Burke and Hare - the Bodysnatchers Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Burke and Hare - the Bodysnatchers

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Burke and Hare.
Up the close and down the stair,
In the house with Burke and Hare.
Burke's the butcher, Hare's the thief,
Knox, the man who buys the beef.
- Children's song

William Burke, born 1792, first came to Edinburgh from Ireland in disgrace, having deserted his wife and children. He had previously been a soldier, who had had a respectable upbringing and marriage, but once in Scotland he was forced to take whatever work was available. Building, bakery and cobbling became his main occupations - until 1827, when he and his mistress, Helen McDougal, moved into Logs Lodging House.

This was a house that had once belonged to a Mr Log and his wife Margaret. Upon the landlord's death, Margaret Log was comforted by William Hare, an Irish tenant. They soon married and had been running the guesthouse together for a while, still under the name of Logs, when Burke arrived.

Burke and Hare often drank together, attempting to come up with moneymaking schemes. In order to understand the one they eventually stumbled upon, a little background is necessary.

The 19th Century and the Rise of Bodysnatching

In the 19th Century there were enormous advances in the medical world. This was a result of the Renaissance, which had started four hundred years previously, which gave new life to the arts and the sciences. Before then, learning was frowned upon and current ideas accepted. In the field of anatomy, Andreas Vesalius began the revolution, by publishing his De Humani Corporis Fabrica, volumes which made a mockery of the ideas which had prevailed since the Greek times. The field of anatomy opened up, as scientists realised that there was still a lot to discover, and many scholars elected to study it.

In 1827, when Burke and Hare met, the medical profession, especially the anatomists, were hampered by very strict laws concerning human dissection. This was forbidden in all cases except where the body of an executed criminal was donated to the establishment. This was a comparatively rare occurrence, since 'hanging with dissection' was a specific punishment reserved only for murderers, with the requirement that the body never be laid to rest in hallowed ground. The lack of bodies was especially problematic for lecturers, whose demonstrations and classes suffered from not having enough visual aids.

Thus a new market was born out of a demand for dead bodies, and no questions were asked. This led to a lucrative new line of employment for many city dwellers - grave robbing. The graverobbers - also known as resurrectionists for their abilities to raise the dead - were well paid, and some grew highly skilled at snatching bodies from under the noses of watchmen. However, throughout the 19th Century, Britain was still a highly religious country, and most people were repulsed by the concept of graverobbing. In addition to this, there was no law against stealing cadavers, since they were not classed as property. This improved the prospects for graverobbers and so anxious relatives attempted to do all they could to stop their loved ones' bodies disappearing. Many measures were taken to prevent such occurrences. Graveyard walls were raised, and patrols were set up - some cemeteries even installed watchtowers. Individual relatives would take preventative measures as well - paying guards to guard specific graves, making coffins extra secure, some going so far as to install cage-like structures over the graves. As graverobbing became more difficult and more risky, fewer people attempted it. This pushed the price of bodies up higher, and led to two very infamous men trying an altogether different approach to obtaining bodies.

The Bodysnatchers

These two men were, of course, Burke and Hare. They hit upon their scheme almost by chance - one of Hare's tenants, a man known only as Donald, died unexpectedly in bed one winter's night in 1827, while still owing the sum of four pounds - a good deal of money. It is not known which of the two had the idea of making Donald repay the debt posthumously, but Hare was always renowned as the more intelligent of the two. At any rate, it was this idea which led to Burke and Hare placing a weight instead of the body into the coffin, which was laid into the ground with everyone presuming that Donald lay therein, and removing the body to Edinburgh's Medical School. There they met Dr Knox, the foremost lecturer, who purchased the body for around ten pounds.

