Burke and Hare murders

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William Burke and William Hare, pictured at Burke's trial

The Burke and Hare murders, or West Port murders, were a series of murders committed in Edinburgh, Scotland, over a period of about ten months in 1828. The killings were attributed to Irish immigrants William Burke and William Hare, who sold the corpses of their 16 victims to Doctor Robert Knox as dissection material for his well-attended anatomy lectures. Burke and Hare's alleged accomplices were Burke's mistress, Helen McDougal, and Hare's wife, Margaret Hare. From their acts came the now archaic British word "burking", originally meaning to smother a victim or to commit an anatomy murder but which later passed into general use as a word for any suppression or cover-up.


Anatomy in 19th-century Edinburgh[edit]

Two techniques to deter grave robbers
Graveyard watchtower, built in Dalkeith in 1827

Several pioneering teachers of anatomy were active in Edinburgh in the early 19th century. These included Alexander Monro, his son—also called AlexanderJohn Bell, Robert Knox and John Goodsir, all of whom developed the subject into a modern science.[1] Because of their efforts, Edinburgh became one of the leading European centres of anatomical study, alongside Leiden in the Netherlands and the Italian city of Padua.[2] The teaching of anatomy—crucial in the study of surgery—required a sufficient supply of cadavers, the demand for which increased as the science developed.[3] Scottish law determined that the suitable corpses on which to undertake dissection comprised the bodies of executed criminals, those who died in prison, those who committed suicide and the bodies of foundlings and orphans.[4] With the rise in prestige and popularity of medical training in Edinburgh, the legal supply of corpses failed to keep pace with the demand; students, lecturers and grave robbers—also known as resurrection men—began an illicit trade in exhumed cadavers.[5][6]

The situation was confused by the legal position. Disturbing a grave was a criminal offence, but the theft of the body was not (as it did not legally belong to anyone), while taking the clothes or shroud was classed as theft, as these were the property of the estate of the deceased.[7][8] The cost per corpse changed depending on the season: £10 in the winter months, when the demand by anatomists was greater, and £8 during the summer months, when the warmer temperatures meant less dissections took place because the bodies could not be stored for long before decomposition set in.[9]

With grave robbing on the rise in the 1820s, the residents of Edinburgh rioted in protest on several occasions.[10] To avoid corpses being disinterred, Edinburgh families used several techniques to deter the grave robbers. Guards were hired to watch graves, and watchtowers were built in several cemeteries; some families hired a large stone slab that could be lain over a grave for a short period—until the body had begun to decay past the point of being useful for an anatomist—which would then be removed and hired to the next people who wanted it. Others used a mortsafe—an iron cage that surrounded the coffin.[11] The high levels of vigilance from the public, and the techniques used to deter the grave robbers led to what the historian Ruth Richardson describes as "a growing atmosphere of crisis" among anatomists because of the shortage of corpses.[12] The historian Tim Marshall considers the situation meant "Burke and Hare took graverobbing to its logical conclusion: instead of digging up the dead, they accepted lucrative incentives to destroy the living."[13]

Dr Robert Knox[edit]

Knox was an anatomist who had qualified as a doctor in 1814. After contracting smallpox as a child, he was blind in one eye and badly disfigured.[14] He undertook service as an army physician at the Battle of Waterloo (1815), in England and during the Cape Frontier War (1819) in southern Africa, before he settled in his home town of Edinburgh from 1820. In 1825 he became a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, where he lectured on anatomy. Knox performed his dissections twice a day, and his advertising promised "a full demonstration on fresh anatomical subjects" as part of every course of lectures he delivered;[15] he stated that his lectures drew over 400 pupils.[16] Clare Taylor, his biographer in the Dictionary of National Biography, observes that he "built up a formidable reputation as a teacher and lecturer and almost single-handedly raised the profile of the study of anatomy in Britain".[14] Another biographer, Isobel Rae, considers that without Knox, the study of anatomy in Britain "might not have progressed as it did".[17]

Burke and Hare[edit]

The Hares' lodging-house in the West Port before its demolition in 1902
The front courtyard of Argyle House, 3 Lady Lawson Street, Edinburgh. The corner of the house was where the largest yellow cone is.

Burke (1792–1829) was born in Urney, near Strabane, County Tyrone, in Ulster. After trying his hand at a variety of trades and serving as an officer's servant in the Donegal Militia, he left his wife and two children in Ireland and emigrated to Scotland about 1817, working as a navvy on the Union Canal.[18] There he met Helen McDougal. Burke was intending to find employment as a cobbler in the West Country, but Hare's wife, Margaret Laird, instead said Burke and his mistress Helen McDougal should stay in their spare room.[19] Burke afterwards worked as a labourer, weaver, baker and a cobbler.

