The grisly tale of two Irish anatomical entrepreneurs

On a recent tour of Edinburgh our guide pointed out where the infamous William Burke and William Hare had plied their grisly …

On a recent tour of Edinburgh our guide pointed out where the infamous William Burke and William Hare had plied their grisly trade of supplying cadavers to the anatomical dissection classes of Dr Robert Knox. Later, when casually following up the story of Burke and Hare I discovered that both were Irish.

In the late 18th and the 19th centuries, anatomists and surgeons faced a severe shortage of cadavers, necessary to further medical science and to teach anatomy. In Britain the only legal source was the gallows but supply fell well short of demand. And so, in order to meet the shortfall, the "profession" of grave-robber was born.

The grave-robbers caused widespread anxiety. Friends and relatives of the deceased felt obliged to stand guard over the grave. Special watch-houses were built to secure the grave until the interred body had deteriorated to a stage where it was no longer medically useful.

Grave-robbing had become a considerable business by 1820. Edinburgh with its many anatomy schools provided the biggest market and such was the demand that corpses reached that city from as far afield as Dublin. Prices ranged from £4 to £14.


The most eminent anatomist and surgeon in Edinburgh was Dr Robert Knox (1701-1862). In 1825 he established an anatomy school which quickly attracted the largest enrolment (500) in Britain. This called for a proportionally high supply of bodies. Knox paid up to £800 per year for bodies. In 1827, Burke and Hare started to do business with Knox's school, delivering corpses of remarkable freshness.

William Burke was born in 1792 to peasant parents at Orrery, Co Cork. He moved to Scotland in 1818 to labour on the construction of the Union Canal linking Glasgow to Edinburgh. He took up with a young Scottish prostitute, Helen McDougal. William Hare was born in Derry in 1790. He moved to Scotland and, like Burke, laboured on the Union Canal. He moved in with Margaret Laird, a widowed lodging-house keeper in Edinburgh.

In 1827, Burke and McDougal moved into the lodging-house run by Hare and Laird. Shortly afterwards, an elderly pensioner died in the house owing £4 rent arrears. To make good his loss, Hare, with Burke's assistance, sold the corpse to Dr Knox's school for £7 5 shillings. Both men were struck by the opportunity to make easy money. They decided to take an active approach and, over the next year, killed at least 15 people, many of them lodgers at Hare's establishment.

Their usual modus operandi was to get their victim drunk and then to kill him/ her by smothering. As time went on they became careless and things came to a head when neighbours, suspicious at the sudden disappearance of a Mrs Docherty, entered Burke's house. Burke and McDougal were arrested for murder. The police later found Mrs Docherty's body in the Knox Anatomy School and, after interrogating the porter, they also arrested Hare and Laird.

Only Mrs Docherty's body was available as physical evidence. The police were certain that their prisoners were guilty of many murders but couldn't prove this and, of course, their prisoners denied the charges. They decided that the only way to make progress was to offer immunity from prosecution to whichever of the accused would give up the others. Hare agreed to co-operate on condition that he and Laird were granted safety from prosecution.

Burke and McDougal were tried on Christmas Eve 1828 on three charges of murder. McDougal was indicted only on the charge of murdering Margaret Docherty. The jury found Burke guilty but decided that the case against McDougal was not proven. Burke was sentenced to be hanged on January 28th, 1829, and his body to be given to the surgeons for dissection.

Burke confessed to his crimes. He declared that McDougal and Laird knew nothing of what was going on. Burke and Hare had told the anatomists that they purchased the bodies from relations and others about Edinburgh. Killing by suffocation left no marks on the bodies and aroused no suspicions on the part of the doctors.

At least 20,000 people turned out to see Burke hanged. Burke declared he was glad he had been brought to justice and that he depended on the atonement of the Saviour for salvation. The crowd greeted Burke's appearance on the gallows with roars of - "Burke him, Burke him - give him no rope". They also shouted for Hare to be hanged. After Burke was hanged the officials struggled among themselves to get scraps of the hanging rope and other relics of the occasion.

Helen McDougal was released from jail on St Stephen's Day, but was recognised and forced to run for her life from a mob. She may have ended her days in Australia.

When Hare was released from prison he went to work in a lime-kiln in England, but when his fellow workers discovered who he was they blinded him by throwing lime in his eyes. He ended his days as a blind beggar in London.

Neither did Dr Knox have an easy time. There was much adverse public comment. There were disturbances outside his home and a mob hanged him in effigy. A committee of inquiry cleared him of any serious fault. However, many people believed he was at least guilty of gross negligence.

Knox did not receive the university appointment he expected and changes in curriculum regulations demoted the importance of his anatomy school. He went to London in 1840 where he practised in relative obscurity until his death in 1862.

(William Reville is a Senior Lecturer in Biochemistry and Director of Microscopy at UCC.)