The Body Snatcher

by Robert Louis Stevenson


Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson was born in 1850 in Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland, into a family of serious Christians and famous engineers. His grandfather built lighthouses and this became a family tradition. Although Stevenson went to university to study engineering, when this was unsuccessful, he changed to law. However, he decided early in life to become a writer. He wrote some novels when he was in his twenties that made him immediately successful, including Treasure Island with the well-known pirate Long John Silver, as well as the famous short story, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Stevenson was well-respected as a writer all his life and was financially successful, but he was often very ill and spent his last years travelling from one warm climate to another. This took him to the South Sea Islands, where he fought for the rights of the native people. He died in Samoa when he was only 44.

The Body Snatcher

Every night, the four of us sat in the George Hotel – the undertaker, the landlord, Fettes and myself. Each one would be in his favourite armchair. Fettes was an old Scotsman, clearly educated, and a rich, unemployed land owner. He had come to Debenham years ago, while young, and had been accepted by the town. His seat and his bad habits were part of his lifestyle. He had some unusual opinions, which he would discuss with loud bangs on the table. We called him the Doctor because he had knowledge of medicine.

Body_snatchers_at_work,_Old_Crown_Inn,_PenicuikOne dark winter night, a neighbour suddenly became sick and the man's doctor was called from London.

'He's come,' said the landlord.

'What’s his name?'

'Doctor Macfarlane,' said the landlord.

Fettes, who had been almost asleep, now seemed to wake up and repeated the name 'Macfarlane' twice.

'Yes,' said the landlord, 'that's his name, Doctor Wolfe Macfarlane.'

Fettes became suddenly alert, his eyes opened, his voice became clear and loud, his body strong. We were all surprised by the change: he was like a man returned from the dead.

'Excuse me' he said, 'I have not been paying much attention. Who is this Wolfe Macfarlane?' And then, after listening to the answer, he added, 'It cannot be but I would like to see him face to face.'

'Do you know him, Doctor?' asked the undertaker.

‘I don’t know,’ was the reply. ‘Tell me, landlord, is he old?'

'Well,' said the landlord, 'he's not a young man, his hair is white. But he looks younger than you.'

'He is older, though, years older. But,' with a bang on the table, 'it’s bad living you see in my face. This man may have an easy conscience. You would think I was some old, respectable man, wouldn’t you? But no, not I.'

'If you know this doctor,' I chose to say after a long pause, 'it seems you don’t share the landlord's good opinion.'

Fettes ignored me.

'Yes,' he said, making a sudden decision, 'I must see him face to face.'

There was another pause and then a door was closed loudly on the first floor, and a step was heard on the stairs.

'That's the doctor,' cried the landlord. 'Watch and you can see him.'

uk_-_1300147Fettes walked to the bottom of the stairs to meet him. Dr. Macfarlane was awake and full of energy. He was well dressed in expensive clothes. He was a surprising contrast to our lazy friend, who was bald, dirty and in his old coat.

'Macfarlane!' he said loudly.

The great doctor stopped; the familiarity of the words surprised him.

‘Macfarlane!' repeated Fettes.

He almost fell. He watched the man in front of him for a few seconds, looked behind him and then in a surprised whisper, 'Fettes!' he said, 'You!'

'Yes,' said the other, 'Me! Did you think I was dead too?’

'Hush, hush!' said the doctor. 'Hush, hush! This meeting is so unexpected. I hardly knew you when I first saw you, but I am very happy to meet you again. I can’t speak to you now because I must not miss the train. But I must do something for you, Fettes. Your clothes need mending.'

'Money from you!’ cried Fettes. ‘The money that I had from you is lying where I threw it in the rain.'

An ugly look came across Dr. Macfarlane’s face. ‘Sir,' he said, ‘I don’t want to upset you. I’ll leave you my address. '

‘No, I do not want to know where you live,' said Fettes. 'I heard your name; I was afraid it might be you. Go!'

Macfarlane ran for the door. As he was passing, Fettes grabbed him and spoke in a whisper, and yet painfully clear, 'Have you seen it again?'

The rich London doctor cried out. With his hands over his head, he ran out of the door like a thief. Soon his horse was heading towards the railway station. It was over like a dream.

'Mr. Fettes!' said the landlord. 'What’s all this? These are strange things.'

