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William Burke (1792-1829) and William Hare (1792/1804 - c. 1858?)

While some chose the profession of body-snatching, for others it was a more accidental career. William Burke and William Hare have become infamous for taking the trade in cadavers to the extreme, and murdering victims for sale to the medical establishment.

In 1827 the two Irishmen were working in Edinburgh as labourers. When an old man living in the same lodging house died owing them money, they decided to sell his body to cover the debt. Looking for a suitable medical establishment, they followed the advice of a student who suggested they take the body to Dr Knox's anatomy school. On being paid over £7 for the body, they realised how lucrative the trade could be.

In the following months, Burke and Hare murdered 15 more people. All of their victims were very poor, often homeless. Eventually, when neighbours reported seeing a body in Burke's bed, Burke and Hare were tried for three murders. Hare agreed to give evidence against his colleague in order to escape prosecution.

Convicted by the court, Burke published his confessions in 1829. He was hung on 28 January 1829. As recommended by the judge, Burke's body was dissected - a dissection performed by Dr Knox's rival, Dr Monro. Only a select few witnessed the dissection, but afterwards the 2000 students who had almost rioted at their exclusion were allowed to view the body. The next day it was exhibited in the Edinburgh University Museum to over 30,000 members of the public. Burke's skeleton can be found today at the Edinburgh University Museum.

In contrast, William Hare disappeared from view, possibly changing his name after being hounded from jobs when his identity became known. His date of death is uncertain.

Related Themes and Topics

Bibliography

R Richardson, Death, Dissection and the Destitute (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987)

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