Scottish History Online - The Resurrectionists - Barke & Hare, Edinburgh, Scotland

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William Burke & William Hare, 'The Resurrectionists'

There are some stories that stick in your mind and none more so than that of Burke and Hare, Edinburgh’s, if not Scotland’s most infamous body snatchers (grave robbers) come serial killers. I remember as a youth in the late 1960’s, perhaps going to a dance in the old town late at night, that we would often pass through the Grassmarket. A place that, even after a hundred fifty years since their deaths, is still pretty seedy (not like the in-place of the new millennium that it is today). This accompanied with other areas of the old town such as the Back Wynd’s, Closes of the High Street, Tollcross and the Canongate all could and did make your imagination run riot at the thought of following the footsteps of the sinister duo.

Surgeons Square Edinburgh, Scotland

Surgeons Square Edinburgh

Dr Robert Knox

Dr Robert Knox

Body snatching was not new and as early as 1738 there are recorded accounts of the recently departed being removed to be dissected on the slabs of the Edinburgh Medical Schools. But as the Study of Anatomy surged forward in Edinburgh in the early 1800’s, it was apparent that the allowed allocation of one executed criminal per year to each Anatomy School was insufficient for the growing amount of students. Dr Robert Knox’s school of anatomy near Surgeons Hall is said to have attracted as many as 500 people to the anatomy classes there. So arose the sinister trade of the Body Snatcher and so good were they at their gory trade they also earned the nickname of the ‘resurrectionists’.

So rife was the Body Snatching in Edinburgh that certain graveyards had large walls, railings and watchtowers erected, such as St Cuthberts at the foot of Lothian road and that of the Canongate Kirk. Some graves had added protection against the exhumation of their occupants by having their own walls and railings. So horrified were the general public of Edinburgh. With the growing demand of  

the anatomy schools and the growing difficulty in obtaining freshly interred cadavers enter Burke and Hare, who devise their own and even more sinister methods of supplying the needs of the medical students.

William Burke and William Hare, two Irish immigrants from Ulster, came to Edinburgh to work as labourers on the then New Union Canal and took up lodgings with Maggie Laird and Nell Macdougal, women of low virtue, in the sleazy district of the West Port (near Tollcross). Although giving the appearance of two hard working men by day, at night they had taken up their more sinister and profitable trade of grave robbing and then of serial murder. Their victims of murder were the waifs and strays of the streets of Edinburgh’s Old Town, people no one would otherwise necessarily miss. By hanging out in Inns such as the White Hart in the Grassmarket they would try and spot their potential victims and lure them to their death by their own form of strangulation (in order not to damage the corpse). The victims of the gruesome crime were said to have been sold to anatomist Dr Knox ‘no questions asked’ to be dissected on the tables within the school.

Watch Tower St. Cuthberts, Edinburgh, Scotland

Watch Tower, St Cuthberts

The White Hart Inn, The Grass Market, Edinburgh, Scotland

The White Hart Inn, Grassmarket

Their final demise was due to the death of Mrs Docherty, a recent arrival to Edinburgh, also from Ireland and whom Burke befriended in a shop. According to testimony of the shop boy at the trial however, Burke claimed that he was related to Docherty and offered her breakfast at his lodgings. Later on that day Burke had asked fellow lodgers Mr and Mrs Gray to move out and stay elsewhere at his expense, as no doubt he had murder and profit in mind. The following morning however, Mr and Mrs Gray returned to the lodgings asking for Mrs Docherty as they were suspicious of the goings on and were not satisfied at Burke’s explanation that she had been evicted due to rude behaviour. They found Docherty’s body under a straw mattress, that Burke had warned them to keep away from and even after a large bribe of £10 from Nell MacDougal to keep quiet, they reported the matter to the police.

It is believed that William Burke and William Hare are responsible for the deaths of between 13 –30 people but Burke was the only one prosecuted and then only for the murder of Mrs Docherty. William Hare and Maggie Laird turned King’s evidence against him and Nell Macdougal. Burke was hanged on the 28th January 1829 before a large crowd, which was said to be chanting ‘ Burke him, Burke him’. Nell MacdDougal escaped prosecution, as the case against her was not proven. No charges were ever brought against the Surgeon Dr Knox as being the recipient of the bodies for dissection within the school and William Hare is said to have died a penniless pauper in London in 1858.

The Cannon Gate Churchyard, Edinburgh Scotland

The Canongate Charchyard

Greyfriers Churchyard, Edinburgh Scotland

Greyfriers Churchyard

In an ironic end to the story Burke’s body was donated to the medical school for what they called "useful dissection". His skeleton is still on display at the University Medical School. A pocket book was also made of his skin and this is on display at the Police Museum on the Royal Mile.

© by John A. Duncan of Sketraw, KCN, FSA Scot.

Acknowledgements: My Thanks to Alan Wilson , Edinburgh for the use of some of his photographs

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