‘Round the town with Burke and Hare
Through the close and down the stair
Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief,
And Knox is the boy that buys the beef.
In the early 1800’s in England, the study of anatomy was severely hampered by the lack of suitable cadavers. The specimens were usually executed criminals, who were sentenced to be hanged and then dissected, as a sort of insult after injury. But the number of hanging offenses had been greatly reduced as a result of penal reforms at the turn of the century. When there is a demand and a greatly restricted legal supply, extra-legal methods are employed to fill the demand. Ressurectionists, also known as body-snatchers, would dig up recently buried cadavers and sell them to medical schools.
In the early 1800’s Edinburgh, Scotland was a boom town. People were flooding into the area to work in industry and all sorts of public works projects to support that industry. One of those projects was the Union Canal, connecting Edinburgh and Glasgow by water, to move coal and other raw materials between those industrial cities. The canal was built between 1818 and 1822. William Hare and Brendan Burke emigrated from Ireland to work on the canal and stayed in Edinburgh working on the canal. Hare married a widow who kept a boarding-house. When one of their lodgers died without paying his rent, Hare sold the body to Dr. Robert Knox.
They realized that this work was profitable, and avoided all that hard work of messing around in graveyards with shovels. However, not enough lodgers died of natural causes, so the pair began getting them drunk and suffocating them. Hare would hold a pillow over their faces, and Burke would sit on their chests, killing and leaving very few marks on the body. Burke and Hare killed seventeen victims between 1827 and 1828, taking them from the poor and indigent who lived in and near Hare’s boarding house. Unfortunately, two of the victims were known to the students when they appeared on the dissecting table, and they were known to be in good health.
The authorities were notified, Hare turned King’s evidence and Burke was hanged on 26 January, 1829. He was dissected by the medical students at Edinburgh University, and his death mask and skeleton can still be seen in the museum of the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh. The popular outrage and need for anatomy education that the Burke and Hare case spotlighted lead to the passage of the Anatomy Act of 1832, and greatly increased the supply of cadavers for medical education purposes. Hare was released from prison in February, 1829; Dr Knox eventually moved to London, where he still taught anatomy. The house where Knox lived is now part of Edinburgh University Medical School.