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October 2000
Vol. 3, No. 8, pp. 77
80.
the time line
The corpus and the hare

Demand for bodies to dissect led to murder in 19th-century Edinburgh.

opening art: organizer and hourglassThe anatomical knowledge needed to understand the workings of the human body, on which so much modern drug development depends, was hard-won. Throughout history, reverence for the human body has “interfered” with the legitimate needs of science to treat human flesh as an object of study. During the golden age of anatomical study in Edinburgh, Scotland, a grisly confluence of greed, demand, and scientific hubris created one of the more legendary incidents in medical history.

During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Edinburgh was the center of research in anatomy, and surgeons at the city’s medical school were considered not only elite members of the medical profession but also artisans striving to understand every facet of the human body. Robert Knox, renowned anatomist and head of the Edinburgh Medical School, attracted crowds of 500 or more to his anatomy lectures.

While research in anatomy was surging forward, the lack of available bodies for dissection seriously hindered progress. Parliament allowed only one body per year donated for the purpose of dissection, and it had to be that of an executed criminal. In addition, the demand for surgeons increased because of the respect and honor accorded the profession, so this career track became popular with aspiring doctors. The Edinburgh Medical School’s anatomy and surgery course lasted 16 months. Students had to dissect a minimum of three corpses to become licensed surgeons, making cadavers even more scarce.

Legal bodies
Beginning in the 1820s, the medical community lobbied Parliament to pass the Anatomy Act, which would allow anatomists access to unclaimed pauper bodies from workhouses for the purposes of dissection and research. The poor, however, saw this as a “criminalization of poverty”, meaning the body of a poor person was treated like that of an executed criminal. This hostility was emphasized by the Roman Catholic Church’s opposition to dissecting the dead, based on views of the sanctity of the body (that it belongs to God and not humans). People who had the financial means buried their loved ones in lead coffins to protect them from corruption, on the religious grounds that they would be better prepared for resurrection on Judgment Day.

The medical community argued that dissection was necessary to improve the quality of mortal life and that no one would benefit from this research more than the poor. This argument highlighted the deep division between the classes. Researchers, who often were members of the aristocracy and the only ones who could afford a medical education, regarded the poor as too uneducated and savage to appreciate the knowledge gained from dissection; the poor saw the aristocracy as butchers who regarded the lower class as bodies to cut up in a quest for fame and glory under the guise of scientific knowledge.

In 1819, John Abernathy, a distinguished surgeon of the time, presented the argument of the medical establishment in a speech to the Royal College of Surgeons that pointed out the need to approve the Anatomy Act and the necessity of human cadavers for research.

“There is no short cut, nor ‘royal road’, to the attainment of medical knowledge. . . . If the directors of hospitals, poorhouses, and prisons were to establish it as a regulation that the body of any person dying in those institutions, unclaimable by immediate relatives, should be given to the surgeon of the establishment for dissection. . . . I am convinced, that it would greatly tend to the increase of anatomical knowledge amongst the members of our profession in general, and consequently to the public good.”

Grave concerns
To secure bodies for dissection, doctors and researchers began purchasing bodies, on a “no questions asked” basis, from grave robbers or resurrectionists, who exhumed the recently departed from their graves. As early as 1738, bodies were reported missing from grave sites. The public was horrified, and many Edinburgh cemeteries erected watchtowers, gates, and walls to protect the dead and keep out “body snatchers”.

In 1828, the public found out about an extremely gruesome twist that the grave-robbing business had taken, and the ensuing scandal would send the common people of Edinburgh into a frenzy of panic and rage toward the medical establishment. William Burke and William Hare came to Edinburgh from Ireland looking for work as laborers, but the men quickly decided that grave robbing was a more profitable business opportunity. The two began digging up graves and selling the bodies to medical students and researchers. One of their most loyal clients was none other than the esteemed Knox. Before long, Burke and Hare bypassed grave digging in favor of murder. Many historians argue that the duo never bothered with grave robbing and went straight to murder.

Burke and Hare strangled their victims; they perfected a method that left no obvious signs of violence on the corpses. Reportedly, Knox was not only the beneficiary of their anatomical discoveries (2–3 bodies per week); he allegedly helped the men perfect this clean manner of killing, or “burking”, a term popularized by the scandal. This contributed to the lack of evidence, which proved beneficial to the killers in the subsequent trial. Their victims were poor people living on the fringes of society, such as vagrants and prostitutes. Burke and Hare assumed that their victims would not be missed, and even if they were, that the authorities would make little effort to begin an investigation.

In physical appearance, the men were opposites. Burke was tall and muscular and had a tendency toward violent outbursts, while Hare was thin and spry. In addition to their cadaver business, both men operated rooming houses in Edinburgh.

