Burke and Hare, doing Edinburgh’s dirty work! Following on from the Bloody Code, the Judgement of Death Act 1823, Scotland saw the number of crimes punishable by death drop dramatically. Good news for the average law-abiding citizen, but since medical and anatomy schools were only legally allowed to dissect the bodies of those who had been condemned to death, this led to an extreme shortage of suitably dead bodies.
Edinburgh, at this time, and indeed today, was the centre of surgery, the study of anatomy, and the advancement of science in general. They had an almost insatiable need for freshly dead cadavers.
This, in conjunction with dire unemployment situation at the time, led to some very shady deals being struck between the medical schools and the local criminals. Supply and demand led to the creation of body snatching from the graves of freshly buried corpses as a means of income for those macarbe enough to participate.
William Burke and William Hare both originated from the Province of Ulster in Ireland and moved to Scotland to work on the Union Canal. The pair met and became close friends in the West Port area of Edinburgh. An area close to the medical schools.
In conjunction with Professor Robert Knox, a popular and resepected anatomy lecturer, they devised to provide the medical labs with a continuous supply of freshly dead bodies.
Such was the success of their endeavours that the demand began to exceed the supply and they hopeless pair turned to murder in order to keep their customers supplied, and content.
In time, their scheme unfurled, and in the end the scheme came to an abrupt halt at the end of the hangman's noose. William Burke was hanged at Lawnmarket in front of a rowdy, cheering crowd of over 25,000 on 28 January 1829 — after his body was put on public display, his corpse was then donated to medical science.
Their story has been told many times. Most recently in the 2010 movie Burke and Hare, starring Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis in titular roles. The movie is a hugely entertaining period piece of skulduggery. But the fact remains that they were murderers, and kept the local residents in fear of losing their newly buried loved ones in the dead of night to the body snatchers.
The cover photo of the death masks of Burke and Hare is by Stephencdickson [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons