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Burke and Hare
  Contrary to popular belief, Burke and Hare were not grave robbers but murderers. It is widely believed that after the risk of robbing graves became too great for them, William Burke and William Hare turned their thoughts to the more grisly, but more profitable crime of murder. However, even when on trial for murder, Burke was adamant that neither himself nor Hare had ever robbed even one grave.



A Murderous Career
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.

Historical Records
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).


Frequently Asked Questions

1. Where can I find the records of Burke and Hare’s trial?

2. 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?

3. 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 Museum.





Maxine Wright, Robin Urquhart (both SCAN)