Hare's birthplace is variously given as Poyntzpass near Newry, or Derry, both of which are also in Ulster.[citation needed][20] Hare was born around 1807.[21] Like Burke, he emigrated to Scotland and worked as a labourer on the Union Canal. While working at the Edinburgh terminus of the canal, he met a man named Logue, who ran a lodging-house for beggars and vagrants in the nearby West Port area of the town. When Logue died in 1826, Hare married Logue's widow, Margaret Laird. She continued to run the lodging house while Hare worked at the canal basin.[citation needed]

Something of Hare's origins and character are revealed in the following account from the Newry Telegraph of 31 March 1829.

Hare was born and bred about one half mile distant from Scarva in the opposite county of Armagh and shortly before his departure from this country he lived in the service of Mr Hall, the keeper of the eleventh lock near Poyntzpass. He was chiefly engaged in driving the horses which his master employed in hauling lighters on the Newry Canal. He was always remarkable for being of a ferocious and malignant disposition, an instance of which he gave in the killing of one of his Master’s horses, which obliged him to fly to Scotland where he perpetrated those unparalleled crimes that must always secure him a conspicuous page in the annals of murder.


Dr Robert Knox, the surgeon implicated in the murders. The press and public deemed him guilty by association.

Shortly after their arrival in Edinburgh in November 1827, Burke and McDougal moved into Tanner's Close where Margaret Hare's lodging-house was situated.[22] Burke had met Margaret on previous trips to Edinburgh, but it is not known whether he was previously acquainted with Hare. Once Burke arrived in the close, they became good friends.[23] According to Burke's later testimony, the first body they sold was that of a tenant, an old army pensioner who died of natural causes on 29 November 1827. He had died owing Hare £4 rent, so to recoup the loss they substituted the body by filling the coffin with bark and took the cadaver to Edinburgh University, looking for a purchaser. According to Burke's later testimony, they asked for directions to Professor Monro, but a student directed them instead to Surgeon's Square where they sold the body for £7.10s (2010 values: £731, US$1,130) to an assistant of Dr. Robert Knox,[24] an anatomist of considerable reputation owing to his knowledge and skill gained as an army surgeon at the time of Waterloo. It has been suggested that, but for this chance encounter, the public opprobrium which later fell on Knox might have attached to Monro.[25]

Knox was an extramural lecturer who, as was customary at the time, charged fees to medical students and visitors attending his lectures on anatomy. His advertising promised "a full Demonstration on Anatomical Subjects" as part of every course of lectures he delivered, and he boasted that his lectures drew a class of above 400 pupils.[26]

Burke and Hare's first murder victim was a sick tenant named Joseph, a miller by trade whom they plied with whisky and then suffocated. When there were no other sickly tenants, they decided to lure a victim from the street. In February 1828, they invited pensioner Abigail Simpson to spend the night before her return home to the village of Gilmerton. The following morning they employed the same modus operandi, serving her with alcohol to intoxicate her, and then smothering her. This time they placed the body in a tea-chest and handed it over to a porter sent to meet them "at the back of the Castle".[27] They were paid £10.[24]

Mary Paterson

Two further undated murders took place that spring. One victim was invited into the house by Mrs Hare and plied with drink until Hare's arrival; the other was despatched in similar circumstances by Burke acting on his own.[28] Next, Burke encountered two women, Mary Paterson and Janet Brown, in the part of Edinburgh known as the Canongate. He invited them to breakfast at his brother's house in Gibb's Close, but Brown left when an argument broke out between McDougal and Burke. When she returned, she was told that Paterson had left with Burke; in fact, she, too, had been taken to Dr. Knox's rooms in a tea-chest.[24] The two women were described as prostitutes in contemporary accounts, but there is no evidence that this was true.[29][30][31] The story later arose that one of Knox's students had recognized the dead Paterson, whose acquaintance he had made a few days earlier.[29][32]

