Grave Robbers and Body Snatchers: William Burke Part 2

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

The Body Snatchers

But the murderers got careless. First, they killed Mary Paterson, a voluptuous 18-year-old, so free with her body that it was quickly recognized by Knox's young medical students, who even preserved it before dissection as a perfect example of female pulchritude. Then they did in "Daft Jamie" Wilson, a familiar, good-natured imbecile who made his living running errands on the streets of Edinburgh. Finally, the suspicions of neighbors aroused, police caught them with the body of a missing woman named Mary Dougherty. Hare turned state's evidence at the ensuing trial, which began on Christmas Eve, he and his wife freed, and Helen McDougal was discharged for lack of evidence. Burke for some reason foolishly refused to give state's evidence. He was convicted and hanged a month later on January 28, 1829, before a crowd of some 30,000. The word the murderer contributed to the language was even heard as he stood on the scaffold in the Grass-market, spectators exhorting the executioner with cries of "Burke him, burke him!" (i.e., don't hang but smother or strangle him to death).

The crowd wanted to "burke" Hare, too, despite his immunity, but the real brains behind the operation escaped them and is believed to have died of natural causes many years later in England where he lived under an assumed name. Throughout the trial Hare's wife had sat in court holding their baby in an attempt to win sympathy, even though the child suffered from whooping cough. Burke, who signed a post-trial confession admitting to some 16 murders, was himself dissected at Edinburgh University Medical School following his hanging, his remains viewed by tens of thousands, and for all anyone knows his skeleton might still be propped up in the corner of some classroom there. As for Dr. Knox, the crowd turned against him after the execution, threatening to destroy his school, and only police protection saved his life. Despite his protestations of innocence, he was ostracized and eventually forced to leave town.

William Burke was not the 1st person to murder for cadavers, or even to murder for this motive by suffocation; 2 female nurses, Helen Torrence and Jean Valdig, had been hanged for this crime in 1752. But with all the publicity Burke's name came to literally signify the act and figuratively to mean "stifle or hush up" in any manner, the usage perhaps strengthened a half century later by the Fenian murder of Thomas Henry Burke, undersecretary for Ireland.

It is a little ironic that Burke's name, in the form of "to burke," "burke," and "burking," should be so remembered, for Hare probably did more of the actual suffocating, his confederate's greater strength needed to hold their victims down. Burke and Hare are thought to be the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson's The Body Snatchers. As a result of their Hare "anatomy murders," existing dissection laws were modified, making it easier for anatomists to obtain bodies without resorting to illegal means.

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