On 28th January 1829, a sizeable crowd gathered in the Lawnmarket area of Edinburgh. Standing before them, one of the most infamous killers in Scottish history awaited execution.
William Burke, an Irishman born in County Tyrone in 1792, was one of two boys born into a middle-class family. By all accounts, he had a comfortable and respectable upbringing and would go on to serve with the Donegal Militia.
After a failed marriage, Burke travelled to Scotland where he eventually settled in Edinburgh – Tanner’s Close in the West Port Area, to be precise. It was on that very street the Burke met a neighbour, William Hare.
Also an Ulsterman, Hare too had travelled to Scotland in search of work and eventually came to run a boarding house with Margaret Laird, whom he called his wife (the pair weren’t actually legally married).
Having become close friends, Burke and Hare would go on to commit a series of murders in quick succession, all in the relentless pursuit of coin.
An Old Town Killing Spree
Over a period of nearly ten months between 1827 and 1828, Burke and Hare murdered a total of 16 people in an attempt to keep up with an obscure demand by a client, Robert Knox.
Knox was an anatomist and lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, which at that time was among the leading centres of anatomical study in the world. In order to carry out their groundbreaking research, Knox and peers required human corpses.
During this period, corpses used in pioneering medical research could only be used in a number of circumstances. If, for example, an individual had died in prison or had been sentenced to death, their corpse could be used in research.
In 1823, legislative changes brought about a tricky situation for researchers. The introduction of the Judgement of Death Act reduced the number of crimes punishable by death, which in turn led to a shortage of bodies and a sharp increase in the value of a corpse.
This shortage of bodies quickly became a serious issue for medical researchers at the time. But where there is demand for a service or product, someone will inevitably step in.
Instances of body snatching, the act of exhuming recently-buried corpses, skyrocketed during this period. And in Edinburgh the situation was no different.
Across Britain, many dabbled in the body snatching game while some eager – and highly unethical – researchers were willing to turn a blind eye.
The steep rise in grave robbing led to many graveyards hiring night time guards. In Edinburgh, graveyards were being closely guarded and some mourners even took matters into their own hands.
On occasions, family members were known to stand vigil over their deceased loved ones to dissuade grave robbers. Additionally, those who could afford it began utilising new devices to ensure the deceased weren’t dug up.
‘Mortsafes’, cast-iron contraptions designed to protect graves from robbery or disturbance, were becoming more common among those who could afford them.
Cashing in on the action
For Hare, an opportunity presented itself when a lodger at his residence died suddenly, leaving an outstanding balance. Having sought advice from Burke, the duo sold the body to Knox to recoup the debt for a total of £7 and 10 shillings.
Two months later, the body of yet another lodger would find its way onto Knox’s dissection table. However, on this occasion, the lodger had been murdered.
Reports at the time suggest that Hare feared an ill lodger might also die without paying outstand rent. With the memory of the last payday fresh in their minds and eager to accelerate the process, Burke and Hare murdered the lodger and swiftly handed the body over to Knox.
It is said the pair plied the lodger with alcohol and suffocated the victim. This, it seems, would be their preferred method of killing so as to leave the bodies relatively unscathed and to prevent rousing suspicion.
This incident sparked a frenzy of violent murders by the pair which lasted for several months.
Their activities were revealed after lodgers at Hare’s residence found the body of their final victim, Margaret Docherty. The pair were arrested and, despite suspicions surrounding several other murders, little evidence remained to connect Burke and Hare with these crimes.
However, following an offer of immunity, William Hare provided evidence of Docherty’s murder and confessed to the murder of 15 others. Burke was officially charged, found guilty of murder and sentenced to death.
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The wives of both men were likely aware of the murder spree and Burke’s wife was also indicted on charges of murder. However, at trial the case against her was found to be not proven.
Following his execution on January 28th, Burke’s corpse met a fitting end. His body was dissected for research and his skeleton put on display at Edinburgh Medical School. In a particularly ghastly turn of events, his skin was also used as a book cover and can still be viewed to this day.
The aftermath of the killings, which are among the most infamous in Scottish history, raised awareness over the scarce supply of bodies for medical research.
Robert Knox was never tried for his alleged involvement in Burke and Hare’s murder spree. His reputation was left in tatters, however.