Fresh corpses were hot commodities in 19th century Great Britain. With advancements in modern medicine came an increased demand for cadavers to be used in research and human anatomy classes. But Britain’s primary corpse supply—the bodies of executed criminals—was drying up as the region reduced its number of executions.
What was an anatomist to do?
Many turned to “resurrection men,” body snatchers who stole freshly buried or as-yet-unburied corpses from local cemeteries and sold them to anatomy schools. Since body snatching was a crime, doctors often turned a blind eye toward the source of their corpses. The high demands of the body trade even led some suppliers to commit murder in the name of filling an anatomist’s table—and lining their pockets.
Enter William Burke and William Hare of Edinburgh, Scotland. With the help of Hare’s wife Margaret and Burke’s mistress Helen McDougal, the pair killed sixteen people in 1828 and sold the corpses to one Dr. Robert Knox, a lecturer of anatomy who promised a “full Demonstration on Anatomical Subjects” at every lesson.
The first body that Burke and Hare sold to the doctor was a tenant of Mrs. Hare’s lodging house who had died while still owing rent. To recoup their losses, Burke and Hare filled the man’s coffin with bark and took his body to Edinburgh University. According to Burke’s testimony, they asked to see Professor Munro, but were directed instead to Surgeon’s Square, where they met Dr. Knox. The not-so-good doctor happily paid to take the body off their hands, no questions asked.
Sensing an opportunity, Burke and Hare set out to find more bodies. Eventually, they turned to killing. Most of their victims were female lodgers or guests at Mrs. Hare’s lodging house. Others were acquaintances of the pair, or people who lived on the street.
The majority of their victims were plied with alcohol before being smothered to death. One chilling slaying, however, involved Burke murdering a twelve-year-old boy—the mute grandson of an old woman who had died of an overdose—by breaking his back. The bodies were then loaded into tea chests or herring barrels for transportation to the anatomy theaters of Dr. Knox.
Their second-to-last victim was a developmentally disabled young man named James Wilson, or “Daft Jamie” as he was known in the community. Dr. Knox paid for the corpse as he would any other. But when he pulled back the sheet from the cadaver the following morning, several of his students recognized the face as Wilson’s. Knox reportedly denied that the body could belong to the now-missing young man and quickly covered him up. He then dissected the corpse ahead of schedule, rendering the remains unidentifiable.
The pair’s final victim was a woman named Mary Docherty, whom Burke lured into the lodging house and killed. The house wasn’t empty, however. When two other guests named James and Ann Gray examined a bed in the house the following evening, they discovered Docherty’s body stuffed underneath. The horrified couple alerted the police who raided the address.
Soon after Burke and Hare were caught, Hare was given the opportunity to testify against his partner in exchange for immunity. By then, news of the deadly duo had spread; Hare’s immunity didn’t sit well with the public. Ultimately, Hare had to be rescued from angry mobs by the police, who spirited him to safety using decoy coaches and disguises. Hare’s wife Margaret, Burke’s mistress Helen, and Dr. Knox felt the approbation of the mob as well. All were placed under police protection during the trial, with Hare, his wife, and Burke’s mistress eventually fleeing Edinburgh altogether. While rumors swirled as to their whereabouts—one particularly vengeful tale had Hare being blinded by a mob and dying as a beggar in London—their fates remain unknown.
Burke’s trial commenced on Christmas Eve, 1828. It lasted 24 hours; Burke was found guilty and condemned to die. On January 28, 1829, he was hanged before a crowd of more than 20,000 people. The next day, his body was publicly dissected in the same anatomy theatre that he had helped supply with fresh corpses. So many people tried to attend the dissection that a riot ensued. Eventually, the university arranged to admit spectators in groups of 50 at a time.
As part of the dissection, Professor Munro, who had himself escaped an association with the killers by chance, dipped a quill pen into Burke’s blood. He wrote, “This is written in the blood of Wm Burke, who was hanged at Edinburgh. This blood was taken from his head.”
Burke’s skeleton remains on display at the Anatomy Museum of the Edinburgh Medical School, while his death mask and a book supposedly bound in his flesh are on display at the Surgeons’ Hall Museum. Following his death and dissection, people on the streets of Edinburgh sold wallets that they claimed were made from his skin.
Burke also left a mark on language, in the form of the now-archaic word “burking.” Fittingly, the term means to kill by suffocation with intent to sell the remains.
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