William Burke and William Hare were two of the most notorious murderers and grave robbers in history. In an era when stealing corpses from graves was big business, Burke and Hare were overachievers. Murder, they discovered, brought a swifter profit.
To understand the rise of Burke and Hare, it is necessary to understand the bloody history of medicine. Beginning in 1506, Scottish surgeons first obtained the legal right to dissect bodies of condemned criminals once they were cut down from the gallows. But the demand for bodies soon outpaced the supply, and surgeons and anatomists turned to less-than-legal means of acquiring fresh cadavers. Bodysnatchers - also known as "resurrectionists" or "resurrection men" - dug up freshly buried corpses. These grave robbers then sold the cadavers to medical schools for a handsome profit and pawned the goods.
Burke and Hare were not simply bodysnatchers - they were actually murderers who realized that creating their own cadavers was the quickest way to make a profit. They first met and became friends in 1827 and by the end of the year, the two men would begin a bloody career of murdering innocent men, women, and children, and selling the fresh corpses to one of the most famous anatomists in the country. Though their spree lasted less than a year, Burke and Hare continue horrify and fascinate.
Their Common-Law Wives Were Knowing AccomplicesPhoto: Public Domain / via Wikimedia Commons
After William Hare moved to Edinburgh, he took up with Margaret, the widow of the man who ran the lodging house where he was staying in Tanner's Close in 1826. Whether or not they were legally married, Hare and Margaret - herself an Irish immigrant too - carried on as man and wife. After Burke's arrival in Scotland, he too found a partner: Helen McDougal, a Scottish woman.
Though the actual killing was done by both Burke and Hare, Margaret and Helen aided in bringing potential victims into the house. At one point, McDougal's own relative became a victim. When Burke and Hare were finally caught, their wives literally got away with murder. Hare in particular refused to give evidence against his wife.
Most of Their Victims Were Among Edinburgh's Poorest ResidentsPhoto: Wellcome Images/CC BY 4.0 / via Wikimedia Commons
Burke and Hare hunted for their victims around the Grassmarket area of Edinburgh before bringing them back to Hare's lodging house nearby in West Port. Grassmarket was the site of both a large market and public gallows. The wealthy were flocking to Edinburgh's spacious New Town, leaving areas in the Old Town like Grassmarket to the urban poor.
Burke and Hare wanted to target people whose absence would not be noticed - and so they preyed on the poor of Grassmarket. Their victims included cinder gatherers, washerwomen, prostitutes, and other poor Irish immigrants. To Burke and Hare, these poor people were worth more dead than alive.
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Burke and Hare actually bodysnatched only once - the rest of the time they traded in bodies they had killed.
Their proper bodysnatching career began and ended on November 29, 1827. One of Hare's lodgers died without having paid rent, and so Hare turned to his friend Burke to help him steal the body out of its coffin and sell it to recoup some of the money he had lost. They took the body to Robert Knox, who paid them a little more than £7 - a handsome sum.
It did not take long for the pair to work out their grisly plan: rather than risk robbing graves or go through the trouble of stealing fresh corpses - especially given the increased attention to bodysnatching in 1820s Edinburgh - they would murder their victims and deliver the bodies to Robert Knox, who asked no questions about where the cadaver had come from. Each body would net them £10, or around £600 in today's money.
No One Knows What Happened to HarePhoto: George Andrew Lutenor/Public Domain / via Wikimedia Commons
After Burke's hanging, Hare was kept in prison for a few more days for his protection. He was then spirited out of Edinburgh in disguise. Records about his life end when he arrived in England, and the stories that circulate about him cannot be verified.
McDougal and Hare virtually disappeared from the record in the wake of the trial - it is said that McDougal eventually fled to Australia and Margaret Hare to Ireland. Whether or not they continued their murderous careers cannot be said with certainty.