Business of Bodies: The Burke and Hare Murders

Up the close and doon the stair,

But and ben’ wi’ Burke and Hare.

Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief,

Knox the boy that buys the beef. (Bailey, 81)


Britain, at the beginning of the 19th century was at the beginning of an era of unprecedented change. Nearly every aspect of life was undergoing some form of progress, be it technological advancements, shifts in political ideologies, or new movements in the world of art and music.  Such was the same for the world of science.  Victorians had a seemingly unquenchable thirst to unravel the mysteries of the world around them.  This thirst is what paved the way for the greatest discoveries mankind has ever known.  However, what is often overlooked is the dark side to the marvels that mankind were achieving.  In the field of anatomical studies,there existed a shortage of cadavers for dissection.  Originally,it was the state who supplied doctors with cadavers, using the bodies of execution victims primarily and (name a few other places). However, more liberal approaches in the justice system lead to a shortage.  While less inmates being executed was definitely a good thing, it undoubtedly presented doctors with a problem.  If doctors wanted to continue their research they often had to look elsewhere, resorting to “shadier” solutions.


The late 1820’s saw a rise in the number of “resurrection men”, men who would exhume freshly buried bodies and sell them to doctors as cadavers.  Doctors, who were eager to continue their research, would pay these resurrection men and wouldn’t ask questions as to the origin of the body.  The problem that resurrection men faced was that bodies were often buried weeks after the person had passed away, meaning that when the doctor finally received the body it would certainly not be fresh.  The problem was now not the shortage of cadavers, but the freshness.


This is where William Burke  and William Hare came in.  Both had moved to Scotland in search of work.  Burke was married to a woman named Helen McDougal and Hare to a woman named Margaret, who ran the boarding house in which the four of them would eventually live.  The two Irishmen met during the harvest in Edinburgh in mid 1827.  The two became close friends and moved into the same boarding house in an area known as Tanners Close.  In November of 1827, a retired soldier at the house, named Donald, passed away of natural causes.  Still owing a debt of four pounds to Margaret, Burke and Hare saw to it that the debt be repaid.  They carried Donald’s body to the office of Doctor Robert Knox, a respected doctor at the time, and sold it for seven pounds.  The duo’s first true victim was a fellow pensioner named Joseph.  He had the misfortune of suffering from a fever and it was feared that he would frighten away new potential pensioners from renting at the boarding house.  It was the first time that Burke and Hare implemented their go to system for murdering.  The two would lure the victim back to their place and get them very drunk. Finally, Hare would restrain the victim and Burke would cover the mouth and nose, thus suffocating them.  This was actually quite an ingenious way of killing people because medicine at the time was not advanced enough to determine whether or not the victim was murdered or not.  This way, most of the murders could not be traced back to the two.


They continued their spree for roughly ten months, achieving a body count of sixteen,and receiving roughly ten pounds a piece.  The two preyed upon those on the fringes of society, like the old, poor, prostitutes, and the mentally handicapped, since people would pay little attention to their disappearances.  However, their luck couldn’t last forever.  The first instance where suspicion was raised came after the murder of an eighteen year old boy named James Wilson.  Wilson was a local beggar who was mentally handicapped and had a clubbed foot.  He was quite well know locally, often referred to by the name Daft Jamie.  When he showed up on Doctor Knox’s table, a student claimed to recognize him, stating that he knew Jamie and had seen him around town.  Knox dismissed the remark and proceeded to dissect the body’s face and foot, thus preventing the identification of the body.  


Burke and Hare’s final victim was an Irish woman named Margaret Docherty. On October 31, 1828, they lured Docherty back to the boarding house and murdered her, in the usual fashion.  They hid her body in a pile of hay at the foot of the bed, planning to take sell it the next day.  However, their plan hit a snag when two other pensioners at the house, Ann and James Gray, became suspicious of Burke when he wouldn’t let them near his bed.  When neither Burke nor Hare were around they looked around and discovered the body and immediately went to inform the police.  Helen McDougal tried to bribe them but they didn’t accept.


The warrant for the arrest of Burke, Hare, and their wives was issued on November 3.  All of them were arrested and questioned separately; each providing conflicting statements at first.  Both police and doctors were sure that Docherty had been murdered by suffocation, but of course they had no way to prove it medically.  The only way to secure a conviction would be to extract a confession out of one of the four.  In exchange for immunity for both him and his wife, Hare accepted the proposal and testified against Burke and McDougal, the former receiving a guilty verdict and the death penalty and the latter receiving a verdict of not proven.  


Burke was sentenced to be executed by method of hanging by the neck. However, execution was not all that his sentence entailed.  Rather, what happened after the execution was quite unique to William Burke.  Lord Justice-Clerk, David Boyle, was the one to pass the sentence and as he did so he added:


…taking into consideration the public eye would be offended with so dismal an exhibition, I am disposed to agree that your sentence shall be put in execution in the usual way,but accompanied but the statutory attendant of the punishment of the crime of murder, viz- that your body should be publicly dissected and anatomized.  And I trust, that if it is ever customary to preserve skeletons, yours will be preserved in order that posterity may keep in remembrance your atrocious crimes.(Trial of William Burke and Helen MDougal. 199)


And so it was.  On January 28, 1828, William Burke was executed in front of a crowd of over twenty thousand.  Three hundred constables were called in to control the massive crowd.  On February 4, 1828 his body was dissected and anatomized by Doctor Alexander Monro, a colleague of Doctor Knox.  Burke’s skeleton was preserved and put on display in the Edinburgh School of medicine where, in 2017, it can still be seen today.  Hare and his wife were released from prison on February 5, 1828 and fled South.  No one knows what became of the two. They may have died somehow, emmigrated, or simply changed names.  Doctor Robert Knox was never found guilty of any crimes and went back to practicing medicine.  However, he was scorned by his peers and eventually debarred due to malpractice.


This incident was a media sensation which attracted a great deal of public attention.  People were shocked that this could happen and repulsed by those who were involved.  The Burke and Hare murders also represented a fundamental flaw in legislation at the time and pushed parliament to implement the Anatomy Act of 1832, which made it so that people could will their body to science and that only relatives could deliver the bodies to surgeons.  They also represented a dark and sinister side to a seemingly golden age of progress and change.  



Bailey, Brian. Burke and Hare: the year of the ghouls. Edinburgh: Mainstream, 2002.

Burke, William, and Helen MDougal. West Port murders; or, An authentic account of the atrocious murders committed by Burke and his associates, containing a full account of all the extraordinary circumstances connected with them, also, a report of the trial of Burke and MDougal, with a description of the execution of Burke, his confessions, and memoirs of his accomplices, including the proceedings against Hare, &c. Edinburgh: Ireland, 1829.

Burke, William, Helen MDougal, William Hare, John Macnee, and Thomas Stone. Trial of William Burke and Helen MDougal: before the High Court of Justiciary at Edinburgh, on Wednesday, December 24, 1828, for the murder of Margery Campbell, or Docherty. Edinburgh: Robert Buchanan, 26, George Street, 1829.

McCracken-Flesher, Caroline. Doctor Dissected A Cultural Autopsy of the Burke and Hare Murders. Cary: Oxford University Press, USA, 2014.