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Court sketches of Burke and Hare and a Victorian shopfront in the backgroun

Burke and Hare: The Edinburgh killers who sold their victim's bodies for dissection

Court sketches of William Burke (left) and William Hare (right) and 19th century shopfront (

It was a cold November evening in 1827 and Irish labourer-turned-landlord William Hare had a problem. His lodger, a man by the name of Donald, had just died of dropsy shortly before receiving his quarterly army pension. Donald owed Hare £4 in back rent - the equivalent of nearly £300 today. Furious at Donald’s inconsiderate inability to stay alive long enough to pay his way, Hare lamented his lot to his friend and fellow Irishman, William Burke. It wasn’t long before they came up with a solution. Why not sell Donald’s body?

A grave robber’s paradise

There was money to be made from dead bodies in the Edinburgh of the 1820s. The city had become a leading European centre for the study of medicine, and the city’s surgeons needed a constant supply of corpses to satisfy student demands for anatomical dissections.

The surgeons paid well - £10 in the winter when bodies could be kept in a decent state of preservation for weeks, and £7 in the summer. The demand was so high, and the money was so good that the city was plagued by grave robbers - so-called ‘Resurrection Men’ who dug up fresh corpses from Edinburgh’s graveyards to sell to the surgeons. Bodies were worth a pretty penny, and now an out-of-pocket William Hare had one in his house. It would be a shame to let such an opportunity go to waste.

Burke and Hare took the body to Edinburgh University under the cover of darkness. They were hoping to find an assistant of the famous surgeon Professor Alexander Monro to sell it to. Instead, a student directed them to the premises of Dr Robert Knox, another well-known surgeon and anatomist. It was Knox himself who examined Donald’s body and offered £7 10s for it - almost £600 today. The pair readily agreed. As they were leaving, one of Knox’s assistants told them that Dr Knox would be more than happy to see them again when they had another body to dispose of.

The first murders

It isn’t entirely clear who Burke, and Hare killed first. They were frequently drunk when carrying out the murders of those unfortunate enough to enter their orbit and later struggled to remember the order in which their victims were killed in their police statements.

What is known for sure is that the killings began in January, and the most likely first victim was a miller by the name of Joseph. Joseph was lodging with Hare and his wife Margaret when he fell ill with a fever. Margaret was worried that having a potentially infectious guest in the house might be bad for business should word get around, so Hare again turned to Burke for a solution.

The two men quickly decided to hasten Joseph’s end and profit from his corpse. They plied the miller with whisky and, when he was suitably inebriated, Burke lay on his upper torso while Hare suffocated him. This method worked a treat and would become the modus operandi of almost all their subsequent murders. Joseph’s corpse was sold to Dr Knox. This time, the price paid was a very tidy £10. To their inebriated delight, Burke and Hare had hit on a winning idea.

The pair’s next three victims were an English travelling salesman, an old woman, and a salt seller by the name of Abigail Simpson. The Englishman fell ill with jaundice while lodging at the Hares’ house. Margaret again worried what his illness might do to her business’s reputation, so Burke and Hare murdered him and sold his body to Dr Knox.

Abigail Simpson became the first victim to be lured to her death. A pensioner from the nearby village of Gilmerton, Simpson regularly came into Edinburgh to sell salt. Margaret invited her into her house, plied her with drink and then Burke and Hare murdered her and sold her corpse. An old woman whose name is unknown suffered a similar fate. This time, however, the murderers waited for her to fall into a drunken sleep before wrapping her head in a mattress cover. She was dead by morning. The bodies were sold to Knox for £10 apiece. When he saw Simpson’s body, Knox was impressed by its freshness. He didn’t think to ask why that was.

Fresh bodies For Dr Knox

Throughout the remainder of 1828, the bodies piled up. A young woman called Mary Paterson met her fate after a night’s drinking with Burke. Knox was so impressed with the quality of Mary's corpse that he pickled it in whisky and kept it for three months before dissecting it.

Mrs Haldane was the next to die, suffocated and sold to Knox in early 1828. Mrs Haldane’s daughter would suffer the same fate when she came looking for her mother a few months later. An old woman was murdered by Burke in May, followed by a rag seller called Effy and a drunk woman Burke spotted being taken home by a policeman. Burke offered to take the woman home instead, and when the policeman agreed, he took her back to the Hares’ where she was killed, and her corpse sold to Knox.

