The murders committed by William Burke and William Hare are some of the most notorious in Scottish history. Between 1827 and 1828, the two men killed at least 16 people in Edinburgh, selling their bodies to medical schools for dissection. Here is a timeline of the events surrounding the Burke and Hare murders:
- William Burke and William Hare meet in Edinburgh and begin working together as laborers.
- In November, Hare’s lodger dies of natural causes. The two men sell his body to an anatomy lecturer at a local medical school.
- In February, Hare’s tenant dies of natural causes. Burke and Hare sell his body to the same anatomy lecturer.
- In April, Hare’s elderly lodger dies. This time, Burke and Hare suffocate her and sell her body to the anatomy lecturer.
- In October, Burke and Hare kill their first victim, Abigail Simpson, a woman with learning difficulties who was staying at Hare’s lodging house. They sell her body to the anatomy lecturer.
- In November, Burke and Hare kill their final victim, Mary Docherty, who was also staying at Hare’s lodging house. They are caught when one of the medical students who receives her body recognizes her and alerts the authorities.
The Burke and Hare murders were shocking not only for their brutality but also for the fact that they were motivated by profit. The demand for fresh corpses for dissection in medical schools was high in the early 19th century, and Burke and Hare saw an opportunity to make money by providing bodies to the schools. However, when their supply of dead bodies ran out, they turned to murder.
Burke and Hare’s crimes were discovered when they sold the body of Mary Docherty to anatomist Dr. Robert Knox. When Knox realized that the body was fresh and likely the result of foul play, he contacted the police. Burke and Hare were arrested and quickly confessed to the murders.
Burke was put on trial in December 1828 and found guilty of murder. He was sentenced to death by hanging, and his body was subsequently dissected by anatomists. Hare turned state’s evidence and was not charged with murder, although he was imprisoned for a short time on unrelated charges.
The Burke and Hare murders had a profound impact on the public imagination, both in Scotland and beyond. The case was widely covered in the press, and the public’s horror and fascination with the crimes sparked a wave of interest in true crime stories. The case also had a lasting impact on the medical profession, leading to greater scrutiny of the procurement of cadavers for dissection and the passage of legislation regulating the practice.
One of the most disturbing aspects of the Burke and Hare case is the callousness with which the two men treated their victims. Burke and Hare targeted vulnerable individuals, often those without family or friends who might miss them. They killed for profit, with no regard for the lives they were taking or the families they were destroying. The fact that they were able to carry out their crimes for so long before being caught only adds to the sense of horror and disbelief.
The case of Burke and Hare also highlights the complex relationship between medicine and ethics. In the early 19th century, dissection was an essential part of medical training, and the demand for cadavers was high. However, the methods used to procure bodies were often unethical, with grave robbing and body snatching being common practices. The Burke and Hare case exposed the seedy underbelly of the medical profession and led to greater regulation of the practice of dissection.
Despite the passage of time, the Burke and Hare case remains a subject of fascination for true crime enthusiasts and historians alike.