Anatomical Museum

William Burke

Serial killer hanged in 1829 for his part in the West Port murders.

William Burke skeleton

William Burke (1792 - 1829) was an Irish navvy (a manual labourer) who came to Scotland to work on the Union Canal in the 1820s. When the work was finished he moved into a lodging house near the Grassmarket, owned by William Hare and his wife. A short while after this, a fellow lodger died owing Hare some rent. To recoup his losses Hare decided to sell the body to Dr Robert Knox a  freelance anatomy teacher who had set up private classes in Surgeons Square in direct competition with those run by the University.

After receiving about £8 from Knox they decided not to wait for lodgers dying from natural causes but to murder them instead, by pinching the nose and lying on the chest to cause suffocation which meant that there were no marks on the body. This became known as "Burking".

Many of their victims (chosen due to lack of friends) were lured to the lodging house, plied with drink and then suffocated. They killed at least 16 people. Their last victim was found dead under a bed and they were reported to the police and the pair were arrested. However, as there was insufficient evidence Hare was persuaded to give evidence against Burke and allowed to flee.

Burke was found guilty of the murder on 25th December 1828 and hanged in the Lawnmarket on 28th January 1829, his sentence being that he be hanged and publicly dissected. It is not known what became of Hare.


Up the close and down the stair, In the house with Burke and Hare, Burke's the butcher, Hare's the thief, Knox, the boy who buys the beef.

19th Century children's rhyme