Fresh corpses were hot commodities in 19th century Scotland. With advancements in modern medicine came increased demand for cadavers in research and human anatomy classes, especially in Edinburgh, where several pioneering anatomists resided. However, the medical profession found itself facing a cadaver shortage—the only bodies legally approved for dissection were those of criminals, suicide victims, and unclaimed orphans.
With Scotland’s legally available corpse supply drying up, what was an anatomist to do? Well, some sourced their cadavers from grave-robbers. Others turned a blind eye to an even more enterprising solution: murder. Enter notorious killers Burke and Hare, who were happy to be of service.
In that era, the body snatchers who stole freshly buried or as-yet-unburied corpses from local cemeteries and sold them to anatomy schools were known as resurrection men. Although resurrection men enjoyed a brief period of prosperity, the public soon caught on. To prevent a loved one’s body from being disturbed, families enacted a number of measures: hiring guards to patrol cemeteries, erecting watchtowers, and constructing mortsafes, which were basically iron cages covering grave plots.
But doctors still needed to fill their anatomy tables, and they were willing to pay top dollar for fresh cadavers. One such doctor was Robert Knox, a lecturer of anatomy who promised a “full Demonstration on Anatomical Subjects” at every lesson. William Burke and William Hare sold him 16 corpses over a 10-month period in 1828. Since body snatching was a crime regardless of the body's origins, doctors tended not to bother inquiring about the source of their supply. If he had, Dr. Knox would have realized a chilling truth—with the help of Hare’s wife Margaret and Burke’s mistress Helen McDougal, the pair were murdering people to line their own pockets.
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.
The first real victim of the men was a feverish lodger named Joseph. Hare feared that having a sick person in the house would drive business away. Their twisted solution was to kill off the unsuspecting lodger and sell his corpse to Dr. Knox. Thus began the pair’s murder spree, as they realized the prosperous opportunity they had on their hands.
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Excited by the prospect of fattening their wallets, Burke and Hare set out to find more bodies to render lifeless. 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.
Burke and Hare settled on a method for disposing of their victims: The majority of them were plied with alcohol before being smothered to death. One chilling slaying, however, involved Burke murdering a 12-year-old boy—the mute grandson of an old woman whom they also killed—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 dissected the corpse ahead of schedule. By removing the young man’s head and distinctive feet, which were deformed and caused him to walk with a recognizable limp, Dr. Knox rendered 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. Although Burke and Hare had moved the body by that point, the police found bloodstained clothing in the house and were suspicious of the conflicting stories they heard from the house’s occupants. The next day, police found Docherty’s body at Knox’s dissecting rooms.
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 and Burke’s mistress Helen felt the approbation of the mob as well. They 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 claimed that Hare was blinded by a mob and died as a beggar in London—their fates remain unknown.
Though Dr. Knox was never tried for his involvement, his career was irreparably damaged. He was pressured to resign from his role as curator of the College of Surgeons’ museum, and eventually left the country altogether, moving to London to live out the rest of his days quietly.
Burke’s trial commenced on Christmas Eve, 1828. He was being prosecuted for three of the 16 murders. The trial lasted 24 hours; Burke was found guilty of one murder 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.” Following his death and dissection, people on the streets of Edinburgh sold wallets that they claimed were made from his skin.
Burke’s legacy 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. The misdeeds of Burke and Hare also inspired copycat crimes—the London Burkers murdered people under similar circumstances, modelling their acts after the notorious killers from Edinburgh.
The significant backlash of the highly publicized case of Burke and Hare directly led to the passage of the Anatomy Act of 1832. This law increased the medical community’s access to cadavers by allowing them to dissect donated and unclaimed bodies. It also regulated the practice by requiring anatomists to obtain a license and employing government inspectors to ensure that dissections were performed legally.
Upon delivering the death penalty to Burke, the judge presiding over the case told him, “Your body should be publicly dissected and anatomized. And I trust, that if it is ever customary to preserve skeletons, yours will be preserved, in order that posterity may keep in remembrance your atrocious crimes.”
His prediction proved accurate. Today, Burke’s skeleton remains on display at the University of Edinburgh’s Anatomy Museum, alongside his death mask, a plaster cast taken of his face following the execution.
Featured photo of William Burke and William Hare: Hulton Archive / Getty Images