William Burke is hanged
Anatomists had it tough in the 19th Century. They had precious few bodies to dissect, and without a procession of fresh cadavers, studying anatomy is difficult, nigh-on impossible.
Medicine was becoming a more popular career path, with the Renaissance ethos of championing the advancement of medical science flourishing in an age of enlightenment. Not only was demand for cadavers increasing; the supply had all but dried up. There were strict laws as to what, or rather whose, bodies could be turned over to the anatomists; executed criminals only, and murderers at that. In this demand surplus, there rose a new and illicit trade: graverobbing. It was a lucrative business, and it attracted all sorts. The most notorious were Messrs. Burke and Hare.
Edinburgh, 1827, and an Irishman by the name of William Burke came to stay at a guest house ran by fellow Irishman William Hare, and his wife Margaret Laird. Burke had arrived in Scotland ten years earlier. He had served in the Donegal Militia, but became a social pariah after walking out on his wife and children. Yet this would pale in comparison to his latter-day feats. In Hare, Burke had met not only a drinking partner, but a conspirator. It was a meeting of minds – Hare’s the quicker – and their preoccupation with making a fast buck saw them enter the graverobbing trade. The graverobbers, or Ressurectionists as they were also known, would unearth the freshly buried and hawk them to the nearest medical department. True, it was a nefarious practice; but it was necessary.
Cemeteries were not taking too kindly to the purloining of the newly departed; watchtowers, guards, high walls, spiked railings and cages over the graves made the graverobber’s job that bit harder. As the price of a cadaver rose like the price of fish in winter, Burke and Hare would soon step over the dubious line of robbing graves, abandoning the long cold nights by the cemetery to become serial killers for profit. When an elderly resident with a four pound debt to Hare outstanding, died in his sleep at his guest hour, Hare had an idea. A coffin full of rocks would be committed to the earth; one elderly gent would be under Professor Robert Knox ’s knife. The Edinburgh anatomist paid seven pounds – three pounds profit for Burke and Hare, and in Knox they had found a regular customer.
Burke and Hare were soon back at Edinburgh Medical College, this time with the body of Joseph the Millar. He had been suffocated while drunk: this would become the duo’s modus operandi – to ‘Burke’ would eventually become common English for strangling, or suffocation. With no marks on his body he would fetch a good price. The bodies kept coming: another pensioner, Abigail Simpson, fifteen pounds; then a well-known prostitute named Mary Paterson. Things were beginning to look suspicious. Mary Paterson was recognised by the students. When a local youth called ‘Daft Jamie’ was presented before the class; suspicion was growing.
When their last victim, an Irish beggar named Mary Docherty, went missing, the police got involved. Poor Mr and Mrs Gray; the guest house’s latest guests were to make a grisly find – it was the missing, and recently murdered, Mary Docherty. By the time the police arrived the body was already with Knox. Burke and Hare – aided and abetted by Hare’s wife and Burke’s mistress – were under arrest.
The trial was swift. Hare took King’s counsel and turned his partner in. Burke would hang – though his mistress’ case was found not proven. He confessed to sixteen murders, his hanging received rapturous acclaim from a public horrified by his crimes. A bad man, a serial killer – but he was not so bad for the doctors. The Anatomy Act of 1832 was rushed through, allowing doctors to dissect unclaimed bodies, and facilitated the legal purchase of cadavers. Helping medicine to the last; on the morning after his execution, it was the body of Burke that went under the knife.
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