Edinburgh Body Snatching

The 19th Century opened with a new and unsettling branch of buying and selling. Science had become a viable field of study, and many scholars were eager to delve into the mysteries of the human body. However, they faced the restrictions of strict laws that forbid the use of cadavers, except in special cases. Frustrated, […]

The 19th Century opened with a new and unsettling branch of buying and selling. Science had become a viable field of study, and many scholars were eager to delve into the mysteries of the human body. However, they faced the restrictions of strict laws that forbid the use of cadavers, except in special cases. Frustrated, these scholars had very limited resources with which to discover. Thus, a black market trade of bodies began, with grave robbers at the forefront. No questions were asked, and graves became conspicuously empty as classrooms suddenly boasted increased numbers of cadavers. Precautions were taken to guard against these crimes, but as there was no law against stealing bodies because they were not property, the thieves had little to fear. Professors and doctors turned a blind eye to the sources of their bodies, and though night guards were put on duty, cemetery walls rose, and metal cages were erected over the gravesites, body snatching became a lucrative trade. Though often associated with this particular method, William Burke and William Hare were not, in fact, body snatchers. Theirs was a much more terrible trade. Even so, they most likely did not intend to leave such a murderous legacy behind when they arrived from Ireland. However, circumstances led them down a path that resulted in an infamous history.

William Hare and his wife owned a lodging house, and when one of their tenants, Donald, died suddenly, he left a four pound debt on their hands. At the time, this was a great deal of money, and caused considerable upset. Inspired by the criminal activity of the time, however, Burke and Hare took Donald’s body to the university’s medical buildings to be sold. It was there that Dr. Knox, the university’s most renowned medical lecturer, paid about ten pounds for the body, no questions asked. During the height of their trade, they officially committed 16 murders, but speculations rise to even 30 victims. They targeted people who would not attract suspicion – those travelers or homeless citizens who would not be missed. Luring them into their lodging house, they would ply them with drink, take them upstairs and suffocate them. This particular method left no trace of murder on the body.

Their system worked for a time; however, as they became more and more successful, they also became reckless. Not so careful with their victims, they murdered several well-known citizens – including a favorite prostitute, Mary Paterson, and a children’s entertainer, “Daft Jamie.” When these bodies were brought onto Dr. Knox’s lab table, several students recognized them. Though Dr. Knox shook off the speculation, he tellingly began to dissect their faces first.

In the end, however, it was not the student’s speculation that revealed their work. Two of their tenants, Mr. and Mrs. Grey, became suspicious of their landlords behavior, particularly their vehement instructions to avoid the spare bedroom. When the Grey’s were left alone, they discovered the body of Mary Docherty under the bed. The police were called, and the entire plot unearthed – down to the bodies used by Dr. Knox. Burke and Hare were arrested. The public wanted all three men hanged, but the police had little evidence of murder, thanks to the suffocation technique. So, they struck a deal with Hare – if he squealed on Burke, he and his wife would be free to go. Needless to say, Burke was convicted and Hare escaped to Ireland. 25,000 people turned out to see Burke hanged, cheering when the deed was done. Eventually, his body was donated to medical science, and dissected in a laboratory full of those eager to see. Today, his bones are still on display in the Medical Building at the University of Edinburgh.

Up the close and down the stair, In the house with Burke and Hare. Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief; Knox, the man who buys the beef. A Children’s song.
Team Edinburgh September 2009

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