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This week in history: William Burke was executed on 28 January 1829

BySarah Shaw

Feb 15, 2019

William Burke, alongside William Hare, committed a string of murders in Edinburgh through the 1820s. Burke and Hare were both graverobbers, selling bodies to anatomy teachers for dissection and study. They then turned from robbing graves to murder and sold the bodies of 16 known victims before being discovered and arrested in November 1828. Burke was executed on 28 January 1829 for his part in this crime, and his body was then publicly dissected in the Old College Anatomy Theatre.

That this occurred was in part due to the fact that, by the early nineteenth-century, Edinburgh had become one of the leading regions in anatomical study in Europe. One necessity for this growing study was an increased supply of bodies to be donated for dissection, and as Scottish law placed restrictions upon which bodies could be used, the legal supply did not reach demand. In order to provide an adequate supply of bodies an illicit trade grew between doctors and graverobbers. This trade quickly flourished but the families of the dead began to take extra measures to protect new graves, such as hiring guards or covering the grave with a stone slab. Having been part of the grave robbing trade, Burke and Hare moved from stealing dead bodies to killing the living and selling these bodies instead as grave robbing became increasingly difficult. They suffocated 16 known victims and sold their bodies to be dissected by John Knox, who, according to Burke’s confession, asked no questions about where they came from.

Suspicion grew as medical assistants began to recognise the bodies they were brought, and Burke and Hare were finally caught after two lodgers staying with their last victim, Margaret Docherty, returned before they could remove the body. While Burke and Hare did sell the body before the police searched the rooms, the police found Docherty’s body in Knox’s anatomy theatre early the next morning. Police increasingly believed that Docherty was not their first murder and members of the public began to report missing people and identify clothing found in Burke’s room, which led to two more likely victims being identified. In order to secure a conviction, the Lord Advocate offered Hare immunity from prosecution if he provided a full confession: his wife was also given immunity as he could not be forced to testify against her. On 4 December 1828 Burke and his wife were formally charged with three counts of murder; Burke was found guilty for the murder of Margaret Docherty and was given the death sentence.

Burke’s wife was not charged with murder as it was not proven. The following day she was confronted by a mob in Edinburgh and was taken to a police building for protection: she escaped out of the back window during a mob siege and left the city. Hare’s wife was released and travelled to Ireland but was recognised and attacked in Glasgow when waiting for a ship. She was given shelter in a police station and escorted by the police onto a boat to Belfast. Hare was kept in police custody until 5 February 1829 for his own protection before leaving for Dumfries in a disguise. He was recognised and his hostel mobbed before he was smuggled out and escorted to the town’s border by a sheriff officer and militia guard. He was told to make his way into England, and nothing beyond this point is known for certain.

Burke himself was hanged on 28 January 1829 with a crowd of up to 25,000, with some even paying to watch from surrounding tenement windows. His body was then dissected at a ticketed event in the Old College Anatomy Theatre, with police assistance required to keep out students demanding entry without a ticket. Groups of 50 were allowed into the anatomy theatre after the dissection to see his body, and his skeleton was then taken and displayed in the Anatomical Museum of the Edinburgh Medical School with his death mask also on display in Surgeon’s Hall Museum.


Image Credit: Nimmo’s (R.H.) lithographic office via National Library of Medicine 


By Sarah Shaw

Features Writer

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