Having found a willing buyer of dead bodies, Burke and Hare decided that they would go into the business of supplying cadavers to the doctor full time. The current difficulty of graverobbing prompted them to take the next logical step - to make sure they never got as far as the graveyard. Their strategy was simple - to select a victim, invite them to the lodging house, make available to them a large amount of whisky and wait for them to fall into a stupor. Murder would then be easy - the method favoured being suffocation, since it left no obvious marks on the body. According to his later confessions, Burke was nearly always the murderer, with Hare doing the majority of the planning and the bargaining with the doctor.

Dr Knox kept buying the bodies to dissect in front of his students, but the students started to get suspicious. The amount of bodies was uncommonly great for the period1, even taking into consideration the fact that most anatomists were in contact with graverobbers. Additionally, some of the corpses were recognised by those attending the lectures. Although Burke and Hare always chose very poor working class victims, some of these were known to the students - specifically a prostitute named Mary Paterson, and a simple but popular youth known as 'Daft Jamie'. However, Knox denied the resemblances and proceeded to dissect them quickly.


The last murder committed was that of Mary Docherty, an Irish beggar. Her disappearance was very sudden, with the explanation for it very faltering, and some of the other tenants started to get suspicious. A couple named Gray, who had just arrived, were especially puzzled by the whole event, and on further examination of the building, found her dead body underneath a bed.

They rushed to the police station, but by the time the police arrived the body was gone. However, some neighbours claimed to have seen two men rushing out of the house carrying a large tea-chest. The police, fully aware of the suspicions surrounding Dr Knox's classes, arrived at his laboratory where the body was discovered and identified.

The case provoked a massive outcry, with the public clamouring to have Burke and his mistress, Hare and his wife, and Dr Knox hanged. However, the police had very little evidence of murder - there were no physical signs on Docherty's body as she, in common with most of the other victims, had been smothered, and they didn't want the case to result in lesser charges, or an acquittal. Therefore they made a deal with Hare that, if he were to become a King's Witness and tell all in court, he and his wife would be released, provided Burke was convicted.

The trial, which started on Christmas Eve 1828, lasted only until the next morning. Hare's evidence sent Burke to the gallows, although Burke's mistress received a not proven2 verdict. Before his death, a month later, Burke confessed to 16 murders, but always denied that they ever robbed graves. On the day of his hanging thousands of people of all classes turned out to watch the hated man's execution. When he died the crowd cheered, and when his body was cut down there was a stampede as people tried to reach it. After a period in which it was laid on a slab in a public gallery, so all who desired to do so could see, Burke's fate was to have his own body donated to medical science - it was dissected in a lecture, which drew a full house and it is rumoured that some students stole pieces of his skin, having them made into wallets or covers for pocket books. After this, his skeleton was displayed in the Medical School he had kept so well supplied - the bones are still there today.

Burke also had the dubious honour of extending the English vocabulary. He lent his name to the slang word, 'Burke', meaning 'to suffocate'. Although the phrase has fallen out of use in modern times, at the time it was quite a common term.

Hare was smuggled, alone, out of Edinburgh, and is rumoured to have lived as a beggar for the rest of his life. History has no record of what happened to Margaret Hare, or Helen McDougal, but it mentions that, although he was not formally charged, Dr Knox's career was effectively destroyed - his classes attracted fewer and fewer students, and the public still clamoured for him to be hanged for his involvement in the episode. However, Knox still has many defenders today who claim that the public were sentimental and ignorant in their condemnation of him.

The Anatomy Act

The case of Burke and Hare so shocked decent society that the British parliament was prepared to legalise the dissection of dead bodies in order to stop the black market trade in them. The 1832 Anatomy Act legalised the use of cadavers in the event of the body being unclaimed - this, in effect, meant that anatomists could now buy their bodies from the workhouses. Since there was now an abundant legal source of bodies, the prices fell, and graverobbers found that the risks of their trade were too great compared with the pitiful rewards they now received.

1Most institutions were only allocated four or five bodies a year.2The Scottish legal system has three verdicts - 'guilty', 'not guilty' or 'not proven'.

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