Daft Jamie

One victim was an acquaintance of Burke, a woman called Effie who scavenged for a living and was in the habit of selling him scraps of leather she found which he could use for his cobbling. They were paid £10 for her body. Then Burke "saved" an inebriated woman from being held by a policeman and his assisting neighbour by claiming that he knew her and could take her back to her lodging. He delivered her body to the medical school just hours later. The next two victims were an old woman and her mute son or grandson, aged about 12. While the woman was smothered, Burke took the young boy and stretched him over his knee, then proceeded to break his back according to Leighton[33] and Ireland.[34] This is not confirmed in his confession where he states that the boy was killed by suffocation. He later said that this was the murder that disturbed him the most, as he was haunted by his recollection of the boy's expression.[35] The customary tea-chest being found inadequate, both bodies were forced into a herring barrel and conveyed to Surgeons' Square, where they fetched £8 each.[36] According to Burke, the barrel was loaded onto a cart which Hare's horse refused to pull uphill from the Cowgate, so that Hare had to call a porter to help him drag it the rest of the way on a sled. Once back in Tanner's Close, Hare took his anger out on the horse by shooting it dead in the yard.[37]

Mrs Docherty

Two more victims were Burke's acquaintance, Mrs. Hostler, and one of McDougal's relatives, Ann Dougal, a cousin from Falkirk. Burke later claimed that about this time Mrs Hare suggested converting Helen McDougal into merchandise on the grounds that "they could not trust her, as she was a Scotch woman"; but he refused.[38]

Another victim was Mary Haldane, a former lodger who, down on her luck, asked to sleep in Hare's stable. Burke and Hare also murdered her daughter Peggy Haldane when she called a few days later to inquire after her mother's whereabouts.[39]

Burke and Hare's next victim was a familiar figure in the streets of Edinburgh, a mentally disabled young man with a limp, named James Wilson. "Daft Jamie", as he was known locally, was 18 at the time of his murder. The boy resisted, and the pair had to kill him together, though later each blamed the other for taking the main part in the crime. His mother began searching and asking for him. When Dr. Knox uncovered the body the next morning, several students recognized Jamie. Knox denied that it was the missing boy, and was reported to have dissected the body ahead of others to render the remains unrecognisable.[40] While Hare was in the habit of disposing of victims' clothing in the Union Canal, Burke passed Jamie's clothes to his nephews, leaving behind material evidence which was recovered before the trial.

Burke stated later that he and Hare were "generally in a state of intoxication" when the murders were carried out, and that he "could not sleep at night without a bottle of whisky by his bedside, and a twopenny candle to burn all night beside him; when he awoke he would take a draught of the bottle—sometimes half a bottle at a draught—and that would make him sleep".[41]

The last victim was Mrs Mary Docherty, also known by her maiden name as Margery Campbell. Burke lured her into the lodging house by claiming that his mother was also a Docherty, but he had to wait to complete his murderous task because of the presence of lodgers James and Ann Gray. The Grays left for the night and neighbours later reported having heard the sounds of a struggle and even a woman's voice crying "murder!".[42]


The next day the Grays returned, and Ann Gray became suspicious when Burke would not let her approach a bed where she had left her stockings. When they were left alone in the house in the early evening, the Grays checked the bed and found Docherty's body under it. On their way to alert the police, they ran into McDougal who tried to bribe them with an offer of £10 a week. They refused.

Burke and Hare had removed the body from the house before the police arrived. However, under questioning, Burke claimed that Docherty had left at 7 a.m., while McDougal claimed that she had left in the evening. The police arrested them. An anonymous tip-off led them to Knox's dissecting-rooms where they found Docherty's body, which James Gray identified. William and Margaret Hare were arrested soon thereafter. The murder spree had lasted almost ten months. When an Edinburgh paper reported the disappearances on 6 November 1828, Janet Brown went to the police and identified her friend Mary Paterson's clothing.

Trial and execution[edit]

The Hares during the trial. McDougal's defence counsel Henry Cockburn thought Mrs Hare used her baby and its bouts of whooping cough "as an instrument for delaying or evading whatever question it was inconvenient for her to answer".

The evidence against the pair was far from conclusive. In the one case for which the authorities had a body (Mrs Docherty's) the medical experts could not state the cause of death with any certainty, and the prospect seemed real that Burke and Hare would blame each other for the murders, leaving a jury uncertain as to whom to convict for a capital offence. Lord Advocate Sir William Rae therefore offered Hare the opportunity "to turn King's evidence", i.e. be granted immunity from prosecution if he confessed and agreed to testify against Burke. Contemporary accounts suggest that Burke was perceived as the more intelligent of the two, and was therefore presumed to have taken the lead in their crimes. After visiting both men in their cells, Christopher North described them in Blackwood's Magazine (March 1829):- although there was "nothing repulsive" about Burke who was "certainly not deficient in intellect", he was "steeped in hypocrisy and deceit; his collected and guarded demeanour, full of danger and guile", a "cool, calculating, callous and unrelenting villain"; Hare, on the other hand, was "the most brutal man ever subjected to my sight, and at first look seemingly an idiot." Comparing the two women, he observed that Mrs Hare "had more of the she-devil".[43]

