January 28, 2016


No one is quite sure when he was born (the best guess is some time in 1792), but it is well known that serial murderer William Burke was executed today in 1829.

v. to murder (a person) in such a way as to produce no incriminating marks, usually by suffocation, and with the intention of selling the body for dissection
Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition

This grisly eponym comes from the cursed name of William Burke who, along with his corpse-collecting companion William Hare, became a serial murderer to generate cadavers for the Edinburgh Medical College. Such was the state of British medicine in the 1820s.

Contrary to the twentieth-century film adaptations that focus on the collection of assorted body parts as an essential element of the horror story, the original monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was an entirely new creation of its namesake doctor (also sans the silly electric tables and sparking apparatus)—perhaps due to the fact that body snatching would have been no great shock to readers at the turn of the nineteenth century. At least in the United Kingdom, the market for fresh corpses in the early 1800s was primarily (and almost exclusively) medical schools (see also Cooper’s ligaments), which were allowed to use only cadavers from legal executions. As capital sentences for trivial offences (e.g., pickpocketing) were eventually outlawed, demand quickly outpaced supply—and grave robbers filled the void.

What was frighteningly commonplace at the time is almost inconceivable today. Coffins were made of iron and relatives kept watch over fresh graves to ensure they stayed intact. The unfortunate side effect of these efforts was that some of the body snatchers—who came to be known, euphemistically, as resurrectionists—turned to murder to freshen their produce. Enter Burke and Hare.

William Burke was an Irish immigrant who left his wife and two kids to move to Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1817 and quickly picked up a mistress named Helen MacDougal. Ten years later, Burke and MacDougal moved into a boarding house in the West Port area of Edinburgh owned by another Irish immigrant named William Hare and his common-law wife, and double-daters embarked on a corpses-for-cash killing spree that lasted eighteen months. In a scene straight out of Joseph Kesselring’s Arsenic and Old Lace, the plot started out relatively innocently. An elderly tenant of the boarding house died naturally, and Burke and Hare sold his body to anatomist Dr. Robert Knox at the nearby medical college. Burke and Hare quickly discovered that they could receive double payment for particularly fresh bodies and began using intoxication and suffocation to produce a posthumous parade of sixteen more pensioners, prostitutes, and poor people that was not discovered until November of 1828.

Burke and Hare and their partners were all soon arrested, but the ensuing trial proved to be an absurd affair. Of all the participants in what came to be known as the West Port murders, Hare was granted immunity for testifying against Burke, neither his wife nor MacDougal could not be proven to be complicit, and Dr. Knox was not prosecuted at all. Burke, on the other hand, was convicted, sentenced to death, and hanged on the 28th of January, 1829. Three years later, their notoriety, as well as that of the London Burkers (see bishop), led to Britain’s passage of the Anatomy Act of 1832, which finally curbed body snatching.

To bring the story full circle, Burke’s body ended up at his adopted medical school—the Edinburgh Medical College—where it was dissected, tanned, and set up for display.