For ten months in 1828, William Burke and William Hare, a pair of hard-drinking carousers and pals from different backgrounds who met while working as laborers, ran homicidally rampant over Edinburgh, Scotland.
At the time, Edinburgh led the world in anatomical research. Word on the cobblestone streets was that Dr. Robert Knox, one of the world’s leading experts in the field, doled out nice fees for dead bodies to dissect and display during his popular lectures.
Burke and Hare, then, lucked into an easy payday upon discovering that “Old Donald,” an elderly tenant of Hare’s lodging house, had expired. The duo immediately sold Old Donald’s remains to the doctor — no questions asked.
From there, Burke and Hare kept Dr. Knox swimming in fresh corpses. They both robbed graves and ultimately created their own cadaver stockpile by murdering 16 people for profit.
Each time, Dr. Knox paid quick and made no inquiries. So the bodies kept coming.The rancid racket started to unravel when attendees at a Knox lecture recognized the latest subject as “Daft Jamie,” a developmentally disabled young man from the area who had been well-known and liked. Knox cancelled the demonstration on the spot and immediately cut up the body, rendering it unidentifiable.
Finally, Burke murdered a woman named Mary Docherty at the lodging house. He was unaware that others guests could hear the commotion — they later discovered Docherty’s body and alerted the police.
Immediately upon being arrested, Hare turned state’s evidence on Burke. After angry mobs rose up in response to Hare being granted immunity to testify, he, his wife, and even Mrs. Burke hightailed it out of Edinburgh. No records exist of what became of them.Burke was hanged on January 28, 1829. Twenty thousand spectators turned out. Afterward, Burke’s body was displayed at the same college where Dr. Knox had purchased bodies from him. Crowds rushed inside to witness his dissection with such force that a riot broke out. Eventually, police quelled the crowd and admitted them 50 at a time.
To this day, Burke’s skeleton is still on display at the Anatomy Museum of the Edinburgh Medical School. The killer’s death mask and a book said to be bound in his flesh can be viewed at the Surgeons’ Hall Museum.
In addition, moviegoers have been long fascinated by Burke and Hare’s diabolical deeds. Here’s a roundup of the dastardly duo’s big-screen history.
THE BODY SNATCHER (1945)
Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff appear onscreen together for the last time in The Body Snatcher, a classy thriller produced by Val Lewton (I Walked With a Zombie) and directed by Robert Wise (The Sound of Music!). The film is based on a short story of the same name by the great Robert Louis Stevenson, who drew inspiration from the Burke and Hare case.
Karloff plays John Gray, a cab driver in 1820s London, who provides bodies to and eventually blackmails the unscrupulous Dr. Wolf “Toddy” MacFarlane (Henry Daniell). Lugosi gets to eerie things up considerably as the doctor’s ghoulish assistant.
THE GREED OF WILLIAM HART (1948)
Tod Slaughter and Henry Oscar portray Mr. Hart and Mr. Moore in The Greed of William Hart, an atmospheric and measured UK spooker also known by the far more invigorating title, Horror Maniacs.
Hart and Moore are based rather directly on Burke and Hare, much as Dr. Cox (Arnold Bell) is modeled on Dr. Knox. In fact, Greed was originally made as a direct telling of the Burke and Hare murders, until the British Board of Film Censors insisted otherwise.
Still, the character based on the original Daft Jamie, played by Aubrey Woods, is just called “Daft Jamie” here. Poor Daft Jamie.
THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS (1960)
Burke and Hare’s first straight-up film adaptation of note is a dandy. The Flesh and the Fiends (also known as The Fiendish Ghouls and Mania) stars Hammer Films horror icon Peter Cushing as Dr. Knox, while the gruesome twosome are portrayed by George Rose and Donald Pleasance.
The doctor’s single-minded ambition, the rowdy unsavoriness of the body snatchers, and an overall palpable air of cold, wet, foggy doom add up to a memorable excursion.
THE ANATOMIST (1961)
Towering British thespian Alastair Sim gave cinema its definitive Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol (1951).
He plays another 19th century UK reprobate — the notorious Dr. Knox — in The Anatomist, a stagey and otherwise unremarkable TV film dramatizing the Burke and Hare happenings.
The overly ambitious grave-robbers are portrayed, respectively, by Diarmuid Kelly and Michael Ripper (who really owed it to his last name to come up with something more memorable than this).
Sim, naturally, provides most zest and is the main reason to watch, although The Anatomist also does offer an interesting “frozen in time” case study on the early-ish days of made-for-television movies. It was shot almost entirely on three sets and, oh yes, you can tell.
BURKE AND HARE (1972)
Derren Nesbitt and Glynn Edwards costar in Burke and Hare (aka The Bodysnatchers) as, indeed, Burke and Hare (aka, the actual body-snatchers).
They bring dark humor to the roles, and veteran B-movie director Vernon Sewell spices the proceedings with some very early-’70s-style sexual content regarding a bawdy brothel frequented by the anti-heroes.
It’s all pretty good, and the cockney-accented psychedelic theme song by the scaffold is pretty great.
DR. JEKYLL AND SISTER HYDE (1971)
Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde delivers on the promise of its title, reworking the familiar “gentleman scientist transforms into a ruthless brute man” premise as “gentleman scientist turns into a ruthless — and way sexy — femme fatale.”
Ralph Bates plays Dr. Jekyll; Martine Beswick is Sister Hyde. DJASH further ups its Victorian gothic overload by having Dr. Jekyll double as Jack the Ripper, as well as purchasing his research cadavers from Burke (Tony Calvin) and Hare (Philip Madoc)!
THE DOCTOR AND THE DEVILS (1985)
High class and (mostly) acclaimed, The Doctor and the Devils casts future James Bond star Timothy Dalton as Dr. Rock (a stand-in name for Dr. Knox), while Jonathan Pryce and Stephen Rea portray his murderous corpse-stealing henchmen Fallon and Broom (who are obviously based on Burke and Hare).
Mel Brooks produced this Doctor during the era when he also oversaw The Elephant Man (1980) and The Fly (1986). Hammer Horror great Freddie Francis directs with his usual extremely British flair.
BURKE AND HARE (2010)
Cult stars Simon Pegg (Shaun in Shaun of the Dead) and Andy Serkis (Gollum in The Lord of the Rings) costar in Burke and Hare for John Landis, writer-director of the horror-comedy masterwork, An American Werewolf in London.
Alas, if the end result here comes up as a bit of weak tea, blame it on the high expectations put upon that lineup. Nonetheless, Burke and Hare is an enjoyable black-comedy trifle, as Landis spins the tale by portraying the titular fiends as an “evil Laurel and Hardy.”
Yes, it should have been better. No, it ain’t half-bad at all.
Main image: Burke and Hare official movie poster