The Lord Advocate's decision was extremely unpopular with the press and public who throughout the trial expressed hostility towards the Hares. A petition on behalf of James Wilson's mother and sister, protesting against Hare's immunity and intended release from prison, was given lengthy consideration by the High Court and rejected by a vote of 4 to 2 against.[44]

Burke and McDougal faced three charges of murder in respect of Mary Paterson, James Wilson and Mrs Docherty (the third charge to be heard first and, on a successful capital conviction, the other two to remain unheard). The trial took place on Christmas Eve 1828 and lasted twenty-four hours. A journalist who was present described the dismal scene in the packed court-room,

By orders from the Court a large window was thrown open as far as it could be done, and a current of cold damp air beat for twenty-four hours upon the heads of the whole audience... The greater part of the audience being Advocates and Writers to the Signet in their gowns, these were wrapped round their heads, and, intermingled with various coloured handkerchiefs in every shade and form of drapery, which gave to the visages that were enshrouded under them such a grim and grisly aspect as assimilated them to a college of monks or inquisitors, or characters imagined in tales of romance, grouped and contrasted most fantastically with the costume of the bench and the crowded bar engaged in the trial.[45]

The jury retired to consider its verdict at 8.30am on Christmas Morning and returned fifty minutes later to find Burke guilty of the third charge and the charge against McDougal not proven.

Burke's execution in the Lawnmarket from a contemporary print

Before passing the death sentence,[46] the Lord Justice-Clerk, David Boyle, addressed Burke with the words,

You now stand convicted, by the verdict of a most respectable jury of your country, of the atrocious murder charged against you in this indictment, upon evidence which carried conviction to the mind of every man that heard it. (...) In regard to your case, the only doubt that has come across my mind, is, whether, in order to mark the sense that the Court entertains of your offence, and which the violated laws of the country entertain respecting it, your body should not be exhibited in chains, in order to deter others from the like crimes in time coming. But, taking into consideration that the public eye would be offended with so dismal an exhibition, I am disposed to agree that your sentence shall be put in execution in the usual way, but accompanied with the statutory attendant of the punishment of the crime of murder, viz.- that your body should be publicly dissected and anatomized. And I trust, that if it is ever customary to preserve skeletons, yours will be preserved, in order that posterity may keep in remembrance of your atrocious crimes.[47]

The execution, as depicted on a contemporary broadsheet.

The edition of the Edinburgh Evening Courant newspaper that covered the trial sold an extra 8,000 copies, increasing its revenue by £240.[48]

Burke was hanged at 8.15 am on 28 January 1829, a day of torrential rain, in front of a crowd estimated at between 20,000 and 25,000. Window-seats in tenements overlooking the scaffold were hired at prices ranging from 5 shillings to £1.[49] On the following day Burke was publicly dissected in the anatomy theatre of the University's Old College.[50] Police had to be called when large numbers of students gathered demanding access to the lecture for which a limited number of tickets had been issued. A minor riot ensued and calm was restored only after one of the university professors decided to allow the would-be gatecrashers to pass through the theatre in batches of fifty at a time. During the dissection, which lasted for two hours, Professor Alexander Monro dipped his quill pen into Burke's blood and wrote "This is written with the blood of Wm Burke, who was hanged at Edinburgh. This blood was taken from his head."[51] Following the dissection, the Edinburgh phrenologists were permitted to examine Burke's skull.

Burke's skeleton is now displayed in the Anatomical Museum of the Edinburgh Medical School.[52] His death mask and a book said to be made from his tanned skin can be seen at Surgeons' Hall Museum. As Robert Knox was the first conservator of the museum there are also specimens, instruments and other artefacts relating to him and the period (the museum is open daily to the public).[53] Following the execution and dissection wallets supposedly made from Burke's skin were offered for sale on the streets of Edinburgh.[54] A calling card case made from skin taken from the back of his left hand fetched £1050 at auction in 1988. It was sold by the family of Piercy Hughes, a descendant of one of the surgeons involved in the dissection, and bought by Robin Mitchell and Colin MacPhail of Edinburgh's Cadies & Witchery Tours company. Until 2013 the case was displayed at the Police Information Centre in Edinburgh's Royal Mile. It is now displayed in The Cadies & Witchery Tours shop in Edinburgh's West Bow.[55][56]

