Nellie Torrence and Jeannie Waldie

This is one of our own compositions and relates to the supposed first true 'body snatchers' in Edinburgh. The sale of corpses for medical research was well established in the 18th century. However, Helen Torrence and Jean Waldie, two nurses on ‘death-watch’, stepped over the line. A bit like modern day commodity traders, they 'forward sold' the body of a young boy they fully expected to die, to anatomy students for medical research. However, when the boy revived they didn’t want to pass up the chance to make some money. So, after first getting his mother drunk, they murdered wee Johnnie Dallas and sold his body instead. When they heard that a crowd was out looking for Johnnie, the surgeons quickly guessed how the body had been come by and, even though part dissected, stitched him up and dumped him in nearby Liberton’s Wynd – a site now covered by the George IV Bridge in Edinburgh.
The delicious irony of this story is that, because the scaffold was a major source of cadavers for anatomical research, Nellie and Jeannie got to meet the medical men once more - after they were hanged on 18th March 1751!
Many thanks to Chris Leslie of Fairport Convention and Dan García for adding to the drama of this shocking true story.

Nellie Torrence and Jeannie Waldie
Music: na-mara, Lyrics: P. McNamara

Nellie Torrence and Jeannie Waldie, looked o’er the stricken child
And a thought came to those nurses’ heads, on a night both wet and wild
That when the wee lad faded and his heart did beat no more
They’d sell his body to the medical men, as many had done before


Fear did stalk the nation, the living and the dead
To play a part in the medicine show, many did live in dread
Many were the hardships in a world so full of strife
To live in fear, as your end drew near, of the cut of the surgeon’s knife

And so, the deal was struck, with a porter at the door,
Home contented they did ride, to watch the boy give o’er
And as they thought on money and things that it might buy
They watched in shock as the boy revived, clear that he would not die


And cruel was the plan that came to those nurses then
They’d rob another wee lad o’ his life and render him instead
They poured Mrs Dallas a whisky, and then they poured some more
While Jeannie took her wee Johnnie home, and smothered him on the floor


For a pittance they sold young Johnnie, to lie on a surgeon’s stall
While his mother awoke from a drunken sleep, and rose with a mournful call
“Oh where’s my darling Johnnie, the apple of my eye?
Oh, where’s my darlin’ wee Johnnie lad?” and the crowd searched low and high.


In the quiet of the theatre, where the surgeons’ knives cut clear
News came through of the missing boy and the nurses’ crime was clear
And panic it spread amongst them and, though with sutures lined,
They stitched young Johnnie and laid him to rest, in the shadows of Liberton’s Wynd


And soon were those nurses taken, and soon those nurses tried,
And soon it was those nurses were hanged, to pay for the boy that died
And in a short while after, where Johnnie had gone before,
Nellie Torrence and Jeannie Waldie ..........they met the medical men once more!


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