In the early 19th century, interest in the study of human anatomy was on the rise. Medical schools required cadavers for dissection and study
but the legal supply was limited. In Great Britain, for example, the law allowed only the unclaimed bodies of recently executed criminals to be used for scientific study.
Doctors and teachers had to turn to other, less legal means to obtain the bodies they required for their studies. An entire underground economy in dead bodies quickly sprung up to fill the need. Body snatchers, sometimes referred to as "resurrection men", would quietly do their work at night in the graveyards of Great Britain, bringing fresh corpses to the doctors and professors who would then pay them handsomely.
In 1827, two Edinburgh men named William Burke and William Hare hit upon a much faster way of making money in the resurrection trade. Instead of skulking around graveyards at night, opening graves and dragging bodies out of their coffins, they decided to expedite the whole process. Rather than wait for someone to die, they decided to just kill them directly and take their bodies in for sale.
It started somewhat innocently. Hare and his wife ran a boarding house, and one of their tenants, an elderly man, died of natural causes. The man owed Hare £4, and in an effort to reclaim the money owed to him, he and Burke (who was also rooming at the boarding house at the time) stuffed the old man's coffin with bark and hid his body, later taking it to the office of a local anatomist, Dr. Robert Knox. They were paid the princely sum of £7 for their efforts, and decided then and there that this was something at which they could make a lot of money.
Over the next year or more, they killed a total of 16 people and sold their bodies to medical science. They started with other tenants at the boarding house. When one of the elderly gentlemen living there got sick, they decided to hasten his passing just a bit and suffocated him in his sleep. When they ran out of tenants, they moved on to street people, prostitutes, and pretty much anybody else they could lure into their house.
In one case, they killed an old prostitute named Mary Haldane. When her daughter Peggy came calling, looking for her mother, they killed her too. Another prostitute, Mary Patterson, was killed and sold to Dr Knox, and several of his students apparently recognized her, probably from having hired her on occasion.
Their spree came to an end in late 1828. The body of their final victim, Marjory Docherty, was discovered by another tenant under a bed in the boarding house. Burke and Hare managed to spirit the body off before the authorities arrived, but a tip led the police to Dr. Knox's office, where they discovered the fresh purchase. Hare was offered immunity if he would testify against Burke; he did so, and Burke was hanged in January of 1829.
The business of body snatching ended soon after as well, as the murders of Burke and Hare helped raise awareness of the problem, and laws were changed allowing for many more legal sources of cadavers.
Burke and Hare would live on in infamy for their daring but idiotic (and thankfully, somewhat brief) stint as resurrection men.
By David J. Parker
By David J. Parker