William Burke: A Victim of His Own Dark Profession

In a strange twist of fate, William Burke became the victim of his own crime on January 28, 1829. His death mask, as well as his skeleton and a notebook made out of his skin remain. May I explain?

Burke was an Irish labourer who left his wife and children to find work in Edinburgh.  He moved into a lodging house in Tanners Corner, where he made good friends with the landlady and her new husband, William Hare. The old landlord had died strangely enough.

An old army pensioner died in Hare’s lodging-house, owing him four pounds.  Determined to get the money back, the men decided that they would sell the old man to science.

May I step outside of the current story to tell you about cadavers (dead bodies) in the early nineteenth century? Science and medicine were a developing profession at this period in history.  If you were a student training to be a doctor you had to train on a cadaver- meaning you had to pay for it. Legally cadavers could only be obtained if the person was a prisoner who was publicly executed.  For the 900 students who each needed a body, the declining public executions left a great demand for bodies (you probably can see where this is going). At this time period in history, loved ones of a dearly departed might include mortsafes over the grave of their loved one- literally bars over the coffin to keep grave robbers out.

Burke and Hare sold this poor man to science- his coffin was filled with sawdust. They received around seven pounds, and were drunk (probably both literally and figuratively) on the profits they could make.

They lured approximately 15 more victims to their death (usually strangling them), and then sold their bodies to science.  Most of the people were the most vulnerable members of society: the poor, sick and ladies of the street.  The bodies were purchased for around ten pounds apiece by a local anatomist Dr. Robert Knox. Who knows what he was thinking when he received so many bodies from two men- certainly not enough to turn them in to the police.

The men were discovered by lodgers, James and Anne Gray, in their rooming house (yes, they still kept that business).  The couple became suspicious when Hare would not let Anne retrieve her clothing from her room.  Returning later that night, the Gray’s were horrified when they found a dead woman under their bed.

Hare was given immunity from prosecution if he testified against Burke.  I’m sure he did so willingly.

On January 28, 1829, William Burke was publicly executed and then given to the Edinburgh Medical College to be publicly dissected.  Dr. Robert Knox was not invited.

The attending professor who did the dissection, Alexander Monro(who taught Charles Darwin), went so far as to dip his quill in the blood of Burke and write a brief memento of the experience. In an act that is inconceivable today, Burke was tanned, and certain objects were made out of his skin: specifically a pocket book and a calling card holder. These can be seen on exhibition at the Police Information Centre in Edinburgh. His bones and a plaster cast death mask, were kept for science, and are housed at the University of Edinburgh Anatomical Museum. Sounds like Hammurabi was the judge: eye for an eye a tooth for a tooth.

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3 Responses to William Burke: A Victim of His Own Dark Profession

  1. A pub called the White Hart still exists in Edinburgh, that was around when Hare and Burke were terrorizing the neighbourhood in Grassmarket. It is just steps from where Burke was publicly executed. The pub boasts an effigy of Burke with a noose tied around it. Could it be his?

  2. thistwilightgarden says:

    I adore stories like this…what does this say about me? 🙂

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