Graverobbers! The Trial of Burke and Hare

Three tombstones with the names William Burke, Dr. Robert Knox and William Hare on each stoneOne of the most gruesome trials to take place in 19th century Scotland was surely that of the infamous graverobbers William Burke and William Hare.

By day, the two appeared as hardworking Irish immigrants: William Burke even rented out rooms to recent arrivals in Edinburgh. But by night, the pair lurked in dark corners of the city's ancient graveyards, digging up bodies of the recently departed to sell to anatomy instructors in Edinburgh's fast growing medical schools.

In those days, Edinburgh was one of the major centres of medical education in Europe. Dr. Robert Knox of the city's Medical School was one of the most popular anatomists - attracting as many as 500 students per class.

But in early 19th century Scotland, obtaining human cadavers for medical research was not a simple matter. Schools were restricted by laws that allowed the dissection of only one body per year - and it had to be the body of an executed criminal.

Given the law of supply and demand, it was just a matter of time before someone found an illegal way of providing dead humans for dissection. Enter our two enterprising Irish immigrants, William Burke and William Hare. Smelling a profit, the two got together and cooked up a scheme to supply freshly dead bodies to the anatomy schools with "no questions asked".

Tombstone with RIP on the frontBurke and Hare were not alone. In fact, as far back as the early 1700s, there were complaints that bodies were being exhumed for the purpose of medical dissection. According to Adam Lyal's "The Trial of the Bodysnatchers", the practise of stealing freshly buried bodies was so rampant that the graverobbers were known as "resurrectionists" for their ability to raise the dead.

This practice so horrified the general public that watchtowers were constructed in some Edinburgh graveyards to protect those recently buried from exhumation. In addition to the towers, protective walls and iron bars can still be seen around some old Edinburgh graves. The Trial of the Bodysnatchers, by Adam Lyal
Burke and Hare were very successful graverobbers indeed. But success soon turned to greed and greed to murder. When they realized profits would increase with more dead bodies, they started murdering hapless victims in Edinburgh's Old Town with their own special form of strangulation and handed the corpses over to local anatomists such as Dr. Knox.

The anatomists who used Burke and Hare's services didn't ask many questions about the corpses that were brought to them at the medical school under the cover of darkness. It was only when suspicious neighbours starting asking about about a missing Irish immigrant named Mrs. Docherty, that the whole scheme began to unravel. Before long, the two graverobbers turned serial killers were up on charges of murdering the old lady and the whole of Britain was riveted to the grisly details of the trial throughout that Christmas and New Year season of 1828.

We will probably never know how many of Burke's and Hare's unsuspecting victims ended up on the anatomy tables of Edinburgh's Medical Schools. They were suspected of murdering between 13 to 30 people, but there was never enough evidence to get a conviction on more than one body - that of the unfortunate Mrs. Docherty.

When the case finally got to trial, Hare turned evidence against Burke, and Burke was found guilty of murder. He was executed on January 29, 1829 and his body was - you guessed it - donated to the Medical School for what they called "useful dissection". Nearly two hundred years after his death, Burke's skeleton remains on display at the University's Medical School.

Ironically, the anatomists to whom Burke and Hare supplied bodies were never brought to trial. Although Dr. Knox was named as the recipient of bodies, he was never charged with any crime.

MMJ, October 1999

MORE articles and links about Graverobbers! on Gathering of the Clans:

Horror Films About The Graverobbers!

From the Graveyard to the Computer: Anatomy Classes Go Digital!

Scene of the Crime: University of Edinburgh Medical School and Museum


Burke and Hare: Edinburgh Body Snatchers turn Serial Killers

The Trial of the Bodysnatchers, from Adam Lyal's Witchery Tales

Thursday, December 26th, 2019

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