06 February 2018

Burke and Hare: Edinburgh's grave snatchers or murderers?

The Judgement of Death Act 1823 saw the number of crimes punishable by death in Britain drop. And since medical and anatomical schools were only leg­al­ly allowed to dissect the cad­av­ers of those who had been condemned to death by a court, this led to an ext­reme short­age of available bodies for students. Inevitably medical schools paid some criminals to find more bodies via grave-robbing.

Relatives were known to guard the recently dug graves of their dearly departed and watch-towers were installed in cemeteries. The fresher the body, the more money it was worth, thus it didn’t take long before grave-robbing graduated to anatomy murder, done for monetary reward. The most in­fam­ous were in Edinburgh in 1827–8 whose university was noted for top quality medical sciences.

Irishmen William Burke (1792-1829) and William Hare (1804-?) both came from Ulster and moved to Edinburgh to work on the Union Canal. The pair met and became close friends when Burke moved with his mistress Helen McDougal to lodg­ings in Tanner’s Close in Edinburgh. Hare lived on the same street and was running a boarding house there with Marg­aret Laird-Hare, his “wife”.

 Hare and Burke, 

Burke and Hare’s first experience in the world of medical science came in Dec 1827 when one of Hare’s tenants, an elderly army pen­s­ioner called Old Donald Bark, died still owing £4 in rent. Hare knew that there was a high demand for bodies for anat­omical study and saw a way the dead man could pay back his debt. On the day of Old Donald's funeral the two men removed his body from the coffin and filled it up. Later they took the body to Prof Robert Knox at Surgeon Square and were paid £7 and 10s for it.

They liked the money that they made on Old Donald; alas the mon­ey didn’t last. Burke and Hare could have become true grave rob­bers but dig­ging up corpses would have involved too much effort. When Joseph, another of Hare's lodgers, became a bit ill, Burke and Hare decided to end Joseph’s suff­ering. They plied him with whisky and smothered him. This became their favoured method of execution as it left the body undamaged for the students who would later dissect the cadavers.

Without any other ill tenants, the pair decided to ent­ice poor victims to the lodging house, selectively at first and then they regarded al­most anyone who breathed as a potential vict­im. If desperate, the men would have even con­temp­lated killing and selling their own partners, Helen and Marg­aret.

A prostitute, Janet Brown, was lucky to survive when she and a teenage prostitute friend, Mary Paterson, were in­vited to stay with Bur­ke. Janet returned one evening to find her friend missing and was told Mary and Burke had stepped out. Actually Mary was lying dead in the next room, her body ready to be taken to Prof Knox!

The two men murdered a disabled young man

An elderly grandmother was killed with an overdose of painkillers and Hare murdered her blind young grandson by breaking the boy’s back. Even Ann McDougal, a rel­ative of Burke's partner Helen, was murdered; Burke had no qualms about kil­ling her, but he asked Hare to do that deed! They enticed elderly Abigail Simpson in with whiskey, then both men killed, placed her in a box and sold off the body.

Elizabeth Halden made the ter­r­ible mistake of calling at Hare’s lodging-house. After hearing she was last seen with Hare, Halden’s daughter Peggy called at the lod­gings looking for her. Both women ended up dead and were delivered to Prof Knox for £10 each.

Burke and Hare reached a new low when they brought in a well loved, handicapped children’s entertainer cal­l­ed Daft James Wilson. How careless of them! James had a deformed foot and was instantly rec­ognised by paying s­t­ud­ents at Prof Knox's anatomy class.

On Halloween 1828 Burke and Hare’s 16th and last victim, an old Irish woman called Marjory Docherty, was invited to stay with Burke and Helen. Burke’s other lodgers, a couple called James and Ann Gray, were invited to stay a night at Hare’s boarding house that evening so the murder could take place. On their return to Burke’s lodgings the following day, the Grays were told that Marjory had been asked to leave because she had been flirtatious with Burke. But they later discovered Marjory’s dead body hidden under the bed, in straw. The Grays challeng­ed Helen over their dis­covery and she offered them a bribe of £10 a week to stay silence. The Grays reported the murder to the Police anyhow and the game was up.

In tot­al, Burke and Hare are said to have murdered at least 16 people for £7-10 each, although the real total was possibly higher. The murders had all taken place within one year, Nov 1827-Oct 1828. The criminals were all arrested, interviewed separately and gave con­flicting accounts. However after a month of interviewing, the Police had little hard ev­id­ence. Event­ual­ly the Lord Ad­voc­ate, Sir William Rae, offered Hare immun­ity in return for test­ifying against Burke and Helen. Done deal!

The trial began on Christmas Eve 1828 when Burke and Helen were both charged with Marjory Docherty’s murder. Burke was also charged with the murder of Mary Paterson and James Wilson. While Helen’s complicity in Marjory’s murder was not proven under Scot­t­ish Law and she was set free, Burke was sentenced to death by hanging.

William Burke, hanged in Edinburgh
Jan 1829

William Burke was hanged before 25,000 noisy people in Jan 1829, then his body was put on public exhibition. How apt that his body was then donated to medical science! Burke’s skeleton and death mask are still on display at Edinburgh’s Surgeon’s Hall.

Hare was released in Feb 1829 and spent his days as a beggar in London. Helen and Margaret also fled Edinburgh, with Helen then leaving for Australia and Margaret to Ireland. Prof Knox was never called to court, thus escaping prosecution altogether (good grief!!!). But Knox did have to move to London, to resurrect his medical career.

The Burke and Hare murders led to the Anatomy Act 1832 which all­owed doctors, anatomy lecturers and medical students greater access to cadavers and allowed for the legal donation of bodies to medical science. The illegal body-snatcher trade could end.

