William Burke and William Hare

William Burke and William Hare

Anatomy has been viewed as an integral part of medicine and it has a great history dating back to the 17th to 19th century. However, there have been some issues that have faced this field regarding the ethical considerations of examining human bodies using cadavers that have been obtained with full disregard of the law and human dignity. In Scotland, the Burke and Hare murders were reported in 1828 and they were highly linked to anatomy given that the criminals handed their victims’ bodies over to Dr. Robert Knox to use them in dissection during anatomy classes in the university. The two men who were in the limelight for such criminal activities include William Burke and William Hare. In total, they committed 16 murders, and these were reported in the papers during that time in Scotland. The criminal profiles of the duo had attracted attention in many places in Scotland, and people were wary of why they killed innocent individuals in Edinburgh’s backstreets. This paper will discuss the biography of the duo regarding what they did and what happened to them after the murder cases were discovered in the respective regions.

William Burke was born in 1792 in Orrery, Ireland. As he grew up in the town, he tried many activities and trades to raise money to support himself. However, these jobs did not pay off, and he decided to move to Scotland at around 1817, leaving his family behind. This time, he worked as a navigator, and his employer was working for the Union Canal (Douglas, 1973). It was then under construction, and in the process, he met a female worker named Helen McDougal. Hellen was working as a baker, weaver and a laborer. She became his lover.It did not take long before he moved in with William Hare after they had rented a lodging house which they lived together and looked for a way of getting money to sustain themselves (Edwards, 2014).

On the other hand, William Hare was born in Ireland, specifically County Armagh at an unspecified date. He met Burke in the Union Canal although they worked in differentdepartments. From there, they formed a strong bond of friendship that gave them a chance to decide how to make a living in a foreign country. As they started looking for employment, they found that they could work together to make money in the streets of Edinburgh in what was referred to as ‘burking’ derived from the name Burke. In criminal law, this was viewed to be an act against human dignity since it involved taking away of innocent lives for the sake of profiting from this. This was a selfish move that was supposed to be punished by hanging so that it would act as an example for other

In the 1820s, the demand for cadavers had risen, and this is a direct indication of growth in surgery and anatomy as a whole. Thus, people had to devise ways of supplying death bodies to anatomy instructors. The shortage was experienced regardless of the 1752 Murder Act which had been set over 60 years earlier (Edwards, 2014). Hare and Burke saw this as an excellent opportunity to earn money through body snatching and stealing bodies as from 1827 to 1828.When bodysnatching did not work well, they resorted to killing their prey and submitting the bodies to Dr. Robert Knox who was an instructor at Edinburg University. In 1828 alone, the Anatomy School managed by Knox required 400 bodies to be used in various surgery practices (Edwards, 2014). They had discovered their lucrative business when one of the tenants in the rental house they had built died while owing them 4 euros. To cover the expense, they killed him and sold the body to Dr. Knox.

In February, another tenant who lived in their rentals developed fever, and to speed up his death, they suffocated him after getting him drunk. This was their second escapade and it earned 10 euros. The rest of the killings earned them more money, but in November 2018, their business was discovered by the police. After Burke was put behind bars, he was tried and pleaded guilty of the murders that he had conducted with the help of his partner in crime. Most of the victims of the duo’s brutality were poor and homeless, and the criminals easily accessed them. After being charged and scheduled to be hanged on 26th January 1829, Burke decided to publish all his confessions to be available for future records.

On the other hand, Hare was lucky since he navigated the law and was proven not innocent. Instead, he gave evidence incriminating his colleague to be freed although he was an accomplice. However, this was viewed to be unjust since the duo had killed all the sixteen people together. More so, Hare acted as an accessory to the murders. In other words, he offered a helping hand to Burke, and they shared the spoils (Rosner, 2010). It is argued that Hare had escaped the king’s evidence. Scholars claimed that being left scot-free was a threat to the public since he could go back to killing again even though he had been pardoned. This was because the criminal was used to the murders and viewed this is the primary way of getting income.

On 5 Feb 1829, the public noticedHare even though he was disguised and placed on a coach of Dumfries. This time, Scotts were baying for his blood, and it could not have taken long before being executed. Some of the possible ways that could have led to his death include a mob even though he had been proven innocent. To save the situation, the police placed him in a cell. After some time when things did not cool down, the police officers were forced to smuggle him out to safety and finally take him to the England-Scotland border (Mac Gregor, 1884). The officers were determined to set him free and protect him from the wrath of the public since his criminal profile was documented in many parts of Scotland.After this, he is believed that he changed his identity since it was hard for him to land on any jobs as many people had known him based on his criminal record.

As an additional punishment, Burke’s body was dissected immediately after being executed, and it was directly taken into the Surgeon’s Hall located in Edinburg. This is where his evils started, and it acted as a way of seeking justice for those who perished in the hands of the duo. Crowds waited eagerly for a gibbet of Burke’s body to be erected even though the Judge thought that this was not the right way to go about since he had already been punished by hanging.

In conclusion, Hare and Burke are some of the known names in the past, and the main activity is the crime. The duo used to kill and snatch bodies to sell them to a doctor by the name Knox who worked as an anatomist in a university in Edinburg, Scotland. They first developed their behavior when they were working at Union Canal even though Burke ended up being punished while his accomplice was set free at that particular time. An interesting aspect of what they did isthat they took a short time before they were discovered. However, during that time, they had caused a lot of mayhem, and their names had made their ways to the media. As a result, many people had already known about them. Even after killing sixteen people, Hare still dared to state categorically that he is innocent. Instead of also indicating the same for his partner, he decided to testify against him, hence making the case easier since Burke could end up being hanged while Hare was set free amid complaints from the public. Many people wanted to lynch him after feeling that they were shortchanged by the lack of justice delivered by the authorities. To secure him, the police had to recapture, put him in a cell, and later take him to a distant place on the side of the European border so that he could seek new pastures away from Scotland. Overall, one can learn that such murders exhibited the thirst for money and set the room for burking as a severe offense that was punishable by hanging.




Douglas, H. (1973). Burke and Hare: the true story. London: R. Hale.

Edwards, O. D. (2014). Burke and Hare. Birlinn.

Mac Gregor, G. (1884). The History of Burke and Hare and of the Resurrectionist Times: A Fragment from the Criminal Annals of Scotland (No. 67698-67701). TD Morison.

Rosner, L. (2010). The anatomy murders: being the true and spectacular history of Edinburgh’s notorious Burke and Hare and of the man of science who abetted them in the commission of their most heinous crimes. University of Pennsylvania Press.

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