Before the advent of our more enlightened attitudes towards medical research, it was impossible for doctors to acquire, by legal means, corpses for dissection, this practice being prohibited by laws emanating from the strictures of the Church. If a doctor needed a corpse, a commodity which, after all, might well be considered essential to his research, then he was forced to go outside the law. In the Midlands of England, the robbing of new graves was commonplace; in a coastal town, the opportunity to obtain a recently deceased, unburied cadaver must have been a well-nigh irresistable temptation to a medical man.
The song itself is a rare one, and as far as we can determine has been collected in the field only four times, though it does appear on an Irish broadside in Cecil Sharp House (the headquarters of the English Folk Dance and Song Society). Three of the four oral versions are Canadian, collected by Edith Fowke, Helen Creighton and in Newfoundland by Kenneth Peacock, in whose book ('Songs of the Newfoundland Outports', Ottawa: Queen's Printer, 1965) we first came across it. The version presented here is essentially Peacock's, although some of the text has been collated with the Pennsylvania variant collected by Ellen Steckert, and since printed in Goldstein, Kenneth S. and Byington, Robert H. (eds.): 'Two Penny Ballads and Four Dollar Whiskey: A Pennsylvania Folklore Miscellany', Hatboro, Penn.: Folklore Associates, 1966.
A story I'll tell you, it happened last evening,
Of an eminent doctor that lived in Cork town,
By seamen so bold he was fairly outwitted,
And fifty bright guineas he had to lay down.
Three jolly Jack Tars and their messmates, being groggy,
Their money all spent, and their credit far gone,
From Patrick Street to the quayside they rambled,
They was bent to procure it, their money for fun.
Now the cook of the ship, being one of the party,
A smart lad he was and his color was black,
With wit and contrivements he always was ready
And soon found the way to get cash in a crack.
Said he to his messmates: I've heard people talking,
A corpse can be sold very readily here,
So take me alive, wrap me up in your hammock,
And sell me to buy all your whiskey and beer.
The sailors agreed, and accepted the offer,
And away to the house where the doctor did dwell,
And into his ears they boldly did whisper,
Saying: Doctor, we've got a fine corpse here to sell.
A corpse! said the doctor, like a man in amazement,
Oh where did you get it? Come tell me, I pray.
If you'll bring it here I will buy it quite ready
And fifty bright guineas to you I will pay.
Well the sailors agreed, and accepted the offer,
And it's back to the ship, oh, they quickly did steer.
Come listen awhile, and pay great attention,
And the rest of the story you quickly shall hear.
They took the black cook, tied him up in his hammock,
But he being a lad both sturdy and strong,
It's under his waistcoat, by way of protection,
He carried a blade about half a yard long.
It's round about midnight, the streets were deserted,
The sailors set out with the cook on their back,
And into the house, oh, they boldly did enter,
And in the back room they concealed the poor black.
The doctor soon paid the bold seamen their money,
They told him: The cook, he had died on the sea,
And rather than have his dead body to bury
We've sold him to you, sir, now he's out of our way.
Well, the doctor soon went for some knives to dissect him,
And then came downstairs with the tools in his hand,
When he came to the room where the corpse had been lying
The black stood before him with his cutlass in hand.
The doctor cried out, like one in amazement,
A-thinking the corpse was in very rich prime,
With a voice loud as thunder the black he approached him,
Crying: Damn your eyes, doctor, I'll dissect you alive!
Well, the doctor was forced to retreat in a hurry,
And of his late bargain was soon to lament,
And Jack hurried off to where his comrades were drinking,
And the rest of that evening was merrily spent.