Medical science is a wonderful thing. Plagues no longer wipe out entire cities. Surgery prolongs lives that would have been lost in the age of leech therapy. These, and the many other great and marvelous advances in medicine require a great deal of research.
In the Nineteenth Century doctors who wanted to explore human anatomy had a very limited supply of cadavers. Only the bodies of criminals could be used for research. As medical research began to reveal the answers to more and more of the medical mysteries that had puzzled doctors for centuries, the shortage of research subjects became a problem. For professor Robert Knox who practiced the French method of anatomical study – one student – one cadaver, the problem was especially troubling. So when a couple of fellows showed up on professor Knox’s doorstep with a corpse to sell the professor didn’t ask questions. He paid their fee without hesitation.
William Hare didn’t set out to become a resurrection man. The opportunity just presented itself. Hare owned a boarding house in a poor section of Edinburgh Scotland. One night an elderly boarder expired at his dinner table. Mr Hare was not especially moved by the death of the old pensioner, he was however. outraged that the old man had dared to die while still owing £4 in rent. With the help of William Burke, another of his boarders, he weighted the old man’s coffin with tree branches and hid the body until the authorities removed the coffin. Once they were gone, the men were in the clear to do as they wished. They stuffed the old man in a sack and spirited him off to the anatomy school where they sold the body for £7.
Misters Burke and Hare were impressed with the easy money. A few days later, another boarding house resident became sick. Burke and Hare gave him whiskey to make him feel better. Although Joseph the Miller was not nearly as old as the first boarder or nearly as ill, the two businessmen decided that he was close to death and the only humane thing to do would be to put him out of his misery. They continued feeding Miller whiskey until he was unconscious then covered his mouth and nose until he died. In no time at all Burke and Hare collected the second installment from the doctor at the anatomy school.
Burke and Hare waited and waited but to their dismay no other boarders became sick. Unwilling to so easily give up their new and lucrative source of income they decided on a more proactive method of supplying the school. On a balmy April morning in an Edinburgh tavern William Burke met with Mary and Janet a pair of 18 year old prostitutes. After consuming copious amounts of alcohol Burke was able to convince the two young women to return to his house for breakfast. Mary quickly fell asleep at the breakfast table. Burke and Janet continued drinking until they were surprised by Burke’s wife Helen. For some reason Helen was upset by the presence of the young women in her kitchen. She screamed at her husband and pelted him with assorted kitchen implements. After much excitement and emotional upheaval Burke put his wife out of the house. Janet, upset by the intrusion of Burke’s wife, escaped through a side door. She left her sleeping friend Mary behind. When Janet came back Mary was no where to be found.
As he paid Burke and Hare, Dr Knox commented on the freshness of the latest female specimen. Many students were surprised to see the familiar face of the prostitute on the autopsy table. But no one said anything. Burke and Hare emboldened by their success, became ever more fearless in their pursuit of their quarry.
Visitors to Edinburgh vanished never to be seen again. As Burke and Hare became more expert in their art, even the locals began to disappear. William Burke became so bold as to convince a team of police officers that he knew the drunken woman they were escorting home. The policemen allowed Mr. Burke to take the woman off their hands. The next day she was on the autopsy table and Burke was £10 richer.
The cavalier attitude of the two men proved to be their undoing. 18 year old James Wilson who was known as “Daft Jamie” was a local fixture who haunted the streets of Edinburgh. He entertained children with games and riddles. Early in October William Hare discovered Jamie wandering the streets. He convinced him to come to his house. Jamie wasn’t a drinker and Burke and Hare’s usual ploy of plying their victims with alcohol didn’t work on Jamie. Jamie fought back. He proved to be remarkable strong and was able to pin Hare and nearly escape. The two men were eventually able to regain control of the situation. They delivered the body of the boy to the anatomy school the next morning.
Jamie’s mysterious disappearance and his mother’s constant inquiries about his whereabouts aroused the suspicions of the authorities. Many of the students at the anatomy school recognized the body of the boy but Dr. Knox denied that the corpse was Jamie’s. The body was however, quickly dissected and all features that could have identified Jamie were eradicated.
The final episode in Burke and Hare’s gruesome tale began the morning of Halloween. Burke managed to lure an Irish woman to the boarding house on the pretense that they were related. By this time Burke and Hare’s wives were in on the scheme and did all they could to help. In order to “entertain” the woman Burke needed to get a pair of troublesome boarders the Gray’s out of the way. At his own expense and persuading them with some sort of fanciful story he convinced them to stay elsewhere for the night. The couple’s suspicion of this strange request brought them back to the boarding house first thing in the morning. They poked around. To their horror they found the corpse of Mary stashed under a bed. Burke and Hare tried to bribe the couple but they instead ran to alert the authorities. Burke and Hare move quickly to remove the body to the anatomy school. When they returned home the police were waiting with their wives. Burke and Hare had cooked up an explanation. They’d agreed on the time they would tell the police that Mary left. The authorities became wary when Mrs. Burke claimed Mary left at 7pm and her husband claimed she left at 7am.
Under interrogation the ghastly story came to light. The foursome was arrested. William Hare and his wife turned King’s evidence and ratted out their co-conspirator in exchange for leniency. The court could not prove Mrs. Burke’s guilt. Of the four William Burke was the only one to be punished. He was hanged on Jan 28 1829 in front of a large crowd which chanted
‘ Burke him, Burke him’. William Burke’s body was donated for dissection shortly after his death. His skin was used to make a pocket book which is on display at Police Museum on the Royal Mile. His skeleton hangs to this day in University Medical School.
Charges were never brought against Dr. Knox or the anatomy school. Although the Doctor’s popularity waned in the years following the incident. He ended his undistinguished career working long hours in a crowded London hospital.