The Burke and Hare Murders-A Tale of Greed and Evil

Greetings, friends. I hope this day finds you all well.

In my recent post about Boleskine Cemetery, I told you about the mort house located within the graveyard. You may recall that mort houses were used to store the bodies of the deceased, under guard, until they were no longer a valuable commodity to body snatchers (i.e., decayed). Gross, I know. But as crazy as it sounds, body snatching was at one time a real problem!

“Why?” you wonder. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, medical and anatomical schools faced restrictions as to how they could legally obtain cadavers for dissection (for example, they could have the remains of the executed or those who had committed suicide). The resulting shortage of bodies gave rise to a rash of grave robbing by men who became known as ‘resurrectionists.’ These ‘resurrection men’ as they were also known, discovered they could make a buck or two by selling the stolen corpses to medical schools that were all too eager to receive them.

If that wasn’t unscrupulous enough, some were even worse than the grave robbers.

Case in point: enter one William Burke…

An artist's drawing of William Burke.
William Burke-portrait by George Andrew Lutenor; Public Domain

and one William Hare, two of the nastiest so-and-so’s you could ever meet.

An artist's drawing of William Hare.
William Hare-portrait by George Andrew Lutenor; Public Domain

Both men hailed from Northern Ireland (born in the late 1700s) but, by mere coincidence, found themselves living on the same street in Edinburgh, Scotland. It is there that Burke lived with his mistress Helen McDougal, and where Hare ran a boarding house with his girlfriend, Margaret Laird. The two men, who had so much in common, became friends. Unfortunately, that friendship would take them to some very dark places.

In late 1827, one of Hare’s lodgers passed away. Frustrated that the fellow still owed £4 on his rent, Burke and Hare devised a plan to recoup the loss by selling the body to local anatomists. They transported the corpse to the medical school at The University of Edinburgh, where they were directed to Professor Robert Knox, an anatomy lecturer. Knox paid the duo a handsome sum for the deceased body. And so it began…

An artist's drawing of Robert Knox.
Professor Robert Knox-artist unknown; Public Domain

Motivated by money, greed, and what had to be sheer evil, the duo went even further the next time. In early 1828, another of Hare’s tenants became ill. In a bold move, they intoxicated the man before physically restraining and suffocating him. Their method of killing – suffocation involving the mouth and the nose – eventually became known as “Burking.” Burke and Hare continued their murderous spree for the rest of the year, always plying their victims with alcohol and then suffocating them. In total, sixteen people fell victim to this savage duo.

Up the close and down the stair,

But and ben’ wi’ Burke and Hare.

Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief,

Knox the boy that buys the beef.

-19th century rhyme

The pair committed their last murder on Halloween in 1828. A woman named Marjorie Docherty, who had been invited to lodge at Burke’s. Following her death, her body was found by two other lodgers, Ann and James Gray, who reported the discovery to the police. However, by the time law enforcement arrived, Marjorie’s body had already been hauled off to Knox.

Burke, Hare, Helen, and Margaret were subsequently arrested and charged with murder, while Robert Knox was investigated for his part in the drama. The case went to trial on Christmas Eve in 1828 before the High Court of Justiciary in Edinburgh’s Parliament House. In the end…

Professor Robert Knox was cleared of wrongdoing for lack of hard evidence (although his reputation and career were sullied).

The two women were released. Margaret fled to Ireland, but no clear accounts are given for what became of Helen.

Though charged with murder and making a full confession, William Hare was released for testifying against Burke and turning king’s evidence. Though no one really knows what became of him, rumor has it that he escaped to England and lived out his days as a beggar.

William Burke was charged with murder and hanged in front of a massive, cheering crowd in Edinburgh.

In perhaps the greatest bit of irony to this whole sordid tale, today William Burke’s smiling skeleton (no, really, it looks like it’s smiling) is on display at the Anatomical Museum at The University of Edinburgh. A book, bound in his skin, is on display at The Surgeons’ Hall Museums in Edinburgh. Ick.

The Anatomy Act of 1832

“The combination of body snatchings, murder, and resurrection riots led to the enactment of the Anatomy Act in Britain in 1832 and similar acts in U.S. states in subsequent years. These acts, which were amended and refined over the years, recognized the need for bodies for medical education and research and sought to control snatching by making more bodies available—at first by allowing medical schools to take unclaimed bodies of the poor and ill and later requiring family permission before a body could be taken. Although these laws had some effect by making more bodies available, it was really embalming, which was in regular use by the 1880s and which enabled medical schools to keep bodies for months, that led to the demise of body snatching.”  –Encyclopedia Britannica

What a crazy tale, isn’t it? It’s difficult to understand the evil that pervades some human hearts.

Anyway, I do hope you enjoyed today’s post, and I wish each of you a fantastic week ahead. Halloween is this week. Stay safe, everyone. xo