the beginning of the 19th century, the University of Edinburgh was one of the most prestigious educational institutions for the training of future surgeons. However, the institution faced a major problem, namely the lack of corpses for dissection. Only the corpses of executed criminals were used, while on the mainland, dissection was allowed for the deceased who had belonged to lower social classes. The medical teaching staff in the United Kingdom wanted the same rules.
However, the proposal met with strong resistance from the public. Dissection was seen as a crime that dishonored death and as a potential obstacle to the resurrection on the day of judgment. British doctors had to purchase work material from the mainland, but as this was insufficient, a special category of professionals emerged, the body snatchers(body traffickers).
An interesting loophole
Oddly enough, stealing a corpse was not theft unless clothes were included. Because of this, the traffickers made sure that the bodies were always uncovered. By 1820, Irish economically disadvantaged crowds had flocked to Edinburgh in hopes of a better life. Among them were farmer William Hare and soldier William Burke. Hare married a woman named Margaret Laird, who ran a shelter in a slum near the city’s tanneries, which polluted the neighborhood with their awful smell. In November 1827, Burke moved here with his partner, Helen. Most of the murders would also take place here, either in a room at the back of the shelter or in a barn in the backyard.
Shortly after Burke’s arrival, one of Hare’s tenants, Donald, a lonely and sick old man, died, but as he owed him money, he decided not to bury him but to sell him. With his partner, Hare opened the coffin and filled it with tree bark instead. So they went to the university campus to find clients. A medical student recommended that they go to surgeon Robert Knox, who, pleased with the proposal, paid them £ 7 and £ 10 for the purchase (big money at the time). The student explained to the pelican that he would also enjoy future business. But he had no idea what dark thoughts the two accomplices had.
Their first victims were two men who fell ill, and as they scared other tenants who would have wanted to come here, the aggressors found even more reasons to eliminate them. Hare and Burke strangled the two helpless and sold their bodies to the same Dr. Knox. Traffickers could not always rely on the fact that they would have victims already suffering, so they began to look more actively for their “material”. This happened to an old street vendor who was invited to the inn. With her murder, the two refined their methods. They all drank to make her dizzy and take courage, and when they left, one rushed at her, immobilized her, and the other covered her mouth and nose. In this way, there were no signs of aggression on the woman’s body, which could have given rise to suspicion.
Burke’s brother, Constantine, worked as a sweeper on the streets of Edinburgh, and the next murder would occur in his home. On April 9, Burke invited a minor prostitute, Mary Paterson, to his brother’s dark home, with whom he had breakfast. Burke and Hare did the same, intoxicating and suffocating the victim, whose body they carried in a trunk to the university. To the unpleasant surprise of the killers, the students knew Mary.
One of them had spent the evening with her only a few days before. For the first time, they were asked about the circumstances of the victims’ deaths and how the bodies came into their possession. Burke and Hare claimed that Maria died because she had drunk too much and bought the body from an older woman. The explanation was accepted, and Dr. Knox, impressed by the girl’s beauty, decided to keep her body in alcohol, and both students and artists painted it before it was dissected.
Burke and Hare persisted in illicit activities, and to justify their newly acquired fortunes. They encouraged people to believe that they were just body traffickers. In the fall of 1828, Jamie Wilson, an 18-year-old teenager with a mental and motor disability and begging on the streets, was killed. But Jamie was well known in the city, so the students began to ask unpleasant questions again.
A wrong turn of events
According to an assistant to Dr. Knox, he initially refused to believe whose body it was, but after being convinced, he allowed the head and legs to be cut off and the urgent dissection of the rest of the body. Despite all the suspicious circumstances surrounding the killers, neither Knox nor any students turned to the police. The one who sounded the alarm was instead a poor worker, Gray, whose wife found a dead woman in the couple’s bed. Hare’s wife, the shelter’s administrator, tried vainly to buy the couple’s silence.
Police found the body intact at Dr. Knox’s home. Burke and Hare killed 16 people, but authorities struggled to find evidence to charge them. The only body that had not yet been dissected was that of the last victim, but it could not be determined exactly whether it was a murder. Eventually, however, Hare and his wife were offered the possibility of amnesty if they testified against Burke, which they did not hesitate to do. Burke was sentenced to be hanged for the murder of Mrs. Docherty, but there were no trials for the other crimes, and Dr. Knox and his students were never cited as witnesses.