Up the Close and doun the stair;
But and ben wi’ Burke and Hare:
Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief,
And Knox the boy who buys the beef.
It is often and wrongly assumed that the murderers Burke and Hare were Resurrectionists, or grave robbers, for although it is true that they supplied corpses for the use of Dr Knox, a famed anatomist in Edinburgh, they did not rob any graves. Their bodies were cleaner and fresher than that!
A killing spree began in 1827 and lasted just under a year, during which sixteen victims were murdered and then sold on to the medical school. But, the first transaction came about more by chance when an elderly man who lodged with Mr and Mrs Hare died of natural causes, and without having paid his bills. Burke and Hare took his body to Surgeons’ Square and offered it to Dr Knox who in turn paid them £7 10 shillings. A very tidy profit indeed, after which the two Irish immigrants realised there was easy money to make – if only they knew how to find a regular supply of corpses.
The use of the term /Burking' in a contemporary cartoon
Few questions were asked at the college regarding the source of cadavers, of which there were never enough for the purposes of dissection and study. The use of hanged criminals was legally allowed but executions had been in decline – hence the trade with the Resurrectionists who dug fresh corpses up from their graves. And then, there was the arrangement forged with Burke and Hare, who took to preying on the old and infirm, luring them back to Hare’s lodging house where they plied them with whiskey and then used a method of killing that has since become known as ‘Burking’ – a practice involving the compression of a victim’s chest while smothering them to death.
There were undoubted risks. When two prostitutes appeared on the dissection slab, one of them was soon recognised by some of the medical students. Another victim also proved to be a little too familiar. Daft Jamie, a mentally impaired teenage boy who had suffered with a severe limp was once again recognised by some of the dissection students. However, Knox responded to their alarm, not by giving the body up, but by cutting off its face and feet – obliterating the features and any proof of deformity.
The Execution of William Burke: 28th January 1829
The murders only came to an end when some of Hare’s neighbours became suspicious after hearing the sounds of a violent struggle. And then, two lodgers returned to the house, only to find an old woman's body hidden beneath their bed. The police were rapidly informed and yet, without sufficient evidence, only Burke was found guilty and hanged - but not before swearing that Dr Knox had never known the true source of the bodies that happened to come his way. Ironically, Burke's body was taken to the Edinburgh Medical College and there dissected in public. His skeleton and death mask are now on display at the Royal College of Surgeons' Museum.
Dr Robert Knox
Nevertheless, Knox was deeply tainted by the scandal and when effigies of the doctor were burned he was forced to leave his post, eventually taking a new one in London where he worked at the Cancer Hospital.
And, as to the fate of Hare, in one story he is also said to have travelled to London, after first giving the evidence to incriminate his friend. In London, he was rumoured to have been attacked by violent mobs who threw him into a pit of lime which left him blind, forced to live out his days as a beggar – which, some would say, was a fitting fate, having murdered so many beggars himself.
Although, strictly speaking, the Burke and Hare murders occurred a decade before Victoria even came to the throne, she was alive during their murderous campaign, and the affects of their hideous crimes went on to haunt the century.
Robert Louis Stevenson referred to them in his short story entitled The Body Snatcher, which you can read in an ebook. And, in the twentieth century countless books, comics, films and TV programmes have depicted the murderous pair's gruesome deeds. The VV feels sure that there will be more stories yet to come.