Fettes turned towards us and looked us in the face. 'See if you can keep quiet,' he said. 'It’s not safe to make that man Macfarlane angry. Those people that have done so already have wished, too late, they had not.'

And then, without waiting for the other two, he told us good - bye and walked into the black night.

We three returned to our places and talked about what had happened. We sat late. Each man, before leaving, had his theory and each of us tried hard to find the truth. I believe I was better at this than either of my friends and perhaps there is no other man alive who could tell you the following unnatural events.

Rowlandson_-_Hunter's_dissection_roomIn his young days, Fettes studied medicine in Edinburgh. He studied little, but he was polite, attentive and intelligent around his teachers. They liked him, especially a certain teacher of anatomy that I will call K, a well-known man who moved secretly through the streets of Edinburgh in disguise. By the second year of university Fettes was an assistant in Dr. K’s class.

The lecture room became his responsibility. He was to look after the cleanliness of the rooms and the behaviour of the students and it was a part of his job to receive the dead bodies used in the anatomy classes for dissecting. He would be called out of bed in the early morning by the criminals who supplied the bodies and help bring them in and pay for them. Then he would return to get more sleep and be ready for his daily duties.

The supply of dead bodies was a continual problem to him as well as to Dr. K. They kept running out and it was dangerous and difficult to get more. It was the policy of Dr. K to ask no questions when buying from the criminals. 'They bring the body and we pay the price’, he used to say. And, again, he repeated, 'Ask no questions!' He never knew that the bodies were murdered. If anyone had said that to him in words, he would have reacted with horror. Fettes had noticed the rough looks of the men who came to him before dawn. He understood his duty to have three parts: take what was brought, pay the price and try not to notice any sign of crime.

One morning this policy of silence was tested. He had been awake all night with a painful toothache – and had fallen at last into the uneasy sleep that follows a night of pain, when he was woken up by an angry banging at the door. The sellers of death had come late and wanted to leave quickly. Fettes, sick with sleep, took them upstairs. He heard their upset voices like they were in a dream; and as they took the sack from the dead body he started dozing; he had to shake himself awake to find the men their money. As he did so he saw the dead face.

‘No!' he cried. 'That is John Galbraith!'

The men did not answer but moved nearer the door.

'I know him, I tell you. He was alive yesterday. It's impossible he can be dead.’

'Sure, sir, you're mistaken,' said one of the men.

But the other looked Fettes angrily in the eyes and wanted his money.

765px-Communards_in_their_CoffinsFettes realised he was in danger. He made some excuses, counted the money and saw the hateful men leave. He then rushed to check the body. He saw, with horror, marks on the dead body that showed violence. He panicked and went back to his room. There he thought carefully about the matter and decided to wait for advice from the chief assistant.

This was a young doctor, Wolfe Macfarlane, a favourite among all the students – clever and totally corrupt. He had a cart and a strong horse. He was close friends with Fettes and, when there were not enough dead bodies, the two would drive far outside the city in Macfarlane's cart and rob a lonely graveyard and return to the dissecting-room before dawn with stolen bodies.

Macfarlane arrived early. Fettes heard him and met him on the stairs and showed the dead body. Macfarlane examined the marks.

He nodded, 'It looks like murder.'

'Well, what should I do?' asked Fettes.

'Do?' he repeated. 'Do you want to do anything? Leave things alone, I should say.'

'Someone else might know him,' said Fettes.

'We'll hope not,' said Macfarlane, 'and if anybody does – well, you didn't know and that’s all. The fact is this has gone on too long. Do anything and you'll get K. and yourself into serious trouble. For me, you know, there's one thing certain – that all our bodies have been murdered.'

'Macfarlane!' cried Fettes.

'Come now! As if you hadn't suspected it yourself!'

'Suspecting is one thing…'

uk_-_622517'And proof another. Yes, I know and I'm as sorry as you are the body came here. The next best thing for me is not to recognise it and,' he added coolly, 'I don't. You can, if you want.’

These words affected a young man like Fettes. He agreed to do like Macfarlane. The body of the unfortunate man was dissected and no-one seemed to know him.

