Burke and Hare: the real story of the Edinburgh murderers was 'much more gruesome'

The names of Burke and Hare are linked to a particularly gruesome period in Scottish - and Edinburgh - history.

By The Newsroom
Wednesday, 31st October 2018, 1:31 pm
Updated Thursday, 1st November 2018, 8:53 am
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
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

In the late 1820s, William Burke and William Hare supplied anatomist Dr Robert Knox with fresh corpses for research, earning the reputation of 'body snatchers'.

At the time, there was a shortage of cadavers for anatomy classes at the University of Edinburgh, and this gave rise to an illegal new industry in the city - grave robbing.

But Burke and Hare took a different route from most body snatchers and actually murdered people before passing on their bodies to science. They never actually plundered any graves, yet the details of their story are often mistold.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

Janet Philp, author and staff member at the University of Edinburgh's Deanery of Biomedical Sciences, has recently published a book based on four years of research into the case, uncovering fresh evidence to authenticate details from the grisly saga.

The beginnings of Burke and Hare

William Burke (1792-1829) was an Irish navvy (labourer) who came to Scotland to work on the Union canal. When the work was finished, he moved into a lodging house near the Grassmarket, owned by William Hare (1729-182?) and his wife.

Janet explains that shortly after this, a fellow lodger died owing Hare some rent. To recoup his losses, Hare decided to sell the body to Dr Robert Knox, a private anatomy teacher who had set up classes in competition with those run by the University in Surgeon's Square. The despicable duo made £8 from the first body, which was a lot of money in those days.

Burke and Hare continued to target vulnerable people, with all of their victims either smothered or strangled.

Janet said: "We have Burke's skeleton in the University and a lot of people come in and talk rubbish about the story and that is why we've done the research. One misconception is that they robbed graves, but they actually never robbed graves at all."

She says they did not rob the graves because Burke says so in all of his confessions.

The last murder

Burke and Hare murdered 16 people over a 12 month period, with the last murder taking place on Halloween in 1828.

Burke invited Mary Campbell to a Halloween party that night at his home and asked the other revellers to leave, before killing her and hiding the body under the bed. He also had to get rid of some lodgers who were staying with him.

But the next day, some of his lodgers came back round to retrieve some clothing and discovered the woman's body under the bed. While they were away alerting the police, the body was taken to Dr Knox. By the time police arrived, there was nothing but a spot of blood on the bed.

When police quizzed Burke and his wife, the couple gave different times as to when the woman left - one saying 7pm and the other 7am.

Hare turned King's evidence - admitting guilt and providing evidence against his accomplice in return for immunity - in relation to three of the murders, but only the last one was ever proven.

Burke was hanged outside St Giles Cathedral on January 28, 1829 - although it remains unknown what became of Hare. Burke's skeleton was donated to the Anatomy Museum in the University of Edinburgh, where it hangs to this day.

Despite public outcry, Robert Knox was never tried for his involvement in the murders, though his reputation in Edinburgh was severely damaged. Shortly after the Burke and Hare case, the Royal College of Surgeons pressured him to resign his role of curator of the museum.

Tour guides told the real story

Experts from the University of Edinburgh’s Anatomical Museum are now sharing fresh insights into the Burke and Hare case with local tour guides.

Guides from city company ‘Viajar por Escocia’ will turn tourist as they are guided around key landmarks linked to the gruesome tale by Janet Philp.

Janet adds: "Tour guides sometimes perpetuate the myth that Burke and Hare were body snatchers when the reality is much more gruesome. We’re delighted to have this opportunity to set the record straight and help 'Viajar por Escocia ’ guides tell the real story from this dark point in Edinburgh’s history."

Medical claims - and distant relatives

Janet explains that there's long been a claim that Burke suffered from testicular cancer. But after translating Burke's dissection report from Latin and sending to pathologists, it emerged this was not the case.

And by looking up Burke's family tree, she discovered a woman who she is "99% sure" is Burke's niece and has linked her to living relatives in America, who have been contacted.

These relatives had no idea about the Burke and Hare story - until now.