The exact number of victims has never been determined, but it is widely believed to be between 16 and 30. Burke and Hare have since risen in the ranks of Scottish folklore, and many conflicting stories exist about how they were eventually caught. The most definitive and documented account concerns their murder of an elderly Irishwoman named Mary Docherty.

Docherty had just arrived in Edinburgh from Ireland in 1828, and William Burke was one of the first people to make her acquaintance one morning in a small shop. A shop boy later testified at the trial that Burke convinced the woman they were related (he drew on the fact that they were both Irish) and invited her to board at his establishment because she was new in town. Burke then asked his two current lodgers, a Mr. and Mrs. Gray, to vacate the premises for the remainder of the day. When the couple returned the following morning, they inquired about the new lodger but were told by Burke she had been evicted for being rude. Burke also told them to stay away from the straw bedding in the lodgers’ room, which is exactly where Mrs. Gray found the murdered woman. The couple informed the authorities, and the investigation began. Meanwhile, Burke and Hare delivered the body to Knox and David Paterson, the keeper of the professor’s museum at the medical school, ironically in a tea chest that Burke purchased in the shop when he first met the Irish woman. Knox instructed Paterson to give Burke and Hare £5 and then pay them an additional £8 a few days later.

Burke and Hare were swiftly arrested and brought to trial. On December 24, 1828, The Edinburgh Observer wrote that “no trial in the memory of any man now living has excited so deep, universal, and appalling an interest.” The scandal was headline news all over England and Scotland, and the public came out in droves to witness the trial of the resurrectionists. “Burkophobia” gripped the public; a panic ensued that murder lurked around every corner, similar to the state of London during the killing spree of Jack the Ripper. To make matters worse, copycat killers began claiming victims in England and Ireland.

Because of the lack of evidence, prosecutors offered Hare the chance to escape trial if he would turn King’s evidence and testify against Burke. Burke was hanged on January 28, 1829, in front of 25,000 people in High Street in Edinburgh. Knox remained silent throughout the trial and avoided all criminal charges associated with the murders and purchasing of the bodies. Public opinion considered Knox equally as guilty as Burke and Hare, and at the execution, the crowd demanded that Knox and Hare (who was now a free man) receive the same punishment as Burke. Almost immediately, both men left Edinburgh. Burke’s body was donated to medicine for dissection, and his skeleton remains on display at the University of Edinburgh’s Medical School Museum. As a popular, albeit gruesome, street song of the day goes, “Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief, Knox the boy who buys the beef.”

The body public
Public opinion of the medical profession hit a new low in England and Scotland after the Burke and Hare trial. As writer Tim Marshall explains in Murdering to Dissect, “The low public standing of the medical profession in the early 19th century was due to a large extent to its reluctant but necessary trade complicity with the grave robbers.” In a simultaneous campaign of defense and for approval of the Anatomy Act, the medical community argued that if they had access to a supply of corpses from the unclaimed population, then they would not have to resort to purchasing stolen cadavers. In addition, they reiterated, their research was in the name of scientific advancement and the subsequent improvement of life.

In 1832, the Anatomy Act was approved by Parliament through the Royal Assent, and anatomists could dissect unclaimed pauper bodies from workhouses or other public housing establishments. The lower classes saw this as legislation beneficial to the rich and middle class, who would be exempt from dissection in addition to receiving improved medical education, which was out of the reach of the poor.

That same year, Burkophobia reemerged when Asiatic cholera hit England. During the beginning stages of the epidemic, the poor were most vulnerable to the disease because of squalid living conditions and a general low standard of living. However, the impoverished and working classes were skeptical of any public reform proposed by officials in 1832 to control cholera. In fact, many regarded cholera as a conspiracy of the medical profession to collect more bodies for dissection. Even when many members of the lower class were ill and dying, they refused to seek appropiate medical attention, escalating the spread and strength of the cholera epidemic.

Suggested reading

  1. Edwards, O. D. Burke & Hare; Mercat Press: Edinburgh, Scotland, 1995.
  2. Lyal, A. Adam Lyal’s Witchery Tales; Moubray House Press: Edinburgh, Scotland, 1988.
  3. Marshall, T. Murdering to Dissect; Manchester University Press: Manchester, UK, 1995.
  4. Porter, R., Ed. Cambridge Illustrated History of Medicine; Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK, 1996.


Julie McDowell is an editorial assistant with Modern Drug Discovery. Comments and questions for the authors may be addressed to the Editorial Office by e-mail at mdd@acs.org, by fax at 202-776-8166 or by post at 1155 16th Street, NW; Washington, DC 20036.

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