Thanks to Nell Darby in All About History, Issue 57.
Thanks to Horrorpedia for the images.


Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Burke and Hare's business plan could not have gone on too long no matter what, when so many people went missing from a small area. I'm surprised that the doctor was so acquiescent to accept such a bountiful supply of possibly still-warm bodies, without worrying that he would implicate himself.

At least we can be grateful to them for inspiring a long line of grade-B horror movies, which used to be a regular feature of the Friday night late-late movie.

Joseph said...

Don't blame overly anxious anatomy lecturers or starving Ulster labourers. Blame the stupid law that banned the use of bodies in the Medical Faculty, except for criminals hanged by the state. If the law had not changed in 1832, there would have been more Prof Robert Knoxes and more Burkes and Hares.

bazza said...

Who knows how many other kill-for-profit murderers were around at that time? The callousness seems hard to conceive of from today's viewpoint. There can't have been any more prevalent mass murderers in Britain since then. As far as is known Jack the Ripper only killed four or five women. (I use 'only' in a relative sense.)
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Hels said...


I can understand the surgeon, Prof Robert Knox, not asking too many questions when the first bodies were presented to him for the education of his students. After all, as long as the money was good, Knox knew the supply of bodies would continue being dug up from their graves.

But once the bodies were still warm and still dressed in their pyjamas, Prof Knox was almost as culpable in the "unexplained" deaths as Burke and Hare were. So how was Prof Knox so certain that he would not implicate himself, and would escape prosecution altogether? His career hardly suffered.

Did he have friends in Parliament or in court?

Hels said...


I wondered if laws affected the supply of cadavers to medical faculties in other countries and found a journal article by Raphael Hulkower: By the end of the 18th century, U.S. state governments began to realize that a dramatic legal change would be necessary to effectively end the practice of _grave-robbing_. Until medical schools had a good alternative source of cadavers, there would always be a market for illegally obtained bodies. Massachusetts was the first state to enact laws, in 1830 and 1833, allowing unclaimed bodies to be used for dissection. Over the course of the next decades, many other states followed suit, legislating that unclaimed bodies of people who died in hospitals, asylums, and prisons would be allocated to that state’s medical schools for the purpose of anatomical dissection.
Due to these laws, the price of illegally obtained corpses declined, making grave-robbing neither profitable nor practical.

But Hulkower did not mention _murder_ as a way of obtaining cadavers in the USA.

Andrew said...

You think of police in days of old and being quickly on top of crime with the ability to cut corners and not worry too much about procedure, but it seems not. That Knox was never charged is criminal in itself.

mem said...

I think the anatomy professor was shocker . My goodness talk about not seeing what you dont want to know !
I think these days , people who have had an association with medicine or indeed people who dont have the means to pay fro a funeral are the main donators of their bodies. I knew a wonderful old lady who donated her body after having worked for many years as an anatomy tutor. I was very heartened by that . When I was training I did anatomy fro 2 years and we always treated the cadavers with great respect as it really is the greatest privilege to learn from the body directly.I still have a real skeleton in my wardrobe which I am not sure what to do with as they are no longer used fro reasons of cultural sensitivity.

Hels said...


I suspect Prof Knox was never charged because by the 19th century, Edinburgh Uni offered the best organised and most thorough medical training in the UK. There were ten prominent medical universities - Oxford, Cambridge, London, Durham (England), Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Glasgow and St Andrew's (Scotland), and one in Ireland.

I wonder if Edinburgh's police were the best in the UK.

Hels said...


In the early C19th there was a dramatic shift in the provision of anatomical teaching, from the dominance of the independent anatomical schools to the hospital medical schools. With the rise of the medical schools, the independent anatomy schools merged with the local hospitals.

As you noted in your own experience, this was when a] families were encouraged to donate the bodies of their late parents to science and b] anatomy students were taught to show great respect to the cadavers.

Hels said...


there were other mass murderers in Britain during the 19th century eg Doctor William Palmer whose mother-in-law, wife, brother, four children and friends all died before the police moved in.

But there was something focused about Burke and Hare's campaign. The pair decided to ent­ice specifically poor, isolated victims to stay specifically in their lodging house; they rarely selected the victims randomly. They did it to make potloads of money and to "serve" science.

Ex Pat said...

I was reading this in The Culture Trip. During the early 19th century, Edinburgh was at the height of the glorious Scottish Enlightenment, a period of unparalleled scientific and intellectual achievement. In the field of medical science and anatomical studies, the city quickly became a major European centre: Sir James Young Simpson was discovering chloroform anaesthesia, and Dr Joseph Lister was pioneering the use of antiseptic during surgery. Ideals of progress and reason flourished as never before. Yet these advances in modern science were underpinned by something horribly sinister.
Very grim.

Hels said...

Ex Pat

The Scottish Enlightenment was my favourite era, with its flourishing of ideas and publications during the later C18th and into the C19th. Edinburgh in particular was a centre of education, of great literature, science, philosophy and architecture. The men who developed and debated this enlightenment era met and socialised in the Old Town in Edinburgh. Their ideas then spread across the nation's well educated population.

But some educated professionals must have not received the memo :(


The domestic cadaver trade in the USA was also connected to 19th-century medical education. The body trade was as elaborate as the trans-Atlantic and domestic slave trade that transported Africans to the New World and resold African-Americans on our soil. But when enslaved people died, some were sold again.

Major medical schools used black slave corpses, acquired through an underground market in dead bodies, for education and research. They were used at Harvard, the Universities of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia, and other institutions.

The New York Times FEB. 3, 2018

Hels said...


The point is an interesting one. Yes the American universities needed cadavers, the same as the Scottish universities did. But grave robbing wasn't always necessary. The plantation owners could sell the slaves while they were alive and could sell the cadavers after they died.