Chilling Facts About Burke and Hare, History's Most Notorious Bodysnatchers

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.

  • They Killed 16 People In Less Than A Year, Mainly At Hare's Lodging House
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    They Killed 16 People In Less Than A Year, Mainly At Hare's Lodging House

    Between January and October 1828, Burke and Hare killed 16 people.  More often than not, the murders took place in Hare's lodging house. Victims were either lodgers - like an Englishman from Cheshire and a grandmother and her young grandson - or men and women who had been enticed to come into the lodging house for a free drink. Burke and Hare would then murder their victim, stuff the corpse into a tea chest, and transport the box through the streets of Edinburgh to Robert Knox. 

  • They Used A Technique Known As 'Burking' To Suffocate Victims

    Since their victims' corpses were to be used for the scientific education of future doctors and surgeons, Burke and Hare understood that the cadavers needed to show no signs of a violent death - poison, strangulation, or wounds would leave obvious marks on the body and draw an arrow right back to Burke and Hare as murderers.

    The two thus devised a chillingly brilliant way of murdering their victims without leaving a trace: "burking." Burke would sit on the victim's chest, which reduced air flow in the lungs and restricted movement, while Hare covered the mouth and nose. This wordlessly suffocated the victim and left no detectable trace on the body.

  • Knox's Medical Students And Assistants Recognized Some Of The Victims
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Knox's Medical Students And Assistants Recognized Some Of The Victims

    James Wilson - known as Daft Jamie - was an 18-year-old fixture on Edinburgh's streets. He wandered them often barefoot, and his deformed feet became a common sight. He was probably mentally challenged and ill-cared for by his parents, often relying on the generosity of friends and strangers for food and scraps of clothing. Given the fact that Wilson was a strong young man, Burke and Hare struggled to murder him in October 1828, though they ultimately prevailed. 

    When Wilson's body was brought into Knox's office, his assistants immediately recognized him by his face and deformed feet. Knox denied that the body was Wilson's; but he removed the young man's head and feet when rumors swirled on the streets that "Daft Jamie" had gone missing. 

    The recognition of James Wilson's body was not a fluke. Knox's students also recognized a number of local prostitutes whose bodies turned up in Knox's theater, including Mary Patterson, who had been killed in April 1828. 

  • They Were Finally Caught When Lodgers Found A Body Under The Bed
    Photo: A. Duncan Smith / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    They Were Finally Caught When Lodgers Found A Body Under The Bed

    By summer 1828, Burke and Helen McDougal had moved into a separate lodging house. On Halloween night 1828, Burke and McDougal made the acquaintance of Madgy Docherty, a middle-aged woman from Ireland, and quickly identified her as a victim. The problem? Another couple - James and Ann Gray - was also staying at the lodging house, and there simply was not a spare room in which to commit the murder. So to make room, Burke arranged for the Grays to spend the night at Hare's lodging house, explaining to the couple that Dochtery was in fact a relative from Ireland. With the Grays out of the way, Burke and Hare went to work, killing the woman in their usual way and hiding her body under the bed.

    The next day, the Grays returned to the scene of the crime to collect their belongings - and found Dochtery's body. The Grays immediately alerted the police. By the time the police arrived on the scene, Burke and Hare had already removed Docherty's body and delivered it to Robert Knox, where the police found it.

  • Their Common-Law Wives Were Knowing Accomplices
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Their Common-Law Wives Were Knowing Accomplices

    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 Residents

    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.