William Burke and William Hare – Selling Bodies for Profit
Written By: Angela DiLella
Edited By: Grave Reviews Staff
Although the phrase “side hustle” is a relatively new one, the concept is as old as time: a little job you do on the side to make some extra cash. Nowadays, it usually means freelance projects, like arts and crafts or writing commissions. For William Burke and William Hare, however, it meant murdering lodgers in their homes and selling the bodies for profit.
How Burke and Hare Met – “I’ll have what he’s having”
In the nineteenth century, Edinburgh, Scotland, was at the forefront of anatomical and medical research. However, the high volume of researchers and laws about what bodies could be used for research meant bodies and parts of bodies were in short supply. Body snatching was a rather lucrative career for the unscrupulous.
However, Burke and Hare didn’t start their lives with murder on their minds, or even money. Hare actually owned a boarding house in Edinburgh. Burke and Hare had become friends in another part of Scotland, so when Burke ended up in Edinburgh, it only made sense for him to move into Hare’s place.
On November 29, 1827, one of Hare’s boarders died of edema, which causes fluid retention, joint pain, and, potentially, death due to organ failure. Hare seemed to be more upset about the loss of funds—the boarder owed him £4 at the time of death (£438 in today’s money). However, Hare didn’t have to worry for long, as Burke suggested that Hare sell the body to a local anatomist. After the funeral rites, they took the body from the coffin and brought it to Doctor Robert Knox at the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh. To their surprise and delight, they received £7 and ten shillings, over £766 in today’s money.
The Murders Begin
This amount seemed to satisfy the pair for a while—until January or February 1828. Because Burke gave contradictory accounts of events while on trial, the start and order of the murders isn’t known. However, many believe that either a boarder named Joseph or a boarder named Abigail Simpson had the unfortunate distinction of being the first intentional victim of Burke and Hare. Joseph was plied with whiskey, and then Hare suffocated the sick man while Burke lay on his torso so he could not cry out or fight back. They made £10, or over £1,095 in today’s money. Abigail Simpson was also filled with whiskey and then murdered when she became incapacitated.
After their ends, a travelling salesman had the misfortune of succumbing to jaundice while staying at Hare’s and Burke and Hare killed him in the same manner as they had Joseph. Even Hare’s wife got involved, inviting an elderly woman to stay with them. As with the others, she was plied with whiskey and then smothered as she slept it off.
From here on in, Burke and Hare focused their attentions almost exclusively on women, plying them with alcohol and smothering them. Altogether they killed eight more women, one young man, and one young boy. Two of these victims were a mother and daughter killed at different times altogether, and one was a grandmother, the young boy her grandson.
Things went sour at the time of the young man’s murder. James Wilson, a mentally challenged beggar, was well-known in the area and his body was recognized by Doctor Knox’s assistants when it was brought in. Doctor Knox pretended to brush off their comments but removed Wilson’s head and feet before performing his dissections to avoid any further talk or identification.
The final victim was murdered on Halloween 1828. Margaret Docherty was killed in the usual manner, but her body was placed in a pile of straw instead of the chest the pair usually used to hide their victims’ corpses. Two boarders became suspicious when Burke wouldn’t let them near the bed next to the pile of straw, where some of Docherty’s personal effects remained. The boarders were offered a bribe, but they reported everything to the police anyways. The police found bloody clothing at the boarding house and Docherty’s body at Doctor Knox’s. By the third of November, Burke, Hare, and their wives were all in police custody.
The Charges and Outcome
It was difficult to prove that the four had committed or been complicit in multiple murders at first, but the police were able to make a case against them by the nineteenth on the murder of James Wilson. In court, Burke and Hare put up a fight, but Doctor Knox’s assistant was quick to confirm the sheer volume of bodies that the duo had sold to them. Despite many attempts at skirting answers and a lack of evidence, Burke and Hare were found guilty as charged.
Hare, however, was granted immunity from prosecution because he confessed and testified against Burke, so he was free to go after February fifth of 1829. What happened to him after he left Edinburgh is unknown, though he needed a police escort to get out of Edinburgh safely. His wife had fled the country for Glasgow, Ireland, while he was still in jail. Nothing is known of what become of her once she left Scotland, either.
Burke was hanged on January 28, 1829. Ironically, his corpse would be dissected for a large audience on February first, and his skeleton was donated to the Anatomical Museum of the Edinburgh Medical School, where it remains on display to this day.
Doctor Knox refused to speak publicly of his involvement with the murderous duo. Mobs harangued him as well; many believed he had acted as ringleader in the murders. He ended up resigning from his position with his college and left Scotland for a series of lectures in London. He also broke regulations there and was not allowed to lecture anymore. He went back to medical work in the Brompton Cancer Hospital until his death in 1862. His biographer, Isobel Rae noted, one hopes with some discomfort, that the study of anatomy may not have progressed in Britain as much without him.
Unsurprisingly, more firm laws were made to circumvent actions like Burke and Hare’s in the future. The two immediately affected popular culture and remain prominent today; “burker” became slang for people who murdered others in order to sell bodies to medical schools. “Burking” referred to smothering victims or murdering someone to sell the body to medical schools. A rhyme even cropped up that painted Burke as a butcher and Doctor Knox as “the boy that buys the beef.” The author Robert Louis Stevenson, an Edinburgh native, would draw heavily on Burke and Hare’s story for his 1884 short story “The Body Snatcher,” which continues to be printed and adapted in various forms of media to this day.
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