Executions · Scotland

Body thief hanged

January 28, 1829
Edinburgh, Scotland
William Burke is hanged for the murders of lodgers whom he and his partner Hare killed in order to sell the bodies to doctors

At the time, Scottish law prohibited the use of medical cadavers unless the person had died in prison or as a result of suicide, or if they were foundlings (abandoned children) or orphans. This led to graverobbers selling recently buried corpses, but additional measures put in place to deter this action made producing cadavers a fairly lucrative venture.

Burke and Hare first got into the illegal medical cadaver trade when a lodger died in Hare’s home. He owed back rent, and the pair decided to remove his body before burial, hiding it under a bed, and filling the coffin with bark to give an appropriate weight. They later sold the lodger’s body to recoup some of their lost rent.

Their first murder came about when a lodger contracted a fever. Concerned news of a feverish lodger would discourage other lodgers, the pair murdered the sickly woman and sold her body. The practice was profitable enough to continue killing random lodgers until their 16th and final victim drew suspicion. Blood stained clothes alerted other lodgers and police to foul play, and the victim’s body was found on Dr. Robert Knox dissection table.

Hare turned king’s evidence against Burke during trial and was granted immunity. Burke was hanged January 28, 1829. On February 1, Burke was publicly dissected by Professor Alexander Monro who, during the procedure, dipped his pen in Burke’s blood and wrote in a letter: “This is written with the blood of Wm Burke, who was hanged at Edinburgh. This blood was taken from his head.” Burke’s skin was removed and turned into a pocket book, and his skeleton was put on display at Anatomical Museum of Edinburgh Medical School.

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