Grave Robbers and Body Snatchers: William Burke Part 1

About the body snatcher William Burke who killed people in his boarding house and sold their corpses to medical science.

The Body Snatchers

Among the best-known of murderers and among the most unwise, William Burke (1792-1829) was an Irish laborer who emigrated to Scotland in 1817. There he eventually opened a used clothing store in Edinburgh and, far more importantly, rented a room from William Hare, a fellow Irishman and owner of a boardinghouse catering to vagrants and elderly pensioners. This was the era of the body snatchers or resurrectionists, those moonlighting grave robbers who supplied anatomists with bodies for dissection. Body snatchers were subject to heavy fines and deportation, but if they left the corpse's clothing behind, they could not be convicted of robbery or any serious offense. Cadavers were much in demand at the time, no questions asked, for only the relatively few bodies of men executed for murder were then legally available for the dissection table and anatomy was 1st coming into its own as a science.

It was in 1827 that Burke and his partner embarked upon their career. One of Hare's lodgers--an old man named Donald--had died owing him pound 4, and the landlord convinced Burke that they had stumbled upon an easy source of income. Ripping the cover off the coffin in which parish authorities had sealed Donald, the pair hid his body in a bed and filled the coffin with tanner's bark, resealing it and later selling the cadaver for pound 7 10s. to Dr. Robert Knox, who ran an anatomy school in Surgeon's Square. Burke and Hare soon expanded their operation. Another boarder lingered too long at death's door and they helped him through, smothering the man with a pillow and selling his body to Knox for pound 10.

Hare and his wife, and Burke and his mistress, Helen McDougal, proceeded to dispatch from 14 to 28 more unfortunates in similar fashion, receiving up to pound 14 for each body. They were careful to smother their victims, leaving no marks of violence, so that it would appear that they were merely grave robbers. Whenever the boardinghouse supply ran low, they lured victims there, usually choosing old hags, drunks, and prostitutes, whom they often plied with drink. If a candidate offered too much resistance for a pillow, Burke would pin him down while Hare smothered him, holding his hands over the victim's nose and mouth.

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