William Burke

1792 - 1829

Resurrectionist and murderer. An Irish navvy who came to Scotland, to work on the Union Canal. When his work on the canal was finished, he moved into Edinburgh taking up lodgings in Tanner's Close in the home of William Hare (d. c.1860). The pair frequented the drinking dens of the Old Town but soon turned to the lucrative occupation of obtaining bodies for Dr Robert Knox (1791 - 1862), the anatomist, based in the Medical School of the University of Edinburgh, for which they were paid £7 10/- each. Initially the pair are said to have satisfied their employer by digging up freshly buried corpses, but they quickly resorted to murder, luring victims to their lodging house. Here they plied their victims with drink before smothering them. They were captured after killing 16 people, the so-called 'West Port Murders'. Only Burke stood trial in the High Court in Edinburgh, because Hare had turned King's evidence and testified against his partner. He was convicted and hanged in front of a large crowd in Edinburgh's Lawnmarket. Burke's body was subject to a public dissection by Professor Alexander Monro (1773 - 1859) and curiously a wallet made from his tanned skin remains preserved in the Anatomy Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh, along with his death-mask. His skeleton is held by the University of Edinburgh's Anatomical Museum.

The story of Burke and Hare inspired The Body Snatcher (1884), a short-story by Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-94); a play The Anatomist (1930) by James Bridie (1888 - 1951) and two Holywood films; The Body Snatcher (1945) and Burke and Hare (2010).

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