Burke & Hare: The “Burkers”

Sep 23, 2010 - by Mark Pulham

William Hare and William Burke

William Hare and William Burke

William Burke and William Hare are the most famous grave robbers of 19th century Scotland, but none of the 16 fresh corpses they turned over for dissection in the anatomy classroom of Dr. Robert Knox at 10 Surgeon Square in Edinburg, came from any graveyard.  

by Mark Pulham

Up the close and down the stair,
In the house with Burke and Hare.
Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief
Knox, the man who buys the beef. 

- Children's rhyme

It is dark, and the only sound is that of someone digging. As quietly as they can, the grave robbers remove the earth from the newly interred and remove the lid of the coffin. Fearful of capture, they remove the corpse and hurriedly get away before someone discovers them. It is a profitable and fast growing business. And the most famous body grave robbers of all are Burke and Hare. In films and stories, they are shown committing this dreadful act. But the films and stories got it wrong, Burke and Hare never dug up a body.  No, they were far worse.

In Britain, the Murder Act of 1752 made it illegal for any doctor to perform a dissection on a corpse, unless the corpse was that of an executed criminal. In the 1700’s, any number of crimes could result in the death penalty. Even petty crimes such as cutting down trees, pick pocketing more than a shilling, stealing a horse or a sheep (hence the phrase, “may as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb”) or being out at night with a blackened face could result in an execution.  As a result, there were hundreds of corpses available each year.

By the 1800’s, as the number of medical students began to grow, the demand for cadavers increased, but by now laws allowing more lenient punishments were on the books and the number of criminals executed had fallen to as low as 50 to 60 a year.

As always, with demand outstripping supply, someone would provide the bodies. Anatomists would turn a blind eye when the resurrection men came around with a recently interred corpse. Body snatching became a lucrative business and was so common that many graveyards built high walls and railings around them and erected watchtowers.

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