Burke and Hare murders

William Burke and William Hare, pictured at Burke's trial

The Burke and Hare murders were a series of 16 killings committed over a period of about ten months in 1828 in Edinburgh, Scotland. They were undertaken by William Burke and William Hare, who sold the corpses to Robert Knox for dissection at his anatomy lectures.

Edinburgh was a leading European centre of anatomical study in the early 19th century, in a time when the demand for cadavers led to a shortfall in legal supply. Scottish law required that corpses used for medical research should only come from those who had died in prison, suicide victims, or from foundlings and orphans. The shortage of corpses led to an increase in body snatching by what were known as "resurrection men". Measures to ensure graves were left undisturbed exacerbated the shortage. When a lodger in Hare's house died, Hare turned to his friend Burke for advice and they decided to sell the body to Knox. They received what was, for them, the generous sum of £7 10s. A little over two months later, when Hare was concerned that a lodger suffering from fever would deter others from staying in the house, he and Burke murdered her and sold the body to Knox. The men continued their murder spree, probably with the knowledge of their wives. Burke and Hare's actions were uncovered after other lodgers discovered their last victim, Margaret Docherty, and contacted the police.

A forensic examination of Docherty's body indicated she had probably been suffocated, but this could not be proven. Although the police suspected Burke and Hare of other murders, there was no evidence on which they could take action. An offer was put to Hare granting immunity from prosecution if he turned king's evidence. He provided the details of Docherty's murder and confessed to all 16 deaths; formal charges were made against Burke and his wife for three murders. At the subsequent trial Burke was found guilty of one murder and sentenced to death. The case against his wife was found not proven—a Scottish legal verdict to acquit an individual but not declare them innocent. Burke was hanged shortly afterwards; his corpse was dissected and his skeleton displayed at the Anatomical Museum of Edinburgh Medical School where, as at 2018, it remains.

The murders raised public awareness of the need for bodies for medical research and contributed to the passing of the Anatomy Act 1832. The events have made appearances in literature, and been portrayed on screen, either in heavily fictionalised accounts or as the inspiration for fictional works.


Anatomy in 19th-century Edinburgh

Two techniques to deter grave robbers
Graveyard watchtower, built in Dalkeith in 1827

In the early 19th century Edinburgh had several pioneering anatomy teachers, including Alexander Monro, his son who was also called Alexander, John Bell, John Goodsir and Robert Knox, all of whom developed the subject into a modern science.[1] Because of their efforts, Edinburgh became one of the leading European centres of anatomical study, alongside Leiden in the Netherlands and the Italian city of Padua.[2] The teaching of anatomy—crucial in the study of surgery—required a sufficient supply of cadavers, the demand for which increased as the science developed.[3] Scottish law determined that suitable corpses on which to undertake the dissections were those who died in prison, suicide victims, and the bodies of foundlings and orphans.[4] With the rise in prestige and popularity of medical training in Edinburgh, the legal supply of corpses failed to keep pace with the demand; students, lecturers and grave robbers—also known as resurrection men—began an illicit trade in exhumed cadavers.[5][6]

The situation was confused by the legal position. Disturbing a grave was a criminal offence, as was the taking of property from the deceased. Stealing the body was not an offence, as it did not legally belong to anyone.[7][8] The price per corpse changed depending on the season. It was £8 during the summer, when the warmer temperatures brought on quicker decomposition, and £10 in the winter months, when the demand by anatomists was greater, because the colder temperatures meant they could store corpses longer so they undertook more dissections.[9]

