The anatomy murders were serial killings carried out by William Burke and William Hare, two Irishmen resident in Edinburgh, Scotland. They murdered 16 people in the course of a 12-month period, from November 1827 to November 1828, in order to sell the cadavers to an anatomy lecturer, Dr. Robert Knox.
In any murder case, we need to look for motive, opportunity, and means.
The motive for the anatomy murders was gain. There were hundreds of medical students each year who needed to dissect human cadavers to learn anatomy and to gain certification of their skills, but the only type of cadaver that was available legally were convicted, executed murderers, and there simply were not enough murderers in Scotland to keep up with the medical school demand. Burke and Hare earned between £7 and £10 per cadaver, equivalent to perhaps $400 in today’s money. That was more than they could have earned in six months at their legitimate jobs.
The opportunity came from the fact that Edinburgh was an industrializing city with a large transient population, and Hare’s wife, Margaret, kept a boarding house in the Irish immigrant district known as the West Port.
The means was a form of suffocation, which came to be known as “burking,” after its most famous practitioner. It involved compressing the chest to prevent the victim from expanding the diaphragm, and covering the nose and mouth. This is actually a very hard thing to do, because people will not generally lie there and let someone compress their chest. So Burke and Hare would get their victims very drunk first, so that they were insensible. They were predators, and Burke, especially, was very charming and played on Edinburgh patterns of sociability to induce victims to his house to drink, and then keep drinking.
They were caught when a lodger found the last cadaver hidden under a bed and reported them to the police. The resulting investigation and trial was a media sensation, and led to widespread public outcry. Hare and his wife turned prosecution witnesses against Burke and the woman he lived with, Helen M’Dougal. Burke was convicted and executed, the charges against M’Dougal were found not proven (a Scots verdict that counts as an acquittal), and Hare and his wife got off scot-free.
In The Anatomy Murders, I take readers through that fateful year, cadaver by cadaver, while explaining the historical circumstances that went into producing the crime.
The Burke and Hare anatomy murders were a sensation in their own day, the first serial killings to be reported in the popular press. The story traveled wherever newspapers were sold, throughout Britain and across the Atlantic, all the way to the American frontier. It was the basis for a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson, called “The Body Snatcher,” later turned into a movie starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. There have been other movie versions as well, the most recent being John Landis’ Burke and Hare, just released on DVD in the United States in December (2011).
One reason why the case appeared so chilling in the 1820s—and still does today—is that unlike most murders, there was no personal relationship between the perpetrator and victim. That is, these weren’t crimes of passion, or bar room brawls that went horribly wrong. Burke and Hare made no distinctions: one person’s cadaver was just like another’s, and so anyone, anywhere, could end up “burked” on a dissecting table. A man might come to town on his lawful business, a woman might stop for the night in respectable lodgings, but all their prudence could not guarantee their safety. People feared that anyone could become a murder victim, because there was literally a price placed on every head.
In the modern world, this fear has been incorporated into the urban legend of people waking up in a strange hotel room missing a kidney. And the value of a modern human body, with all saleable parts intact, has been estimated between $100,000 and $400,000.
My own interest in the story comes from my scholarly work as a historian of medicine. The Burke and Hare case raises hard questions about medical progress. We are all in favor of scientific experiment when it improves our own health care, but can it come at too high a price? Even as we draw the line at murder, do we ignore other dubious practices? Black market sale of body parts? Medical experimentation on human subjects without their knowledge or consent? Miracles of modern medicine routinely available to the rich, but not the poor?
Here is an excerpt from the first chapter. I hope readers think of it as a true-crime, historical CSI.
On Halloween, 1828, sometime before 11 pm, Hugh Alston, a grocer in the West Port district of Edinburgh, heard two men quarrelling from the floor below, and a woman’s strong voice calling “Murder.” The tenant downstairs was William Burke, a shoemaker; Alston may have guessed that the other man was Burke’s associate William Hare, who lived a few streets away. Alston went downstairs and stood in the passageway. He heard more quarreling, then strangling sounds, and the woman’s voice, still strong, called for the police to come, there was “murder here.” With that Alston went for the police, but found none: Halloween was a traditionally raucous night, and they were either making their rounds or enjoying the fun. When Alston returned, all was quiet.
By that time, Madgy Docherty, the last of the 16 victims of Burke and Hare, was already dead. Drunk and dizzy from whiskey, she had lain down, or been pushed, onto the bed during the quarrel. Burke positioned himself on top of her to compress her lungs, and Hare covered her mouth and nose with his hands. Her face became livid, and blood-flecked saliva came from her mouth. There was no real struggle – Burke, though small, was solidly built, and he and Hare had done this sort of thing before. Once she was dead, they stripped her body and put it under a pile of straw near the bed. Its final destination: the dissecting rooms of Dr. Robert Knox, anatomical lecturer in Surgeon’s Square.
The Burke and Hare case has remained so popular because the myths speak to our fears about medicine, about our bodies, about our society. We can imagine we, or our children, going out into the world, meeting a pleasant, hospitable stranger—a friend of a friend, say—only to find that he or she is really a dangerous predator. We can imagine going to our doctor, relying on his or her skill, and we know that skill has to be bought at the price of some cadaver—we just hope it’s not ours. We can imagine, very easily indeed, a world in which our body parts are worth more to someone, somewhere, than our own lives. And we hope, desperately, that we never meet up with the present-day incarnations of Burke and Hare.
Lisa Rosner is Professor of History and Director of the Honors Program at Stockton College in New Jersey. She is an awardee of the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Philosophical Society, and the Chemical Heritage Foundation.