McDougal was released after the charge against her was found to be not proven. Knox was not prosecuted, despite public outrage at his role in providing an incentive for the 16 murders. Burke swore in his confession that Knox had known nothing of the origin of the cadavers.[24]

Summary of victims[edit]

Death mask of Burke and life mask of Hare in the Anatomical Museum of Edinburgh University

Burke made two confessions while awaiting execution: an official judicial confession (3 January 1829) and a statement to the Edinburgh Evening Courant (7 February 1829). While these differ to some extent in chronological sequence and detail, combining their content enables the following list of victims to be compiled (and, where known, the amounts paid for them). Burke asked in his condemned cell whether Knox could pay the £5 share of the money he was expecting to receive for Mrs Docherty so that he could buy a new set of clothes before appearing in public on the scaffold.[22]

— Donald, army pensioner (£7.10s)
1. Abigail Simpson from Gilmerton, salt seller (£10)
2. Joseph, a millworker (£10)
3. Drunken female lodger (£10) - Burke acting alone
4. English male lodger from Cheshire (£10)
5. Mary Haldane, prostitute* (?)
6. Effie, cinder-gatherer* (£10)
7. Irish woman from Glasgow (£8)
8. Glasgow woman's son or grandson (£8)
9. Female lodger - Hare acting alone (?)
10. Drunken woman in the West Port (£10)
11. Margaret Haldane, prostitute (£8)
12. Mary Paterson, also known as Mary Mitchell (£8)
13. Mrs Hostler, washerwoman (£8)
14. Ann McDougal, from Falkirk, cousin of Helen McDougal (£10)
15. James Wilson, simpleton known as "Daft Jamie" (£10)
16. Mary Docherty, Irish beggarwoman; also known as Margery Campbell (—)

(9 were killed in "Hare's House" and 2* in the stables in the courtyard; 4 were killed in "Burke's House" (two closes east from Tanner's Close where he and McDougall had gone to lodge with a carter called Broggan); and 1 at the house of Burke's brother, Constantine Burke, in the Canongate; 12 of the victims were women.)

The novelist Sir Walter Scott commented,

Our Irish importation have made a great discovery of Oeconomicks, namely, that a wretch who is not worth a farthing while alive, becomes a valuable article when knockd on the head & carried to an anatomist; and acting on this principle, have cleard the streets of some of those miserable offcasts of society, whom nobody missed because nobody wishd to see them again.[57]


The West Port area in 2011. Almost all the buildings now date from the Victorian period. Tanner's Close stood in front of the white building in this photograph (a little nearer the camera position)

McDougal returned to her house but on venturing out the following evening to buy alcohol was attacked by an angry mob and had to be taken into police custody for her own safety. She was taken to the police station in the West Port, but after the mob laid siege to it, she was dressed in men's clothes and escaped through a back window to the police lock-up off the town's High Street. After meeting with a hostile reception on returning to her home area of Stirling, she revisited Edinburgh briefly before moving on to Newcastle, where she was again recognised, attacked and taken into police custody. The authorities took her to the county border with Durham, after which her trail went cold. She was rumoured to have died in Australia in 1868.[58] but that theory has been discredited by later historians.

Margaret Hare was released from the Calton Gaol and almost immediately spotted making her way to the Old Town and surrounded by a hostile crowd, from which she was rescued by police intervention. After a few days in the High Street lock-up, she moved to Glasgow where, according to newspaper reports, she and her child had to be rescued on two occasions from hostile mobs. She was moved secretly from the Calton Police Office to Greenock where the police put her on board a ship bound for Belfast on the way to her family home near Derry.[59]

When Burke reported delivering Abigail Simpson's body to Knox's assistant "at the back of the castle", he was probably referring to Tanner Street (seen here) which led from Tanner's Close to King's Stables Road.

Hare was released in February 1829 and immediately assisted in leaving Edinburgh by the mailcoach to Dumfries. At one of its stops he was recognised by a fellow-passenger who, as chance would have it, was a junior counsel who had represented James Wilson's family. On arrival in Dumfries the news of Hare's presence spread like wild-fire and a crowd estimated at 8,000 gathered at the hostelry where he was staying the night. Police arrived and arranged for a decoy coach to draw off the crowd while Hare escaped through a back window into a carriage which took him to the town's tolbooth. A crowd surrounded the building; stones were thrown at the door and windows and street lamps smashed before 100 special constables arrived to restore order. In the small hours of the morning, escorted by a sheriff officer and militia guard, Hare was taken out of town, set down on the Annan Road and instructed to make his way to the English border. Two days later the driver of the northbound mail reported having passed him within half a mile of Carlisle. Several days later he was spotted two miles south of the town; the last reported sighting of him in Britain.[60]

The Newry Telegraph reported on 31 March 1829.

