Burke and Hare

When demand outstrips supply of any commodity the price of the item sought will rise and those who can see their way to meet the demand will become rich.

Conscience can stand in the way or stand aside but in the instance of two men called William Burke and William Hare it was never an issue. Burke had already abandoned his wife and children in Ireland.

The commodity in short supply was cadavers. The bodies of dead criminals, executed for their sins, were not so plentiful after the number of crimes punishable by death was greatly reduced. This meant medical schools were prepared to pay generously for bodies to be used for dissection. The nearer to departing this life they had been the better. This led to graves being robbed. Relatives of the deceased who could afford them began paying for more elaborate tombs so that their loved ones could not be disturbed. Watch towers were even installed in graveyards.

Burke and Hare

The elaborate graves to stop thieves in Greyfriars Churchyard 

Burke and Hare came up with the perfect solution to save them the time and bother of digging up the bodies. They would merely supply a fresh victim to the schools shortly after they had committed their murder.

Both men originated from Ulster, but moved to Scotland to work on The Union Canal. They became friends and lived with their mistresses in Edinburgh. When a tenant of Margaret Laird and William Hare’s died in their Log’s Lodgings in Tanner Close in 1827 they buried a coffin weighed down with tanning bark and sold his body to Professor Robert Knox who taught anatomy. They were paid nearly double what the man had owed them in life.

Another tenant became ill, so they saw their way to greater profit by ending his suffering prematurely.

Burke and Hare

Edinburgh Castle

Between 1827-28 they plied their victims with drink and then suffocated them, leaving bodies that were unmarked for the surgeons to dissect. The method became known as ‘Burking’. They preyed on the poor and became rich killing around sixteen (the figure could be many more) and receiving between 7-10 pounds clear profit for each cadaver supplied. They were heartless and ruthless, but they became greedy. When they picked on prostitutes their students recognised a few of the dead women. Then a well known entertainer was brought in for dissection and was recognised. However, his identity was denied by Knox.

When a couple lodging with them found the body of Marjory Doherty in the next room they reported it to the police. All were arrested, all blamed the other. Burke was sentenced to hang at Lawnmarket on 28th January 1829. Ironically his body was donated to medical science.

Burke and Hare

The notebook

It is claimed that anatomy students used some of his skin to bind books. One such is held is at the Royal College of Surgeons, whilst his skeleton is still on display in the Surgeon’s Hall.

Hare surprisingly escaped the hangman’s noose by turning King’s Evidence and testified against Burke. He was released and fled Scotland. One claim is that an angry mob blinded him as they threw him into a lime quarry and that he died a beggar in London. Knox also left for London as, although he was not convicted, his reputation in Edinburgh had been badly affected. It is thought their mistresses fled the country also.

When the problem of the ‘London Burkers’ (and resurrectionists) of 1831 flared up an Anatomy Act was passed in 1832 allowing the medical world greater access to cadavers and also giving the right to a person to leave their own body to medical science.

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