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William Burke & William Hare: The Edinburgh Bodysnatchers Who Sold The Corpses Of Their Victims

Updated: Dec 27, 2022

During the 19th century in Edinburgh, residents were tormented by William Burke & William Hare, the two men murdered strangers and sold their bodies to a local doctor to be used for medical research.

William Hare (left) and William Burke (right)
William Hare (left) and William Burke (right) the bodysnatchers of Edinburgh

In the early 19th century, the frontiers of medicine were advancing at an inexorable rate. Yet there was one vital ingredient lacking in this exploration of the human body - and that was a supply of the bodies themselves. At that time, it was unheard of for anyone to donate their body for research, so a supply of corpses had to be provided for dissection, and the fresher the better. William Burke and William Hare were the men to fulfill this service, and by their nefarious trade became Scotland's most celebrated and gruesome serial murderers.

The Irish-born pair came together when Burke, who had deserted his wife and young family, came to stay at Hare's cheap Edinburgh lodging house in 1827. They went into the "body business" together soon afterward, upon the death of a boarder known as Old Donald, who succumbed to a long illness, owing £4 in rent. To recoup his loss, landlord Hare hit upon the plan of selling the corpse to one of the city's doctors. They removed Old Donald's body from the coffin that lay in the backyard, wrapped it in sacking, and presented themselves at the door of Number 10 Surgeons' Square, the Edinburgh establishment of the brilliant anatomist Dr Robert Knox. The price was struck at seven pounds and ten shillings, and all sides left well satisfied with the night's work.

It was easy money but the pair realized they would have difficulty in continually restocking the merchandise they require for their new unholy trade. Churchyards were now well guarded at night because of previous raids by grave robbers, and many tombs even had iron bars around them. The only solution was to "create" new corpses.

The first of a further 16 victims was an old man called Joe the Mumper, who fell ill with a high fever and was too weak to offer resistance as Burke and Hare laid a pillow over his face and held him down until he suffocated. His body fetched £10 at Surgeons' Square. The second victim was dispatched in what became the hallmark of Burke and Hare's murder technique. A boarder, whose name they did not even know, was confined to his bed with jaundice. While the man was asleep, Burke held his mouth and nose until there was no sign of breathing.

Third to die was an old woman tramp whom Hare met in a city bar, lured to the lodging house, and suffocated. In the spring of 1828, the killers saw off two more boarders, both destitute women. Then came the murder of a prostitute, Mary Paterson. The sight of her naked body, barely six hours into her death, aroused great excitement among the medical students, one of whom claimed to recognize her. Mary's shapely figure and good looks were even remarked upon in the popular newspapers. Dr Knox gladly reveled in the publicity and, rather than take the body straight onto the dissecting table, he had it preserved in whiskey for three months, allowing it to become a tourist attraction.

Burke and Hare callously murdered the innocent to benefit financially
Burke and Hare callously murdered the innocent for financial gain

Burke and Hare became increasingly audacious. On one occasion, Burke encountered a drunken woman being escorted along the street by a policeman. He intervened, convinced the officer that he was a Good Samaritan, and had the hapless wretch released into his care. Not surprisingly, she was delivered to Surgeons' Square that very night.

In June 1828, the partners committed their vilest crime. Burke was stopped in the street and asked for directions by a woman leading by the hand, a young boy who was deaf and dumb. Burke led her to his home where he and Hare killed her before also disposing of her son. Burke took the boy over his knee and, as he later told police, "broke his back" while the terrified youngster stared piteously into his face. The two victims were then stuffed into a barrel and sold for £16 the pair.

In the end, Burke and Hare were trapped by their over-confidence and carelessness. In October 1828, a female boarder turned up the corner of her straw mattress and was horrified to discover the body of a naked woman, her face horribly bloodstained. She went to the police and the killers were arrested. Hare, given an offer of immunity by turning King's Evidence, immediately denounced his former partner.

The trial of William Burke began on Christmas Eve 1828 and continued without pause until the last guilty verdict was returned on Christmas morning. The court's sentence was that he be hanged and his body be used for medical science. A crowd of thousands, among them the poet Walter Scott, watched him die on the gallows on January 28, 1829.

Dr Robert Knox Edinburgh
Dr Robert Knox was a well known and respect anatomist

Burke's body was then removed to the medical rooms, where guests were admitted in batches of 50 to watch it be dissected. The following day the general public was admitted, thousands of curious strangers filing past his remains. The body was then salted and put into barrels for use in future experiments.

Only Burke suffered the full weight of the law but the other players in the vile pantomime did not enjoy their freedom. The infamous Dr Knox continued to deny complicity in the crimes but found his medical career in ruins. He died in disgrace in December 1862. The wives of Burke and Hare, who assisted the pair in their vile trade, suffered public hatred wherever they went. And Hare himself, having turned against his accomplice to obtain his own freedom, moved away from Edinburgh and lived out a miserable existence in the slums of London, eventually dying a poverty-stricken blind beggar.

Now you have read about the horrific crimes of William Burke and William Hare, make sure you take a look at Joe Michael Ervin: The Serial Killer Who's Crimes Didn't Surface Until 40 Years After His Death


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