In June, an old woman and her grandson lodging at Hare’s house were murdered. First, the old woman was killed in her bedroom while the boy sat by the fire, and then he was dragged upstairs and killed in the same room. Their murder was followed by that of a woman Hare killed alone while Burke and his wife were away. The killing caused a rift between the two, but it didn’t last long. In October they killed a washerwoman followed by one of Burke’s wife’s relatives, a woman by the name of Anne McDougal.

The final victims

Jamie Wilson was well-known around Edinburgh. Nicknamed ‘Daft Jamie’, Wilson was a mentally ill, eighteen-year-old beggar who was a familiar sight on Edinburgh’s streets. Hare lured Wilson to his house where he and Burke tried to get him drunk. Wilson wasn’t keen on whisky and so wasn’t as inebriated as the pair’s previous victims when he was attacked by the pair. He put up a fight, but it was to no avail. He was eventually overcome and murdered. Fearing that such a familiar figure might be recognised and that questions would be asked, Knox cut off Wilson’s head and feet before dissecting his body.

Burke and Hare’s final victim was Margaret Docherty, a middle-aged Irishwoman who was lured into Burke’s lodgings by the promise of a drink. While Burke’s wife, Helen McDougal, went to fetch Hare, Burke paid for two lodgers called Anne and James Gray to go and stay at Hare’s place so Docherty could be murdered away from prying eyes. Her body was hidden in a pile of straw at the end of the Grays' bed. This was to prove the pair’s undoing.

The following day, the Grays returned. When Anne tried to go up to her room to fetch her stockings, Burke stopped her. Suspicious, the Grays waited until they were alone in the house, searched the bedroom and discovered Docherty’s body. Horrified at their discovery, they went off to tell the police. While they were away, Burke and Hare removed the body and took it to Knox. When the police arrived, they found the dead woman’s bloodstained clothes and took Burke and his wife into custody. The body of Docherty was identified by James Gray at Knox’s dissecting rooms, which led to the arrest of Hare and Margaret.

The killing spree had finally come to an end. Sixteen people had been murdered. Burke and Hare had earned about £150 for the bodies they sold to Knox or just over £10,000 in today’s money.

The trial and execution of William Burke

While the authorities had the body of Margaret Docherty, the medical evidence wasn’t strong enough to prove conclusively that she had been murdered. As for the other victims, their bodies had been publicly disposed of by Robert Knox. It seemed like the perfect crime. However, Sir William Rae, Scotland’s Lord Advocate, had an ace up his sleeve.

Rae saw that the chink in the foursome’s armour was William Hare, whose unscrupulous nature could be turned to Rae’s advantage. Hare was offered immunity from prosecution if he testified against Burke and McDougal (Margaret Hare would also be spared as spouses could not testify against one another). Hare readily agreed, confessing to all the murders to save his skin.

Burke and McDougal were tried before a packed Edinburgh courtroom on Christmas Eve 1828. Burke was convicted of the murder of Docherty, while McDougal was released as the charge against her could not be proven. Burke was sentenced not just to death, but also to public dissection afterwards.

William Burke was hanged on the morning of the 28th of January 1829 before a crowd of 25,000 people. His body was dissected by Knox’s great rival, Alexander Monro, on the 1st of February. To this day, Burke’s skeleton is on display at the Edinburgh Medical School, while the macabre spectacle of a book bound in his skin can be seen at the Surgeons’ Hall Museum.

The aftermath

Despite never thinking to enquire where Burke and Hare’s remarkably fresh corpses came from, Robert Knox was exonerated of blame. This did not stop him from being hounded out of his position. He ended his days working as a pathological anatomist in a hospital in London.

Both Helen McDougal and Margaret Hare left Edinburgh and were never heard from again. William Hare was released from prison in 1829 and, assisted by the police, fled Edinburgh in disguise to the town of Dumfries. He was subsequently dumped by the side of the road outside the town and told to make his way to England. His fate is unknown.

The Burke and Hare murders - plus those of a gang called the ‘London Burkers’ - galvanised Parliament into finally doing something about the lack of bodies available to the medical profession for dissection. The Anatomy Act of 1832 made it legal for corpses from workhouses that remained unclaimed after forty-eight hours to be used to satisfy the demands of the anatomists. The days of the Resurrection Men were over for good as was the temptation to kill innocent people for money that had proven so irresistible to William Burke and William Hare.