Serial killer William Burke's bone snuff box sells for £2,500 in Edinburgh auction

A bone snuff box confiscated from the serial killer and grave-robber William Burke before he was hanged in 1829 has fetched more than £2500 at auction in the city where he murdered at least 16 people.

Friday, 15th October 2021, 12:30 pm

Let us know what you think and join the conversation at the bottom of this article.Burke and fellow Irishman William Hare committed a series of murders in 1827-28 and sold the corpses to Edinburgh anatomy professor Dr Robert Knox, who used them for dissection and research. They also raided graves for newly interred corpses.

The snuff box is thought to have been made by Burke himself and may have been carried by the Irishman when he and Hare committed the infamous "West Post Murders".

Found in his pocket when he was searched by a warder at the Calton Jail, on the base he had scratched his own details: "W Burke Shoemaker West Port Edinr".

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Macabre: The snuff box is thought to have been confiscated from Burke by a gaoler. Picture: Bonhams

The macabre object, which had been unseen in public for nearly 200 years, was among the highlights of the second day of Bonhams' Scottish Sale in Edinburgh.

Passed down through generations of the same family, it was sold to an anonymous bidder for £2550.

The snuff box was accompanied by a note signed in May 1878 by one time owner John Mackie, of 4, Great King Street Edinburgh.

It read: "Made and used by William Burke, the notorious murderer who was executed in Edinburgh in 1829. After his apprehension he was taken to the Calton Jail, he was searched by a Warder and amongst other things which were in his pockets was this box.”

Image of Burke, created by Dr Chris Rynn at the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification in Dundee, based on his skull, life and earth mask and descriptions in the court papers. Pic: supplied by Janet Philp

William met Hare in 1826 when he moved from Leith to a boarding house in Tanner's Close, in the city's West Port. The pair went on a killing spree, targeting men, women and children.

The pair would become infamous for the "West Port Murders" - the string of slayings they undertook to provide bodies for anatomy classes in the Edinburgh Medical School.

Burke, 35, was publicly executed before a crowd of more than 20,000 in January 1829 while Hare escaped the hangman after giving evidence against his partner in crime.A message from the Editor:

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