Burke and Hare were Irish immigrants who
settled in Edinburgh. When one of Hare’s lodgers died, owing him
money, Burke and Hare sold the body to assistants of Dr. Robert
Knox, an eminent surgeon, for use in dissection. Realising that
the supply of fresh bodies for dissection could be a lucrative business,
the two, with the help of Hare’s wife, Margaret Laird, and Burke’s
partner, Helen McDougal, went on to murder sixteen people, for which
only Burke and McDougal stood trial (the Hares turned King’s Evidence
and so escaped prosecution). Burke was found guilty on only one
account of murder. The charge against McDougal was found ‘not proven’,
and she was acquitted. Burke was hung on January 29th 1829 in front
of enormous crowds. There are reports of McDougal being stoned and
beaten by angry crowds. Hare tried to get away from Edinburgh to
start anew, but the scandal ensured that he was faced with angry
mobs everywhere he went. He was in Carlisle in 1829, but his fate
thereafter is unknown, although there are reports of him being sighted
as a blind beggar in London.
The Legacy of Burke and Hare
The consequences of murder did not only affect
Burke and Hare. The career of Dr. Robert Knox, suffered, even though
he claimed to have had no knowledge that the bodies supplied to
him might have been murdered. He was eventually forced to move south
and work in London. Burke’s body was used as an example for dissection,
his skeleton still being preserved in the Anatomy Museum at Edinburgh
University Medical School. The reason that such murders and grave
robbing were prolific in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth
centuries was that the demand for bodies for the use of medical
science was on the increase. Reaction to the Burke and Hare case
was a major factor in the passing of the Anatomy Act of 1832, which
made it possible for bodies to be donated to science. Burke and
Hare's world-wide infamy has been assured by their inclusion in
many editions of the Newgate Calendar.
Records relating to the prosecution of Burke
and Hare and their accomplices survive in the National Archives
of Scotland. The full record of the trial of William Burke and Helen
McDougal is not extant, but there are several items and articles
relating to the arrest, the indictment and the trial. A digest of
the records relating to the trial can be found in William Roughead’s
book, Burke and Hare (see Bibliography below). Related items
in the National Archives of Scotland include the papers of Sir James
Wellwood Moncrieff. Newspaper cuttings relating to Burke and Hare
are kept in the Edinburgh Room of Edinburgh City Library. For further
details about historical records see the FAQ opposite.
William Roughead, Burke and Hare (second
edition W. Hodge and Company, Ltd., 1948) Owen Dudley Edwards, Burke
and Hare (Polygon Books, 1995) Hugh Douglas, Burke and Hare:
The True Story (Hale, 1973) Isobel Rae, Knox the Anatomist
(Oliver Boyd Ltd, 1964) John Mackay, The True Story of Burke
and Hare (Lang Syne Publishers, 1988).
Where can I find the records of Burke and Hare’s trial?
I am a school pupil doing a project on grave robbing. Where should
I look for information about this and about Burke and Hare in particular?
What is the Newgate Calendar?
Searching under ‘Burke and Hare’ using an
Internet search engine, will yield a huge amount of information,
very little of which appears to be based on historical records.
For a simplified account and explanations
of words and terminology see the entry in the BBC
Guide. An account of the Dumfries riot
can be found at Dumfries
Maxine Wright, Robin Urquhart (both SCAN)