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Burke & Hare; Edinburgh's Grave-Robbers

Burke (left) & Hare (right) image:wiki.

William Burke and William Hare have been immortalised as an important fragment of Edinburgh's gruesome history. Every year tourists and locals alike flock to the William Burke Museum and Edinburgh's Anatomical Museum where artefacts of the two men can still be found to this day. In what became known as the Burke and Hare murders, from January to October of 1828, they killed a total of 16 people; three men, twelve women and a child. Body snatching or grave robbery was an 18th-century trend in which people would steal newly deceased cadavers in order to sell them to nearby universities, surgeons and labs. These institutions were always in need of corpses on which they would perform live surgeries for teaching, training and the betterment of science. Prior to 1832 only the bodies of those executed could be used for science. This worked well in the 18th-century when there were more annual executions. However, by the 19th-century, there were more universities needing more cadavers and fewer executions to provide them. Furthermore, the universities were fully willing to pay for the bodies, creating a market through which grave-robbing became a viable way in which to gain money - if you had the stomach for it. The people who robbed these graves became known as resurrectionists. This was the environment in which Burke and Hare became prevalent.

William Hare was born in Ireland before emigrating to Edinburgh to work as a labourer. He worked in the Canal Basin and married Margaret Hare around 1826. A widow, Margaret ran a lodging house she had inherited upon the death of her first husband. She had one child from her first marriage, and a second to William Hare in 1828 (approx.) William Burke was also Irish, arriving in Scotland around 1817 as a navigator and labourer. He had a wife in Ireland, who refused to follow him to Scotland, keeping the couple's two children with her. Burke met Helen McDougal in 1817/1818. They moved in together in 1818 and their acquaintances generally assumed they were married. The two met when, in 1827, Burke moved into in lodgings on Tanner’s Close, the same street as the Hare’s Boarding House.

In November 1827, one of the Boarding House's elderly lodgers died having owed £4 in rent arrears. Hare, furious at the loss of his money, set out a plan to steal the man's body prior to its burial (he weighed the coffin down so the switch wouldn't be noticed) and sell it in the hopes of retrieving the owed funds. Burke helped sell the body to Robert Knox, a prominent surgeon in Edinburgh. The body sold for £7 and 10 shillings. Both men were surprised at the quick and 'easy' money they made, Burke later claimed this 'made them try the murdering for subjects'. Their second victim was another tenant, Joseph who had become ill. Burke and Hare got him extremely drunk, before suffocating him and selling his body to Knox. Three victims in particular, Mary Paterson, James Wilson and Margaret (or Marjory) Docherty, garnered the most attention. Mary Paterson was generally believed to have been a prostitute. James Wilson was a 'street figure' who was well known with living relatives. Margaret Docherty was the pair's final victim. The victims were lured into the Lodging House before being suffocated (by pinching the nose and compressing the victims chest), so as to leave minimal marks and arouse little suspicion. The men became increasingly more brutal. They killed an elderly grandmother with an overdose of pills before Hare killed her blind grandson by breaking his back.

All of Burke and Hare’s victims were then sold to Dr Knox. His innocence has been hotly debated, with some arguing that it was not common practise to enquire after the origins of cadavers due to the illegal nature of grave-robbing. However, others suggest that there must have been some marks of the body to suggest murder if he wasn't already suspicious by the large number of bodies Burke and Hare seemed to have at their disposal. Some of Knox’s students began to question the cadavers during dissections; several recognised two well-known prostitutes, whilst others recognised James Wilson. Knox allegedly panicked when his students identified Wilson and quickly removed his head and identifiable misshapen foot.

The men's downfall came about when Burke accused Hare and his wife of doing deals with Knox without him. Their arrangement had always been to split the money, with £1 going to Margaret Hare for the use of her boarding house. On October 31st 1828, Margaret Docherty was invited to stay with Burke and Helen as a temporary lodger. Burke’s other lodgers, Ann and James Gray were invited to stay at the boarding house overnight to ensure they didn’t get in the way. Margaret was then murdered. When the Gray’s returned the next morning they were told that Margaret had been asked to leave after she flirted with Burke. However, when they were stopped from entering a spare room, they became suspicious, investigated when they could, and found Margaret’s body stuffed under the bed. They allegedly confronted Helen, who offered them £10 a week to keep the secret. They refused and reported having found a body to the police. It appears that Helen warned Burke and Hare, as by the time the police arrived, Margaret’s body had already been removed and taken to Knox. Burke and Helen were arrested immediately, Hare and Margaret were arrested later. Both men accused the other of being the main conspirator. Police found clothing and possessions of other victims and though friends and family of the other victims confirmed that the possessions were their loved ones’ there was no solid evidence. In an attempt to get a conviction, the Lord Provost offered Hare a deal - testify against Burke and Helen in exchange for his freedom.

Burke and Helen were put on trial on December 24th 1828 and convicted of the murder of Margaret Docherty on the 25th. Helen’s involvement in the murder was deemed unproven and she was ultimately released. Burke was further charged with killing Mary Patterson and James Wilson. He was sentenced to death by hanging. On January 28th 1829 Burke was hung in front of 25,000+ people. His body was then donated to science.

Hare was released in February 1929, he fled to England where it is rumoured he was thrown into a lime pit and blinded; living as a beggar in London until he died. The involvement of Margaret and Helen was the subject of gossip and rumour, causing both women to flee further afield, escaping to Ireland and Australia respectively. Knox was never formally charged, however, his reputation was damaged beyond repair - he too, fled to England to try and create a new career there.

Burke’s skeleton is still on display at Edinburgh Surgeon’s Hall. Several students took pieces of Burke’s skin, fashioning a calling card case, and book covers.

(Dr Robert Knox - credit;wiki)

Several rumours still circulate regarding Burke and Hare. It was rumoured that to avoid being caught, the men stored their bodies in the Edinburgh Catacombs, something still told in late-night Edinburgh tours. Although the Catacombs did become a lair for criminal activity, there is no evidence to suggest that Burke and Hare ever actually used them to store bodies. There was a black comedy film called ‘Burke and Hare’ released in 2010. Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story ‘The body snatchers’ referenced Burke and Hare and they are commonly included in Edinburgh’s horror history tours.

Their preferred method of killing, through pinching the nose and compressing the chest, is now called ‘burking’.

Sources and further learning resources

Burke and Hare Murders -

Edinburgh's History -

Historic UK -

The Worlds of Burke and Hare -

The William Burke Museum & Witchery Tours -

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