On Friday evening last Hare the murderer called in a public house in Scarva accompanied by his wife and child and having ordered a naggin of whiskey he began to enquire for the welfare of every member of the family of the house, with well affected solicitude. However, as Hare is a native of this neighbourhood, he was very soon recognised and ordered to leave the place immediately, with which he complied after attempting to palliate his horrid crimes by describing them as having been the effects of intoxication. He took the road towards Loughbrickland followed by a number of boys yelling and threatening in such a manner as obliged him to take through the fields with such speed that he soon disappeared whilst his unfortunate wife remained on the road imploring forgiveness and denying, in the most solemn manner, any participation in the crimes of her wretched husband. They now reside at the house of an uncle of Hare’s near Loughbrickland.

Many popular tales about Hare circulated in the years after the trial. One such told of him being mobbed and thrown into a lime pit, causing him to be blinded and end his days as a blind beggar on the streets of London. However, no evidence has ever been found to confirm these folktales.

The eight survivors of the mysterious Arthur's Seat coffins, found in 1836 and theorized to represent proxy burials of the 16 victims of Burke & Hare.[61]

Knox kept silent about his dealings with Burke and Hare. Although a committee of inquiry cleared him of complicity, the Edinburgh mob held him accountable nonetheless (transactions had been carried out by assistants or servants; and his claim of having no reason to suspect foul play was accepted with some reservations expressed). A few days after Burke's hanging, a crowd converged on his house and began throwing stones at its windows. An effigy of Knox, which had been carried in procession from the Calton Hill was hanged from a nearby tree and set alight by a bonfire underneath. While the police dispersed the crowd, Knox, disguised in his military cloak and armed with sword, pistols and a Highland dirk, escaped through a back door. He continued to lecture on anatomy into the 1840s and eventually moved to London where, from 1856, he worked as an anatomist at the Brompton Hospital and had a medical practice in Hackney until his death in 1862.[62]



Calling-card case made of Burke's skin

The question of the supply of cadavers for scientific research had been promoted by the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham from before the crimes of Burke and Hare took place.[a] A select committee had drafted a "Bill for preventing the unlawful disinterment of human bodies, and for regulating Schools of Anatomy" in mid 1828—six months before the murders were detected. This was rejected in 1829 by the House of Lords.[65][4]

The murders committed by Burke and Hare raised public awareness of the need for bodies, and of the trade that doctors had conducted with grave robbers and murderers. The East London murder of a 14-year-old boy and the subsequent attempt to sell the corpse to medical school at King's College London led to the investigation of the London Burkers who had recently turned from grave robbing to murder to obtain corpses; two men were hanged in December 1831 for the crime. A bill was introduced into Parliament ten days later which gained royal assent nine months later to become the Anatomy Act 1832.[4][66] The Act authorised dissection on bodies from workhouses that remained unclaimed after 48 hours and ended anatomising as part of the death sentence for murder.[67][4]

In media portrayals and popular culture[edit]

The events of the West Port murders have made appearances in fictional literature. They are referred to in Robert Louis Stevenson's 1884 short story, "The Body Snatcher", and Marcel Schwob told their story in the last chapter of Imaginary Lives (1896),[68] while the Edinburgh-based author Elizabeth Byrd used the events in her novels Rest Without Peace (1974) and The Search for Maggie Hare (1976).[69] The murders have also been portrayed on screen, either as an inspiration for fiction or for heavily fictionalised accounts.[70][b]

David Paterson, Knox's assistant, contacted Walter Scott to ask the novelist if he would be interested in writing an account of the murders, but he was declined, despite Scott's long-standing interest in the events.[79] Scott later wrote:

Our Irish importation have made a great discovery of Oeconomicks, namely, that a wretch who is not worth a farthing while alive, becomes a valuable article when knockd on the head & carried to an anatomist; and acting on this principle, have cleard the streets of some of those miserable offcasts of society, whom nobody missed because nobody wishd to see them again.[80]

Notes and references[edit]


  1. ^ In order to change public opinion on the matter, Bentham donated his body to be publically dissected and his corpse to be preserved as an "auto-icon"; it has been on display in University College London since 1850.[63][64]
  2. ^ On stage: On film: On television:
    • "The Anatomist" (1937) directed by Bridie; based on his own play.[77]
    • "The Anatomist" (1956) an episode of the ITV Play of the Week series.[78]


