Burke and Hare


Burke and Hare are two of the most infamous characters in Scotland's history. These Irish immigrants turned mass murderers were paid for providing bodies to the morally bankrupt Dr. Robert Knox. Burke and Hare arrived in Scotland separately in 1818. Both men came from Northern Ireland; Burke came from Tyrone and Hare from County Down. They originally emigrated in order to work on the canal construction (the Union Canal), which they did from 1818 until 1822. The two men lived in the West Port of Edinburgh, in the poorer end of town.

Drawing of Burke and Hare

By 1827 Burke was working as a cobbler and Hare had married and was working as a labourer. Also in Edinburgh at the time was Dr. Robert Knox, who offered private instruction to wealthy students, and was eager to purchase more cadavers. Resurrectionists would dig up bodies of those recently buried and sell them to medical schools. Many relatives watched their loved one's graves to ensure there was no theft, a gruesome task indeed. In December of 1827 'Old Donald', a lodger of Hare died of fever and they sold his corpse to the private school of anatomy taught by Dr. Knox of Surgeons Square. It was the beginning of a long line of murders committed for profit.

Burke developed the perfect way of suffocating people while leaving no sign of violence upon their body. He would hold their nose and mouth closed while they slept, suffocating them. He always picked on unsuspecting lodgers who were weak and defenceless. Their killing spree came to an end on All Souls night when the other lodgers returned early and discovered a body, which they reported to the police.

Between January and October 1828 Burke and Hare murdered sixteen people by suffocation and sold them all to Dr. Knox for dissection in anatomy lectures for sums of cash from £7 to £10. They were both arrested on the 1st of November 1828 and charged with murder. The Lord Advocate wanted to hush up the case to maintain public order but this proved impossible. Burke was hanged for his crimes on January the 28th 1829 in front of a crowd of 25,000 people. On the following day his body was the cadaver used at the anatomy lecture. Hare was released at the English border on the 7th of February; the same day Burke's confession was published in Edinburgh.

There was a huge demonstration of public anger and fear at Burke's execution and a riot broke out at the Old College when his body was being dissected. Pieces of Burke's cured skin were sold as souvenirs. Dr. Knox was hounded out of Edinburgh by the angry mob. The issue of bodies for medical science became important to people. A mob in Paisley found gravediggers tools and so checked the graves of their loved ones; they found six out of seven graves empty. They then systematically attacked all the doctors in town and the army had to be called in to deal with them.

The Anatomy Act was finally passed in 1832 which allowed for the provision of cadavers from hospitals, work houses and prisons, if the bodies were not claimed.

Mysteriously, a few years later, seventeen miniature coffins were found on Arthur's Seat (a dormant volcano) in Edinburgh, the same number of victims Burke killed. They were possibly supposed to represent the souls of the victims and can now be seen in the National Museum of Scotland.