Up the close and doun the stair,
But and ben wi’ Burke and Hare.
Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief,
Knox the boy that buys the beef.
—19th-century Edinburgh skipping rhyme
This is the fourth and final in a series of essays on a most infamous yet necessary contributor to modern anatomical science: body snatching, the post-mortal exhumation of human bodies for the purposes of anatomical dissection, discovery and training. You can find the other articles in this series: Part One, Part Two and Part Three.
We end the essays with a brief study of the most notorious of the ‘Resurrection Men’, William Burke and William Hare, two gentlemen of ill-repute, who, in their wisdom thought to circumvent the traditional measure of grave-robbing in order to provide their clients with goods of a more recent vintage. Burke and Hare were known to have bumped off at least sixteen victims, and although the term Burke and its many denotations (to smother, kill for science, etc.) are ubiquitous in our language, it becomes obvious that the two were not body snatchers at all, rather they were murderers, serial killers of a profuse enough nature that the duo’s tally has not, in this autumn of 1872, yet been surpassed.
William Burke and William Hare, both of Irish decent, met one another in West Port, Edinburgh at ‘Logue’s’, a boarding house founded by the late Mr Logue and then operated by his widow. Hare had married the widow Margaret Laird, who operated the house whilst Hare worked as a laborer on the nearby canal. William Burke and his wife Helen McDougal moved into the local area and the couples soon became friends.
The boarding house provided temporary lodgings for many of the vagrants, transients and bottom-of-the-barrel types who came and went from the area looking for work, or staying out the sight of the authorities. When it became apparent that money could be made by acquiring and selling the dead to local anatomy houses, the boarding house became the perfect garden for an endless, non-traceable crop of materiel. The first victim was an elderly sickly tenant who owed money to the house. Following his consumption of copious and ‘generously’ supplied quantities of rum and gin, he was held down by Hare, while Burke suffocated him by leaning on the man’s chest with his knees until the old fellow expired.
The others came in quick succession, from November 1827 to October 1828, all sold to a famous surgeon of anatomy (and former student of mine), Doctor Robert Knox, for an average of £10 per body, a fantastic windfall for the murderous group. A total of sixteen people were killed during the time, although due to the lack of written records and varying efficacy of the duo’s ability to hide evidence, the tally could have been much higher. One victim was a cousin of McDougal, Burke’s wife, most others were either prostitutes or beggars.
The pair, aided by the ladies McDougal and Laird, killed opportunistically, and although Burke was reportedly only able to sleep with copious amounts of whiskey in his system, they had seemingly no compunctions as to whether the prey were young, old, male or female. Two victims were that of an old woman and her mute twelve year-old grandson. She was killed by an overdose of painkillers, and while she died, Burke broke the back of the child over his knee. Further was an eighteen year old mentally disabled man, well known locally by the unflattering sobriquet ‘Daft Jamie’. Following his death and delivery to the surgery lecture, Jamie was unfortunately recognized by a student whilst on Knox’s operating table. Doctor Knox’s response was a stuttering denial, and quickly bumped poor Jamie to the front of the dissection queue that morning to ensure his remains were rendered entirely unrecognizable. Sloppy work, Knox. You never did respond well under pressure.
Following detection and trial, it was assumed that although both them and their spouses had participated in the murders, Burke was identified as the initiator, seen as the more intelligent and devious. Burke was hung, (local house window seats overlooking the scaffold were sold for good prices) Hare was released, although his escape was marred by repeated public discovery and attacks. The corpse of Burke was dissected publicly, his skin used to make a book and to cover his own death mask, even his blood was used as ink in a quill pen to write the following passage written by Doctor Munro:
“This is written with the blood of Wm Burke, who was hanged at Edinburgh. This blood was taken from his head.”
Ah. Good, clean justice.
The men became the stuff of myth and quasi-fairy-tale, bogey-men, the monsters under the bed. Their deed brought about changes in legislation (The Anatomy Act of 1832), rioting, mass terror and a tightening of burial security. Nothing else at the time caught the imagination of the populace than these two simple, unimaginative but enterprising men. Why did they cause such furor? They were hardly pioneers of the act, a similar example being the nurses Torrence and Waldie, who in 1752 suffocated and sold the body of nine year old John Dallas to a surgeon, with many more examples besides.
The answer lies with the peddlers of misinformation: the newsmen, and their virus of hyperbole, infecting the public consciousness. Following the trial, ‘Burkers’ were everywhere. Tales spread of marauding medical students, hunting for fresh victims to throw on the slabs. You were at risk in alleyways (hardly a new phenomenon) from Burkers who would suffocate you with rags of poison. Never a week passed without another crime being in some way attributed to Burking. Whipping a populace into a terror-induced action is as simple as shooting marine life in the proverbial barrel, and the newsmen did much to encourage outrage and misinformation. Doctors were even accused of propagating the cholera virus to acquire more subjects to practice upon. Such accusations. Who would consider such a thing…
It is well known that I have no love of the tabloids, they rarely lean favorably towards the pioneers, the visionaries of our societies, preferring instead to satiate the public’s unending appetite for unfounded sensationalism. The newspapers, if they can be given such a lofty title, sought to cast Hare and Burke in a light of such demonic proportions that little truth remained, or mattered. If you believe the papers, and I’m confident many of you do, you’d believe that they were the alumni of some Caligulan Academy of All-Round Depravity and not victims of a hypocritical establishment.
The Anatomy Act of 1832 effectively ended the body snatching trade in England by allowing citizens to donate their own bodies to science without the usual stigma, and for the anatomy schools to lay claim to the dead who had no family to bury them. The act also required a pesky death certificate to certify the demise of the person and it gave the government free reign to poke their noses into the practices of surgeons.
But for those certain individuals, those visionaries who seek to keep the public nose out of their procedures and experiments, for whom the acquisition of an unmarked, anonymous corpse would be invaluable, when death certificates are unnecessary because there is no evidence the individual ever existed… well then one might employ the services of a specialist expert in such matters… and they most certainly still exist. Do get in touch if you ever need their services…
This article was originally published in The Pandora Society on January 28th 2015