  1. ^ "The Pioneers of Medical Science in Edinburgh". The British Medical Journal. 2 (761): 135–37. 31 July 1875. JSTOR 25241571. 
  2. ^ Bailey 2002, p. 14.
  3. ^ Roughead 1921, p. 3.
  4. ^ a b c d Goodman, Neville M (23 December 1944). "The Supply of Bodies for Dissection: A Historical Review". The British Medical Journal. 2 (4381): 807–11. JSTOR 20347223. 
  5. ^ Richardson 1987, p. 54.
  6. ^ Bailey 2002, p. 17.
  7. ^ Knight 2007, p. 14.
  8. ^ Barr 2016, p. 97.
  9. ^ Bailey 2002, p. 49.
  10. ^ Cunningham 2010, p. 229.
  11. ^ Bailey 2002, pp. 21–22.
  12. ^ Richardson 1987, p. 101.
  13. ^ Marshall 1995, p. 4.
  14. ^ a b Taylor 2004.
  15. ^ Bates 2010, p. 61.
  16. ^ Roughead 1921, p. 275.
  17. ^ Rae 1964, p. 126.
  18. ^  Boase, George Clement (1886). "Burke, William (1792-1829)". In Stephen, Leslie. Dictionary of National Biography. 7. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 
  19. ^ Buchanan, R. (1829). Trial of William Burke and Helen M'Dougal: before the High court of justiciary, at Edinburgh, on Wednesday, December 24, 1828, for the murder of Margery Campbell, or Docherty. Scotland: High Court of Justiciary. 
  20. ^ Original confession found in most books on the subject although the original document has disappeared.
  21. ^ Prison Records National Records of Scotland HH21/8/1 Hare was 21 years old at the time of arrest in 1828.
  22. ^ a b W Roughead, ed., Burke And Hare, Notable British Trials Series, William Hodge and Company Limited 1948, p.262
  23. ^ Howard, Amanda; Martin Smith (2004). "William Burke and William Hare". River of Blood: Serial Killers and Their Victims. Universal. p. 50. ISBN 1-58112-518-6. 
  24. ^ a b c d "William Burke, Confessions". West Port Murders. Edinburgh: Thomas Ireland. 1829. 
  25. ^ W Roughead, ed., Burke And Hare, Notable British Trials Series, William Hodge and Company Limited 1948, p.11
  26. ^ W Roughead, ed., Burke And Hare, Notable British Trials Series, William Hodge and Company Limited 1948, p.275 stated in a letter from Knox to the Courant after the trial
  27. ^ W Roughead, ed., Burke And Hare, Notable British Trials Series, William Hodge and Company Limited 1948, p.17
  28. ^ W Roughead, ed., Burke And Hare, Notable British Trials Series, William Hodge and Company Limited 1948, p.18
  29. ^ a b Rosner, L. 2010
  30. ^ West Port Murders. Edinburgh: Thomas Ireland. 1829. 
  31. ^ "Preface". Trial of William Burke and Helen McDougal. Edinburgh: Robert Buchanan. 1829. 
  32. ^ Lonsdale, Henry (1870). A Sketch of the Life and Writings of Robert Knox, the Anatomist. London: MacMillan. 
  33. ^ Leighton, Alexander (1861). The Court of Cacus. Edinburgh: Houlston and Weight. p. 108. 
  34. ^ Ireland, Thomas (1829). West Port Murders. Edinburgh: Thomas Ireland. p. 193. 
  35. ^ W Roughead, ed., Burke And Hare, Notable British Trials Series, William Hodge and Company Limited 1948, p.19
  36. ^ W Roughead, ed., Burke And Hare, Notable British Trials Series, William Hodge and Company Limited 1948, pp.19-20
  37. ^ W Roughead, ed., Burke And Hare, Notable British Trials Series, William Hodge and Company Limited 1948, pp.267-8 The horse went only so far as the Meal Market below Parliament Close, then refused to budge.
  38. ^ W Roughead, ed., Burke And Hare, Notable British Trials Series, William Hodge and Company Limited 1948, p.20
  39. ^ W Roughead, ed., Burke And Hare, Notable British Trials Series, William Hodge and Company Limited 1948, p.23
  40. ^ W Roughead, ed., Burke And Hare, Notable British Trials Series, William Hodge and Company Limited 1948, p.35
  41. ^ W Roughead, ed., Burke And Hare, Notable British Trials Series, William Hodge and Company Limited 1948, p.270, from Burke's confession to the Edinburgh Evening Courant, 7 February 1829
  42. ^ W Roughead, ed., Burke And Hare, Notable British Trials Series, William Hodge and Company Limited 1948, p.37
  43. ^ W Roughead, ed., Burke And Hare, Notable British Trials Series, William Hodge and Company Limited 1948, p.14
