Burke and Hare's murderous contribution to medical research – Steve Cardownie

Burke and Hare are among Edinburgh's most infamous killers (Picture: Neil Hanna)Burke and Hare are among Edinburgh's most infamous killers (Picture: Neil Hanna)
Burke and Hare are among Edinburgh's most infamous killers (Picture: Neil Hanna) | Freelance
Infamous Edinburgh murderers Burke and Hare killed people then sold their bodies to be dissected, writes Steve Cardownie.

The NHS is very much to the fore in newspaper columns and TV and radio bulletins at the moment for obvious reasons and it reminded me about Edinburgh’s reputation for medical advances and teaching, in ­particular the nefarious activities of the grave robbers and murderers, Burke and Hare.

In the 19th century, Edinburgh was leading the way in Europe in anatomical studies but was having a problem securing cadavers, which were in short supply. Scottish law dictated that ­bodies for medical research should only come from those who died in prison, suicide victims, foundlings (abandoned children) and orphans.

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This shortage of suitable corpses led to the advent of Resurrection Men, the polite term for bodysnatchers, two of which were William Burke and William Hare who practised their ‘trade’ in the Edinburgh of the 1820s and were ultimately held responsible for embarking on a killing spree which netted 16 victims.

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When a lodger died in Hare’s house he, along with Burke decided to sell the body to Robert Knox, a doctor and anatomist who lectured at the Royal College of Surgeons and paid them the going rate for cadavers, which was £6 in the summer, because they decomposed more quickly, and £8 in the winter.

He performed two dissections a day where he promised “a full demonstration on fresh anatomical subjects” as part of his course of lectures which, it is claimed, attracted audiences of up to 400 students.

Probably suffocated

Residents of Edinburgh took to the streets in protest over the increase in grave robbing (a practice Burke and Hare had taken to once they realised that there was decent money to be made) and as a result bereaved families deployed different techniques to deter grave robbers, including hiring guards or placing a large stone slab over the grave until the body had begun to decay beyond the point of being any use to anatomists.

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Two months after their first sale, another lodger in Hare’s house contracted a fever which he thought might deter other lodgers from taking up residence there, so, along with Burke, he murdered her and sold the body to Knox – who was delighted to get his hands on a fresh specimen and allegedly was not too fussy where the bodies came from and did not ask too many questions, despite the suspicious circumstances.

They continued with their murderous activities until fate lent a hand when lodgers in Hare’s house discovered the body of their latest victim, Margaret Docherty, and contacted the police, who subsequently determined that she had probably been suffocated but lacked proof.

Immunity from prosecution

Although the police suspected Burke and Hare were responsible for a number of murders in the city they could not find enough evidence to convict the pair.

They then resorted to offering Hare immunity from prosecution if he turned king’s evidence which he did – not only confessing to Margaret Docherty’s murder but also providing details of a further 15 killings. Now the police could proceed and Burke and his wife were charged with three murders of which he was found guilty of one and was hanged in the ­Lawnmarket before a crowd of some 20,000, although his wife was given a not proven verdict and walked free.

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Somewhat ironically, Burke’s body was dissected and his skeleton was ­displayed at the Anatomical Museum at Edinburgh University where it remains to this day. One consequence of the Burke and Hare trial was that the Edinburgh public became aware of the need for bodies for medical research, which led to the passing of the Anatomy Act of 1832, which gave freer licence to doctors, teachers of anatomy and bona fide medical students to dissect donated bodies.

To this day Edinburgh is one of the leaders in this field and part of its success may be attributed to the two Irish labourers who made the city their home.

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