True Crime Sunday: Burke & Hare, resurrectionists

For this week, I had robbery on the brain. No, not like that. I had thought about piracy or highway robbery. Then I remembered another kind: grave robbery. Today’s story is about a couple of grave robbers and murderers and a new industry created by a new law.

In 19th century Scotland, medical students used to practice on fresh cadavers. Possibly to reduce what would eventually come later, the only bodies students could lawfully work on were those of prisoners condemned to death, deaths by suicide, and abandoned orphans. However, in 1823, the Judgment of Death Act meant a reduction in the crimes that were punishable by death. As a result, bodies for the medical schools became a little harder to come by.

The schools provided generous compensation for delivery of fresh bodies. With that kind of money on the line, folks with a looser moral code found a workaround. The incidents of graverobbing skyrocketed. The so-called resurrectionists became such an issue that guard towers were erected at graveyards and friends and family would often stand guard at night over their loved ones’ graves. The schools had a “the fresher the better” philosophy.

Graverobbing led to anatomy murder—murder committed to have a corpse to sell. That brings us to the main players in this week’s post.

William Burke and William Hare lived on the same street in Edinburgh with their respective partners and became good friends. Their story really got going when Hare, who ran a boarding house, had a tenant die while still owing £4.00 in rent in December 1827. He called his buddy Burke and they took the man and his coffin to the medical school. They were directed to speak to Professor Knox, an anatomy lecturer. Knox gave them £7.00.

The lines got a little blurrier in 1828 when one of the lodgers fell ill. Burke and Hare didn’t feel like waiting around to see if the illness would claim the man, so they decided to move things along via drugging and suffocation. They started convincing people to stay at the boarding house, but only people who would not be likely to be missed or recognized.

Perhaps inevitably, there came a time when some of Knox’s students recognized a couple of the victims that were brought in. Not long after, Burke began to suspect that Hare was going rogue—getting anatomy money and not telling him. These developments signaled the end for Burke and Hare.

Investigations led police to Professor Knox who pointed to the duo. Prosecutors offered Hare immunity to testify against Burke, and shocker, he took it.

William Burke was convicted of murder and was hanged in January 1829. Hare was released in February of that year and disappeared. Reports indicate that Burke’s body went to a medical school. Ironic, huh?

While other outfits picked up where Burke and Hare left off, the two former friends are perhaps the best known. Burke even became a verb when all was said and done. According to dictionary.com, “burking” is “to murder, as by suffocation, so as to leave no or few marks of violence.”

In 1832, the Anatomy Act went into effect. This new law made it easier for medical schools to get access to bodies that were legally donated. And just like that, the graverobbing trade was far less lucrative.

As we know, the criminal world moved on, but there are marks left on history by William Burke and William Hare and their contemporaries. Perhaps next week will move onto a different kind of robbery. But probably not one as icky as this kind…

Looking for more?

The Infamous Burke and Hare: Serial Killers and Resurrectionists of Nineteenth Century Edinburgh by R. Michael Gordon

Burke and Hare by Owen Dudley-Edwards

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