College of Medicine & Veterinary Medicine

Burke and Hare

The Burke and Hare murders in Edinburgh's West Port were infamous and destroyed the career of University of Edinburgh anatomist Robert Knox.

The skeleton of Burke viewed on the new Anatomical Museum app

During  the 19th century, there was a chronic shortage of cadavers for anatomy classes at the University of Edinburgh. This gave rise to a new industry in the city: grave-robbing.

The best-known of the 'Resurrection Men' were William Burke and William Hare, who took the grisly practice one step further. The pair murdered at least 15 people during 1828, selling the cadavers to Dr Robert Knox's anatomy school. 

 

Murders

William Burke (1792-1829) was an Irish navvy who came to Scotland to work on the Union canal. When the work was finished, he moved into a lodging house near the Grassmarket owned by William Hare (1729-182?) and his wife.

Shortly after this, a fellow lodger died owing Hare some rent. To recoup his losses, Hare decided to sell the body to Dr Robert Knox who was a private anatomy teacher who had set up classes in competition with those run by the University in Surgeon's Square.

The next time Burke and Hare had a disagreement with a lodger over debts, they smothered him and did the same. The enterprise bloomed into serial murders, with all their victims either smothered or strangled.

 

Arrest and execution

Their murders caught up with them. The vulnerable people they murdered were well-enough known in the community to be noticed when they went missing.

When a popular prostitute turned up on the slab with clear bruising on her throat and face, the fact that she had been murdered was unmistakable. Several of the students recognised her, and the last people she had been publicly seen with were Burke and Hare.

Police raided Hare’s boarding house and found a young woman dead and stuffed under one of their mattresses. Hare escaped by turning King’s Evidence against Burke, and Burke was hanged in the Grassmarket on 28 January, 1829. His skeleton was donated to the Anatomy Museum in the University of Edinburgh, where it hangs to this day.

What happened to Hare, however, is unclear. Some believe that he made his way to London where he was thrown into a lime pit and blinded as a result. He was then said to have spent the rest of his life as a blind beggar on the streets of London. However,  alternative evidence suggests he went to Dumfries after which he was believed to have returned to Ireland.

 

Robert Knox's downfall

Despite public outcry, Robert Knox was never tried for his involvement in the murders, though his reputation in Edinburgh was severely damaged. Shortly after the Burke and Hare case, the Royal College of Surgeons pressured him to resign his role of curator of the museum.

Knox continued to be pushed out by the medical establishment, eventually moving to London where he published several books. He died in Hackney, London, in 1862.

 

Related links

The anatomical museum