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1792 - 1836

The outbreak of the Black Plague in the 14th Century, showed scientists how little they new about the human body, and how to cure illness.

This forced scientists to rethink their scholastic discipline. By the 16th Century, people were cutting into dead bodies to see how they might deal with live ones, but dissection alone wasn't enough. They had to retain what those dissected bodies had shown, so art joined medicine. Although not the first of these artists, Leonardo da Vinci became the most famous for recording his own dissections.

After dissection became accepted as standard medicine practice, the demand for corpses grew. By the 18th Century, every medical student performed dissections as part of their course. As governments around the world only allowed bodies of executed criminals to be used for dissecting, there were not enough bodies to fill demand, this seeing the act of grave robbing grow out of control.

Grave yards in many countries by then, had to be surrounded with high walls and be continually guarded. People with enough money, would even have high spiked railings erected around the grave, or heavy stone slabs put on top, not for show, but to keep out grave robbers. Even with these security measures in place, many bodies would be dug up in the middle of the night, some covered over again so no one would notice, or if disturbed by the watchmen, the grave would be left open.

In the early 1800s, the classes of surgeon anatomist, Robert Knox in Edinburgh, had become particularly popular, as he seemed to have an endless supply of bodies.

William Burke and William Hare were born in Ireland. Both had moved to Edinburgh in about 1818 to seek work on the Edinburgh Union Canal, Burke having left his wife and child in Ireland.

After the completion of the canal in 1822, both decided to stay in Edinburgh. Burke had met a woman named Helen MacDougal and began working as a shoemaker.

Hare became friendly with a lady named Margaret Log, or Logue, who with her husband, owned a lodging house in Tanners Close.

After the death of the husband, Hare married Margaret Log, this seeing him take over the lodging house.

William Burke image

William Burke

At that time, even though both had worked on the canal, Burke and Hare had never met. A chance meeting with Helen MacDougal and Margaret Log, in November 1827, ended with Burke and MacDougal moving into the lodging house.

An old soldier by the name of Donald, who had been staying at the lodging house for some time, died unexpectedly. Hare was upset, as the old man owed him rent.

Burke and Hare would no doubt have been well aware, newly buried bodies were being dug up in Edinburgh churchyards to be sold to Dr Knox at the College of Surgeons.

Soon after the coffin arrived for the old man, and his body put inside, Burke and Hare reopened the coffin, took out the body, filled it with bark from the local tannery, then placed old Donald in a sack. They then proceeded to the College of Surgeons where they were paid £7 by Dr Knox for the body. Burke and Hare were then bid farewell and told they would be more than welcome when they had other bodies to dispose of.

William Hare image

William Hare

After realizing how easy it was to make money by supplying bodies to the college, Burke and Hare began discussing the best way to get their hands on more bodies. They must have found grave robbing too risky, as by that time, there were night watchmen at most grave yards, also, it was hard dirty work.

It is unclear if they ever dug up any newly buried bodies from Edinburgh grave yards. The way they were known to get bodies, was to entice down and outs, prostitutes, or people with mental disabilities into the lodging house then ply them with alcohol. Once under the influence of alcohol, Burke and Hare would suffocate the victims.

The pair killed at least 16 people that way, with 15 of them being sold to Dr Knox. On at least two occasions, Dr Knox had to think fast on his feet and diffuse situations with lies after students thought they recognized the corpses, people that should still be alive.

Burke and Hare's luck ran out when a friend of Burke, by the name of James Gray, and his family, were staying at the lodgings. After Mrs. Gray stumbled upon the body of their last victim, hidden under a bed, she reported the murder to the police.

Burke and Helen were taken to the police station to be interviewed. The Hare's were also arrested soon after with the four being questioned over the next month. As the police came to the conclusion they hadn't enough evidence to convict the four of them, they offered the Hare's the chance to turn King’s evidence, to avoid execution.

On Christmas Eve, the trial began with both of the Hare's, along with other witnesses testifying against the Burke's. The jury took just 50 minutes to reach a verdict of guilty for William Burke, and not proven in the case of Helen MacDougal.

On January 28th 1829, before a crowd of 25,000 people, William Burke was hanged. His body was then put on public display. This attracted enormous crowds, with people queuing all day to get a glimpse of his body.

The two women, Mrs. Hare and Helen MacDougal, eventually disappeared as they were hounded wherever they went.

Although Dr Knox was never charged with a crime, Edinburgh citizens were so outraged at his involvement, they caused a riot outside his house shortly after the trial. He was eventually forced to leave Edinburgh, moving to Glasgow, and later London, where he died in 1862.

William Hare, a mass murderer, was set free. He was last sighted in the English town of Carlisle.

In 1832, British law changed with regard to bodies used for dissection with the 1832 Anatomy Act. The law required that, all bodies used in dissection, could only come from those persons who had died in hospitals, and remained unclaimed for 72 hours.

In an ironic end to the story, Burke’s body was donated to the medical school for what they called "useful dissection".

His skeleton can be seen to this day in a glass case at the Edinburgh Medical School.

A pocket book was also made of his skin, this is on display at the Police Museum on the Royal Mile.

William Burke skeleton image
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burke_and_Hare_murders People List