  44. ^ W Roughead, ed., Burke And Hare, Notable British Trials Series, William Hodge and Company Limited 1948, pp.281-376
  45. ^ Scots Magazine, December 1828, p.52
  46. ^ W Roughead, ed., Burke And Hare, Notable British Trials Series, William Hodge and Company Limited 1948, p.257-8, The Lord Justice-Clerk and Lord Commissioners of Justiciary, in respect of the verdict before recorded, decern and adjudge the said William Burke, pannel, to be carried from the bar, back to the Tolbooth of Edinburgh, therein to be detained, and to be fed upon bread and water only, in terms of an Act of Parliament passed in the twenty-fifth year of the reign of His Majesty King George the Second, entitled "An Act for preventing the horrid crime of murder", until Wednesday, the 28th day of January next to come, and on that day to be taken forth of the said Tolbooth to the common place of execution, in the Lawnmarket of Edinburgh, and then and there, between the hours of eight and ten o'clock before noon, of the said day, to be hanged by the neck, by the hands of the common executioner, upon a gibbet, until he be dead, and his body thereafter to be delivered to Dr. Alexander Monro, Professor of Anatomy in the University of Edinburgh, to be by him publicly dissected and anatomized, by the said Act; and ordain all his moveable goods and gear to be escheat and inbrought to his Majesty's use, which is pronounced for doom. And may Almighty God have mercy on your soul."
  47. ^ W Roughead, ed., Burke And Hare, Notable British Trials Series, William Hodge and Company Limited 1948, p.257
  48. ^ W Roughead, ed., Burke And Hare, Notable British Trials Series, William Hodge and Company Limited 1948, p.59
  49. ^ W Roughead, ed., Burke And Hare, Notable British Trials Series, William Hodge and Company Limited 1948, p.64
  50. ^ Howard, Amanda; Martin Smith (2004). "William Burke and William Hare". River of Blood: Serial Killers and Their Victims. Universal. p. 54. ISBN 1-58112-518-6. 
  51. ^ Rosner, Lisa (2009). The Anatomy Murders. Penn Press. ISBN 978-0-8122-4191-4. 
  52. ^ "Collections - Burke and Hare". Anatomical Museum - Edinburgh University. Retrieved 20 September 2014. 
  53. ^ "Surgeons Hall Museum Museum". 
  54. ^ David H. Freedman, "20 Things you didn't know about autopsies," Discover September 2012.
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  57. ^ L Rosner, The Anatomy Murders: Being the True and Spectacular History of Edinburgh's Notorious Burke and Hare and of the Man of Science Who Abetted Them in the Commission of Their Most Heinous Crimes, University of Pennsylvania 2009 p.74
  58. ^ W Roughead, ed., Burke And Hare, Notable British Trials Series, William Hodge and Company Limited 1948, pp.60-1
  59. ^ W Roughead, ed., Burke And Hare, Notable British Trials Series, William Hodge and Company Limited 1948, p.61-2
  60. ^ W Roughead, ed., Burke And Hare, Notable British Trials Series, William Hodge and Company Limited 1948, p.75-6
  61. ^ http://www.nms.ac.uk/explore/collections-stories/scottish-history-and-archaeology/mystery-of-the-miniature-coffins/
  62. ^ Robert Knox MD, FRCSEd, FRSEd 1791-1862: The first Conservator of Surgeons Hall Museum http://www.rcsed.ac.uk/RCSEDBackIssues/journal/vol45_6/4560011.htm
  63. ^ "Jeremy Bentham auto-icon". University College London. Retrieved 1 July 2016. 
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  65. ^ Evans, Alun (2010). "Irish Resurrectionism: 'This Execrable Trade'". Ulster Journal of Archaeology. 69: 155–70. JSTOR 41940979. 
  66. ^ Richardson 1987, pp. 196–97.
  67. ^ Hutton 2015, p. 4.
  68. ^ McCracken-Flesher 2012, pp. 106, 139.
  69. ^ Knight 2007, p. 107.
  70. ^ McCracken-Flesher 2012, pp. 18–19.
  71. ^ a b c McCracken-Flesher 2012, p. 18.
  72. ^ Knight 2007, p. 106.
  73. ^ McCracken-Flesher 2012, p. 145.
  74. ^ "Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971)". Screenonline. British Film Institute. Retrieved 27 June 2016. 
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  80. ^ Rosner 2010, p. 74.

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