Burke and Hare

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Burke and Hare These men are universally believed to have been body snatchers, but in fact they made a good living in the 1820s supplying an Edinburgh anatomy school with dead bodies obtained by murder.

William Burke and William Hare never were grave-robbers. They are reputed to have hit upon their calling by accident: an old man died owing rent in Mrs Hare's cheap lodging house, and the men decided to recoup the money by selling the corpse. They were welcomed at Dr Knox's anatomy school, and the £7.10s they were paid amply covered the debt. Burke later confessed that ‘that was the only subject they sold that they did not murder, and getting that high price made them try the murdering of subjects.’ Soon afterwards, when another lodger fell ill, they helped him on his way with whisky, and smothered him. This first successful murder probably took place in December 1827, and Burke and Hare were paid £10 for the body. The deaths of a further fifteen individuals — twelve women, two handicapped youths, and an old man — followed.

Tales had been circulating prior to the discovery of real events, that children were being stolen and killed for dissection. Such stories had long roots in old tales of abduction of children by gypsies or slavers, but they had a ring of modernity about them too — the corpses were said to be transported to their destinations by the new steamships then being introduced on British sea routes. Medical men may have dismissed these tales as the far-fetched imaginings of popular fantasy, but some of the more reflective individuals among them recognized the possibility that the tales might have some basis. The philosopher Jeremy Bentham — who through his anatomist friend, Dr Thomas Southwood Smith, had inside knowledge of the London anatomy world — had mentioned the dangerous likelihood of murder to the Home Secretary Robert Peel in private correspondence in 1826. In the summer of 1828, while the murders were being committed in Edinburgh, the Select Committee on Anatomy received clear warnings that the high prices then being offered for corpses constituted an incentive to murder. The accuracy of the warnings was proven that autumn.

The murders were discovered not by Dr Knox or the other expert anatomists at his school, but by some of Burke's guests after a party celebrating Halloween in 1828, who became suspicious at the disappearance of an old lady who had been very merry the night before. They discovered her corpse — stripped and ready for packing — in Burke's bedstraw. Mary Docherty had come to Edinburgh from Donegal in search of a long-lost son. She had chanced to beg at a gin-shop where Burke had befriended her. Like all the other victims, she was poor, hungry, and alone. Street folk were not missed immediately as more settled people would have been, and dissection ensured disposal of the evidence.

The mode of death was designed to leave no marks. Since only this last body was available to the authorities nothing could have been proven, despite strong suspicion, had not Hare agreed to give evidence for the prosecution in return for legal immunity. His confederate was hanged on January 28th 1829, an event celebrated with carnival by the Edinburgh populace. His corpse, appropriately enough, was delivered up for public dissection at Surgeons' Hall. Hare left the city incognito, and his fate is unknown.

Burke's execution was witnessed by the novelist Sir Walter Scott, who sympathized with the general opinion that both men's wives had served as accomplices, and that the anatomists had been accessories to the murders. Burke's confessions were published after the execution, and they suggest that this view of the anatomists may not have been altogether misplaced. Burke and Hare were commended by Knox himself on the freshness of a corpse; they were never asked any questions about the derivation of the bodies they delivered to the school, were paid immediately, and were always urged to get more.

A pamphlet, later attributed to a doorkeeper at Knox's school, implicated both the anatomist and his staff in the crimes. According to this witness more than one of the bodies had blood at the mouth, nose, or ears. In at least one instance — that of a well-known Edinburgh beggar, Daft Jamie — identifying features were deliberately obliterated in the dissection room: when it became known that he was missing from the streets, his head and distinctive club feet were severed from his body and dissection was hastened.

Dr Knox was never charged with any crime, nor was he called to give evidence at the trial. He remained silent throughout the furore over the murders. He was burnt in effigy in the streets, ostracized by Edinburgh's medical community, and eventually left the city. He seems to have believed that murder could have been uncovered at any anatomy school, and the fact that it had happened to be his school was simply bad luck. Whether this belief had any objective basis will probably never be known.

The Burke and Hare murders are critically significant to the history of anatomy in Britain. They represent the apotheosis of the market in human flesh. The murders reveal that by the late 1820s, the poor were worth more dead than alive. A further 60 murders (by the ‘London Burkers’ Bishop and Williams, in 1831) occurred before the Anatomy Act of 1832 provided the anatomists with a free supply of corpses requisitioned from Poor Law workhouses.

Ruth Richardson


Richardson, R. (1989). Death, dissection and the destitute. Penguin, London.

See also anatomy; body snatchers; dissection.
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Burke and Hare. Edinburgh's reputation for medical excellence was jeopardized in the 1820s by growing public vigilance against grave-robbing for dissection purposes. Rather than turn resurrectionists, Burke and Hare smothered a sick lodger and sold his body, before murdering a further fifteen vagrants and street folk in 1827–8 for similar gain; encouraged by the easy money forthcoming, they were helped by the anatomist Dr Knox's lack of suspicion at the freshness of the corpses. After the discovery of a body in Burke's bed-straw, Hare turned king's evidence, Knox remained silent, and Burke was hanged and publicly dissected. Their activities hastened the Anatomy Act (1832).

A. S. Hargreaves