After work, Fettes went to a restaurant and found Macfarlane sitting with a stranger, a small man named Gray, who was both rude and stupid. However, he had amazing control over Macfarlane and ordered him around.  Gray invited Fettes to join them at dinner and ordered the most expensive food. Later he told Macfarlane to pay the bill. It was late before they separated. Macfarlane was upset about the money he had been forced to spend and the insults he had taken. Fettes returned home. Next day Macfarlane was absent from the class. Fettes smiled as he imagined him still taking the horrible Gray from place to place.

At four in the morning, Fettes was woken up by banging on the door. He was shocked to find Macfarlane with his cart containing a dead body.

'What?' he cried. 'Have you been out to the graveyard alone?’

But Macfarlane silenced him, asking him to concentrate on business. Once the body was on the table, Macfarlane tried to leave. Then he hesitated and said: 'You had better look at the face,' Fettes looked at him in surprise.

'But where and how and when did you get it?' he cried.

'Look at the face,' he said.

Fettes looked at the face and got a terrible shock.  It was Gray. Macfarlane had killed him. He couldn’t speak.

Macfarlane came to him. He gently put his hand on the other's shoulder. ‘You must pay me,’ he said.

Fettes found a voice: 'Pay you!' he cried. 'Pay you for that?'

'Why, yes, of course. It would look suspicious if you didn’t pay me. This is another case like John Galbraith's. The more things are wrong, the more we must behave as if everything were right.’

There was a moment’s hesitation and then Fettes made his decision. He opened the cupboard and paid the money. Fettes, with a steady hand, wrote the date and the amount paid.

'And now,' said Macfarlane, 'you should keep the money. I've had my share already.'

Fettes said, 'I’ve put myself in danger to help you.'

'To help me?' cried Macfarlane. 'Oh, no! You did it to help yourself. Suppose I got into trouble, where would you be? You can't begin and then stop. If you begin, you must keep on going.  Once you start being evil, you have to carry on. Don’t worry, you’ll soon get used to it.'

By the end of the week, Macfarlane’s words came true. Fettes stopped being afraid.

Stone_<span class=coffins_-_geograph_org_uk_-_1058317" src="" width="250" height="167" style="float: right;" />Then, one day, Dr. K was short of bodies for dissecting and he heard news of the burial of an old man. This place was in the country, far away from any houses. Like two thieves, Fettes and Macfarlane went to steal the body.

Late one afternoon, the two men started their journey. It rained without stopping – a cold, hard rain. It was a sad, silent drive but they stopped once to hide their tools in a bush not far from the graveyard, and again to have a warm coffee. When the two young doctors found a restaurant, they sat down to the best dinner the hotel offered. The lights, the fire, the rain and the cold, strange work added to their enjoyment of the meal. Soon Macfarlane handed a small amount of money to Fettes.

'A gift,' he said, 'between friends'

Fettes pocketed the money. 'You were right,' he said. 'I was a child till I knew you. You'll make a man of me.'

It was quite late. The young men paid their bill and went back to the road. There was no sound but the horse and cart and the rain. It was pitch black. Soon they reached the graveyard.

They were both experienced at this work and after twenty minutes of digging they heard the noise of their spades hitting the coffin. The grave where they were now standing was close to the hilltop of the graveyard and they had a lamp to light their work. They could hear nothing except the rain. However, they thought it was best to finish their work in the dark. The coffin was taken from the ground and broken open, the body put in a sack and carried to the cart. Then they started back to the town.

They were wet from their work.  As the cart jumped up and down on the country road, the sack with the dead body kept falling on them. The two men began to get very nervous. They started to get the feeling that this was not the body of an old man. At last Fettes said, with great effort, ‘Let's have a light and look!'

Macfarlane felt the same way. Although he made no reply, he stopped the horse, got down and lit the lamp. It was still raining and it was not easy to light a match in the wet and darkness. When at last the lamp was working, it became possible for the two young men to see each other and the thing they had along with them.

open grave'That is not an old man,' said Macfarlane, in a very quiet voice.

'I think we dug up the wrong body,' whispered Fettes.

'Hold that lamp,' said the other. 'I must see his face.'

And as Fettes took the lamp Macfarlane opened the sack. The light fell very clearly on a familiar face, often seen in dreams of both of these young men. A wild shout rang into the night.  The lamp fell, broke and went out. The horse, terrified by this noise, ran away with the body of the dead and long-ago-dissected Gray.