In the early days of what we might now recognise as modern medicine, when there were more medical students than bodies to be studied in gross anatomy, William Burke and William Hare, a pair of Irish immigrants from Ulster, arrived in Edinburgh, Scotland.
While records of body snatching can be found as far back as 1738, for use in medical schools, it wasn’t until the early 1800s that there was a large increase of anatomy students and therefore a higher demand for the newly deceased whose bodies would be studied for science and medicine. It became so bad that many graveyards had high walls and watchtowers built to protect those interred within. Burke and Hare arrived in Edinburgh to work as laborers on the New Union Canal. They took up residence at lodging house run by Maggie Laird and Nell Macdougal, women of low virtue and while they seemed by day to be honest laborers, at night they took up the more profitable trade of body snatching.
The first cadaver they sold was a lodger who had died of natural causes. When they received between £8-10, they realised how profitable this new line of work could truly be. Between January and October of 1828 the pair killed three women, twelve men and one child. The three murders which caught the public’s attention and served as Burke and Hare’s downfall were Mary Paterson (a.k.a. Mary Mitchell), James Wilson (b.k.a. Daft Jamie) and Madgy Docherty (a.k.a. Madgy Campbell). It seems odd that though these three were the sort of individuals the murdering pair focused on: living on the streets and not likely to be missed, at least one of them – James Wilson – had a mother and sister living who clearly would miss him. It was two other lodgers in the same house – Ann and James Gray – who discovered the body of Madgy Docherty, presumably awaiting the right time to be transported to Dr Knox.
Though both Burke and Hare worked together on the murders, it was William Burke alone who stood trial for all of the murders. The police tried to incriminate both women who ran the lodging house, but there was little evidence that they knew of the murders, much less participated in them. Dr Knox, too, was brought in for questioning, but both students and colleagues ardently defended him and nothing came of it. William Burke was found guilty and executed on January 29, 1829. His body was dissected and publicly displayed. Their preferred method of murder, suffocation by leaning on and compressing the chest, has been known ever since as “burking.”
The revelation of the sinister deeds of William Burke and William Hare brought to light two important issues of the day: the way in which medical schools obtained their “subjects” and the abject poverty in which most of Edinburgh lived.