditions of English prisons, and very likely from torture as well.
The corpses of the poor were intact, but these people had died of starvation, illness, and the general brutality of life. Their deaths were theoretically "natural," but they were usually hastened by their workhouse conditions.
The result was that doctors generally were not in position to examine the bodies of people who died of a healthy old age. Indeed, this remains a problem to this day, according to Sapolsky. It is a genuine problem both for doctors and for medical researchers -- he notes on p. 121 that two artificial diseases (one related to the adrenal glands and one related to the thymus) went into the diagnostic manuals as a result of always performing dissections on poor and sick people. Children with healthy thymus problems was actually treated with radiation, to shrink glands that appeared larger than was expected. In fact the radiation damaged the healthy glands resulting in poorer health for those so treated plus a vast spike in cases of thyroid cancer (Sapolsky, p. 122).
Sapolsky, pp. 117-119, tells of how the desperate need for corpses for dissection gave rise to the occupation of the body snatcher -- people who went out and unearthed (often literally) the bodies of recently-dead people for use by doctors. (This is to be distinguished from "grave robbery," which consists of taking artifacts such as jewels left in the coffin but leaving the body intact; Roach, p. 43).
The first reasonably well-documented case of grave-robbing for anatomical purposes, according to Adams, pp. 9-10, took place in 1678. Adams, p. 8, describes the shortage of bodies as being so severe that, in 1794, a group of doctors circulated a letter in support of body-snatching. Happily, this did not become widely known.
There was also said to be an organized ring for taking dead bodies from Ireland to Scotland in ferries for resurrection purposes. This was discovered when one delivery went uncollected and the bodies were left to rot (Adams, p. 69).
Reportedly London in 1828 had ten full-time body snatchers and hundreds of others who occasionally engaged in the trade (Roach, p. 44). They worked only during the cool season; because of the problem of decay, anatomy lessons were held only during the winter.
This problem was bad enough that a coffin was marketed in 1818 as being safe from being opened by the snatchers. Another solution, according to Adams, p. 47, was a rentable coffin cover made of heavy metal; it could be placed over the grave until the body had decomposed enough to be useless. Others mounted guards on graves, or surrounded them with booby traps (Adams, p. 57). Under the circumstances, it is understandable that some doctors might be willing to work with the body snatchers. Ugly as their profession obviously was, it had the potential to bring good for many other people.
It appears that the sailors in this song are imitating the snatchers.
The fact that the cook was Black may have made his corpse even more desirable. According to Adams, p. 21, anatomists particularly liked unusual specimens such as dwarfs. In eighteenth or nineteenth century England, Blacks were rare enough that they might be considered a peculiar race.
The law was less willing to look the other way. Jameson, p. 24, notes that "New York in 1789 passed a law punishing the disinterment of bodies for purposes of anatomy"; other jurisdictions came to have similar laws.
For some reason, the problem was particularly acute in Scotland. Or, at least, was of greater concern to the citizens. Adams, p. 2, notes riots in 1742, widespread fear in 1752, and a notorious court case in 1753 among other things.
In Edinburgh in the late 1820s, two criminals, Burke and Hare, became famous for acquiring bodies for anatomists by any means necessary. Many broadsides were produced about their crimes and trial; for details, see "Burke's Confession." Although the number of corpses so used was probably relatively small, they gained enough attention that the body snatchers came to be known as "resurrectionists" (HistTodayCompanion, p. 647). Fowke-Ontario, p. 165, notes that "to burke" became a verb for committing murder in such a way that a charge could not be proved. Generally it means "to strangle."
The body snatchers became so infamous that folktales began to circulate about them, e.g. "The Corpse in the Cab" (Briggs, volume A.2, p. 48), in which two resurrectionists try to use their victim's body to hold a place for their cab, with regrettable results, and "Resurrection Men" (Briggs, A.2, p. 249), in which a local youth scares off two resurrectionists by appearing to rise from a grave.
We also see them made the subject of literature; Stevenson wrote "The Body Snatcher," and they are also mentioned in Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (Edwards, p. 80).
As a result, Britain in 1832 passed the "Anatomy Act," This made the bodies of workhouse inmates and paupers available to the doctors (HistTodayCompanion, pp. 22-23; Roach, p. 41, dates it to 1836). According to Palmer, p. 44, "diggum uppers" continued to work for a decade or so, but the problem began to resolve itself. According to HistTodayCompanion, p. 23, however, the Anatomy Act contributed to the fear of the workhouse which endured into the Twentieth Century, and which so infests many of the works of Dickens.
Incidentally, there are still resurrectionists today. A 2018 article on the Ars Technica web site mentions the conviction of a husband and wife for buying diseased bodies, chopping them up, and selling them to medical students and such who needed to practice their craft and thought they were getting safe body parts. - RBW
Last updated in version 4.3
- Adams: Norman Adams, Scottish Bodysnatchers: True Accounts, Goblinshead, 2002
- Briggs: Katherine Briggs, A Dictionary of British Folk-Tales in the English Language, Part A: Folk Narratives, 1970 (I use the 1971 Routledge paperback that combines volumes A.1 and A.2)
- Edwards: Owen Dudley Edwards, Burke & Hare, 1983 (I use the revised 1993 paperback edition by Mercat Press)
- HistTodayCompanion: Juliet Gardiner & Neil Wenborn, Editors, The History Today Companion to British History, Collins & Brown, 1995
- Jameson: J. Franklin Jameson, Dictionary of United States History 1492-1895, Puritan Press, 1894
- Palmer: Roy Palmer, The Folklore of Warwickshire, Rowman and Littlefield, 1976
- Roach: Mary Roach, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, Norton, 2003
- Sapolsky: Robert M. Sapolsky, The Trouble with Testosterone and Other Essays on the Biology of the Human Predicament, Touchstone Books, 1997
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