“Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief,
Knox’s the man who buys the beef”
— part of a 19th-century rhyme
The University of Edinburgh has made their famous anatomical museum available to everyone with an outstanding new free app that offers a 3-D virtual tour. Normally, the Anatomical Museum is only open to the public one day a month, the next being May 28. The easy-to-use interface allows you to zoom into display cases and click on bubbles hovering over exhibits and read about them. You can check out their Skull Room, which houses 1,688 skulls and the life masks of notorious murderers. You can view the morgue, a narwhal tusk, and the skeleton of an 18th-century rabble-rouser afflicted with rickets, known as “Bowed Joseph.”
But the skeleton in the collection that’s the biggest attraction is that of infamous serial murderer William Burke. Burke, along with his partner in crime, William Hare, together killed 16 people to sell their bodies to surgeon and anatomy teacher Dr. Robert Knox. Edinburgh was the hub of surgical learning in the 19th century, and it was a common practice at the time for enterprising men, known as “Resurrection Men,” to rob graves and sell the corpses to anatomists for dissection. But Burke and Hare together figured out how to deliver even fresher cadavers.
William Hare ran a lodging house, where one of his tenants passed away still owing back rent. Hare, determined to get the money he was owed, enlisted William Burke’s help in stealing the lodger’s body from his coffin, and taking him to sell to Dr. Knox. The duo found this to be easy money, and soon began helping ailing tenants meet their deaths faster, by suffocating them. Soon they began knocking off people who weren’t on death’s door, but simply getting them drunk first and then smothering them. This scheme worked well for them for nine months, as the types of victims they preyed on weren’t readily missed, and Dr. Knox never questioned the provenance of their fresh cadavers.
Eventually they were caught through sheer carelessness, as they left the corpse of a victim in the house while they had guests, who found the woman’s body and went to the police. Both Burke and Hare were arrested, but only Burke was charged, as Hare testified against him.
Burke was sentenced to the gallows, where he was executed on January 27, 1829. As was common practice with the bodies of executed criminals at the time, but is still painfully ironic, his body was dissected the next day in front of hundreds of medical students, who viewed the dissection in groups of 50 at a time. Following that, an estimated 30,000 members of the public had the frisson of viewing the murderer’s remains. According to author Daniel Cohen in The Body Snatchers, during the trial, the judge had fittingly told Burke, “I trust that if it is ever customary to preserve skeletons, yours will be preserved, in order that posterity may keep in remembrance your atrocious crimes.”
That judge would take satisfaction in the fact that today, 187 years after Burke’s execution, we can view Burke’s skeleton through our phones, from anywhere in the world, at any time. In addition, Burke’s skin was tanned and used to make various souvenir items, allegedly a calling-card case, wallets, and a bookmark made for Charles Dickens. A small “pocket book” bound in his skin is on display at the Surgeon’s Hall Museum in Edinburgh.
Photo: University of Edinburgh Anatomical Collections