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5 Things You Didn't Know About Burke & Hare

The infamous body snatchers had close links to our very own Anatomy Museum. But did you know these five facts about the pair?

William Burke and William Hare were two serial killers active in Edinburgh between 1827 and 1828. They famously sold their victims' bodies to Dr Robert Knox, an influential lecturer in our Anatomy department at the University of Edinburgh. Knox and his colleagues dissected the bodies as part of their anatomical research.

William Hare portrait
William Hare

At that time, Scottish law allowed the dissection of bodies in cases where the individual had died in prison or committed suicide. But providing a legal supply of bodies for dissection proved difficult - supply couldn't keep up with the growing demands of anatomical science, and Edinburgh began to witness a sharp increase in grave robbing.

Burke and Hare took this practice one step further, by killing their victims rather than waiting until they died of natural causes.

The killers had a distinctive modus operandi - their victims were usually lodgers who had been staying in their home, or people they had invited in for a night of drinking. They would then wait until the victim was completely intoxicated before murdering them and taking their body to Knox and his students. 

That's the story that everyone knows, but there are plenty of strange and bizarre facts around this case that you might not have heard about before. Read the post below to find out more about Burke and Hare, two of Edinburgh's most infamous residents.

Warning - not for the squeamish!

 

William Burke portrait
William Burke

1. Burke's body was dissected and his skin was made into a notebook 

On 1st February 1829, Burke's body was publicly dissected by Professor Monro at the Anatomy Theatre in our very own Old College building. 

The procedure lasted for two hours, and during that time Monro decided to dip a quill into Burke's blood and write the following sentence: "This is written with the blood of Wm Burke, who was hanged at Edinburgh. This blood was taken from his head."

After the dissection, Burke's skeleton was given to the Anatomical Museum, where it remains to this day. His death mask and a book which is bound with his skin can be found at the Surgeons' Hall Museum. 

 

2. Hare shot and killed his own horse at the peak of the murdering spree

Burke and Hare transported most of their victims to Knox by carrying the corpses in a tea chest. 

However, at one point the pair murdered two lodgers at the same, "an old woman and a dumb boy, her grandson", as Burke later described them. 

The tea chest they normally used was too small, so they transferred the corpses to a herring barrel and loaded it onto a cart. Unfortunately Hare's horse refused to pull the heavy load any further than Grassmarket, and a porter had to be called to help transport the container. 

Once Hare returned to his home in Tanner's Close, he took his anger at the added complication by shooting the horse dead. 

 

3. Nobody knows what happened to Hare

This is probably the creepiest element of the Burke and Hare story...

While Burke was executed, Hare managed to escape the death sentence by confessing in detail to all of the crimes the pair committed. 

However, the people of Edinburgh were furious about the murders and wanted to see some justice. Hare was eventually released from custody on 5th February 1829, and sent in disguise to Dumfries. 

While he was travelling on the mailcoach, one of his fellow passengers recognised Hare from the courtroom and soon word spread in Dumfries of Hare's arrival.

The police managed to help him escape the baying mob, taking him away from the town in the early hours of the morning. 

He was eventually set down on the Annan Road and told to walk to England. From there, he disappeared without a trace. Where did he end up? And did he claim any other victims before he died? We'll probably never know...

 

William Hare's House
William Hare's House

4. The people of Edinburgh paid good money to watch Burke's execution

Burke's notoriety meant that a lot of people in the city wanted to watch him hang. Historians estimate that a crowd of around 25,000 gathered to watch him at the gallows. 

In fact, people living in the tenements overlooking the scaffold were able to make a bit of extra money by hiring out their rooms for people to get a better view of the execution. People handed over between 5 and 20 shillings to watch Burke hang from the windows near the scaffold. 

 

5. A new word was coined in the aftermath of the murders

Edinburgh slang was transformed by the infamous Burke and Hare murders. 

A new word, 'burking', was coined, a verb meaning 'to smother a victim or to commit an anatomy murder'. 

A rhyme also circulated around Edinburgh: 

"Up the close and doon the stair,

But and ben' wi' Burke and Hare.

Burke's the butcher, Hare's the thief,

Knox the boy that buys the beef."

 

Find out more

To find out more about the story of Burke and Hare, why not pay a visit to the University's Anatomical Museum?

And if you're interested in studying Anatomy (the 21st century way), consider one of our postgraduate online programmes: PG Cert/Dip Anatomical Sciences

We also offer on-campus options too: MSc Human Anatomy

 

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