By the 1820s the residents of Edinburgh had taken to the streets to protest at the increase in grave robbing.[10] To avoid corpses being disinterred, bereaved families used several techniques in order to deter the thieves: guards were hired to watch the graves, and watchtowers were built in several cemeteries; some families hired a large stone slab that could be placed over a grave for a short period—until the body had begun to decay past the point of being useful for an anatomist. Other families used a mortsafe, an iron cage that surrounded the coffin.[11] The high levels of vigilance from the public, and the techniques used to deter the grave robbers, led to what the historian Ruth Richardson describes as "a growing atmosphere of crisis" among anatomists because of the shortage of corpses.[12] The historian Tim Marshall considers the situation meant "Burke and Hare took graverobbing to its logical conclusion: instead of digging up the dead, they accepted lucrative incentives to destroy the living".[13]

Dr Robert Knox

Knox was an anatomist who had qualified as a doctor in 1814. After contracting smallpox as a child, he was blind in one eye and badly disfigured.[14] He undertook service as an army physician at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, followed by a posting in England and then, during the Cape Frontier War (1819), in southern Africa. He eventually settled in his home town of Edinburgh in 1820. In 1825 he became a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, where he lectured on anatomy. He undertook dissections twice a day, and his advertising promised "a full demonstration on fresh anatomical subjects" as part of every course of lectures he delivered;[15] he stated that his lessons drew over 400 pupils.[16] Clare Taylor, his biographer in the Dictionary of National Biography, observes that he "built up a formidable reputation as a teacher and lecturer and almost single-handedly raised the profile of the study of anatomy in Britain".[14] Another biographer, Isobel Rae, considers that without Knox, the study of anatomy in Britain "might not have progressed as it did".[17]

William Burke and William Hare

Facial reconstruction of William Burke
Facial reconstruction of William Burke

William Burke was born in 1792 in Urney, County Tyrone, Ireland, one of two sons to middle-class parents.[18] Burke, along with his brother, Constantine, had a comfortable upbringing, and both joined the army as teenagers. Burke served in the Donegal militia until he met and married a woman from County Mayo, where they later settled. The marriage was short-lived; in 1818, after an argument with his father-in-law over land ownership, Burke deserted his wife and family. He moved to Scotland and became a labourer, working on the Union Canal.[19] He settled in the small village of Maddiston near Falkirk, and set up home with Helen McDougal, whom he affectionately nicknamed Nelly; she became his second wife.[20] After a few years, and when the works on the canal were finished, the couple moved to Tanners Close, Edinburgh, in November 1827.[21] They became hawkers, selling second-hand clothes to impoverished locals. Burke then became a cobbler, a trade in which he experienced some success, earning upwards of £1 a week. He became known locally as an industrious and good-humoured man who often entertained his clients by singing and dancing to them on their doorsteps while plying his trade. Although raised as a Roman Catholic, Burke became a regular worshipper at Presbyterian religious meetings held in the Grassmarket; he was seldom seen without a bible.[20]

Death mask of Burke (left) and life mask of Hare (right)

William Hare was probably born in County Armagh, County Londonderry or in Newry. His age and year of birth are unknown; when arrested in 1828 he gave his age as 21, but one source states that he was born between 1792 and 1804.[18][22] Information on his earlier life is scant, although it is possible that he worked in Ireland as an agricultural labourer before travelling to Britain. He worked on the Union Canal for seven years before moving to Edinburgh in the mid-1820s, where he worked as a coal man's assistant.[18][22] He lodged at Tanner's Close, in the house of a man named Logue and his wife, Margaret Laird, in the nearby West Port area of the town. When Logue died in 1826, Hare may have married Margaret.[a] Based on contemporary accounts, Brian Bailey in his history of the murders describes Hare as "illiterate and uncouth—a lean, quarrelsome, violent and amoral character with the scars from old wounds about his head and brow".[2] Bailey describes Margaret, who was also an Irish immigrant, as a "hard-featured and debauched virago".[23]

In 1827 Burke and McDougal went to Penicuik in Midlothian to work on the harvest, where they met Hare. The men became friends; when Burke and McDougal returned to Edinburgh, they moved into Hare's Tanner's Close lodging house, where the two couples soon acquired a reputation for hard drinking and boisterous behaviour.[18]