Burke and Hare murders | legacy



Calling-card case made of Burke's skin

The question of the supply of cadavers for scientific research had been promoted by the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham before the crimes of Burke and Hare took place.[u] A parliamentary select committee had drafted a "Bill for preventing the unlawful disinterment of human bodies, and for regulating Schools of Anatomy" in mid 1828—six months before the murders were detected. This was rejected in 1829 by the House of Lords.[4][144]

The murders committed by Burke and Hare raised public awareness of the need for bodies for medical purposes, and of the trade that doctors had conducted with grave robbers and murderers. The East London murder of a 14-year-old boy and the subsequent attempt to sell the corpse to the medical school at King's College London led to an investigation of the London Burkers, who had recently turned from grave robbing to murder to obtain corpses; two men were hanged in December 1831 for the crime. A bill was quickly introduced into Parliament, and gained royal assent nine months later to become the Anatomy Act 1832.[4][145] This Act authorised dissection on bodies from workhouses unclaimed after 48 hours, and ended the practice of anatomising as part of the death sentence for murder.[4][146]

In media portrayals and popular culture

The events of the West Port murders have made appearances in fiction. They are referred to in Robert Louis Stevenson's 1884 short story, "The Body Snatcher", and Marcel Schwob told their story in the last chapter of Imaginary Lives (1896),[147] while the Edinburgh-based author Elizabeth Byrd used the events in her novels Rest Without Peace (1974) and The Search for Maggie Hare (1976).[148] The murders have also been portrayed on stage and screen, usually in heavily fictionalised form.[149][v]

David Paterson, Knox's assistant, contacted Walter Scott to ask the novelist if he would be interested in writing an account of the murders, but he declined, despite Scott's long-standing interest in the events.[159] Scott later wrote:

Our Irish importation have made a great discovery of Oeconomicks, namely, that a wretch who is not worth a farthing while alive, becomes a valuable article when knockd on the head & carried to an anatomist; and acting on this principle, have cleard the streets of some of those miserable offcasts of society, whom nobody missd because nobody wishd to see them again.[160]

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