Medicine, Murder, and History: Killing for Medical Cadavers in 19th-century Scotland
Typically when one thinks of the practice of medicine you think in terms of the saving of lives, and helping those who are sick recover. That is how it should be. However, in the early 19th century in Edinburgh, Scotland Medicine became synonymous with murder.
In the early 19th century, the study of medicine was on the upsweep. The medical school at Edinburgh saw an overwhelming increase in people who wanted to study medicine. While this was considered a good thing, and the practice of medicine was seen as a noble calling, it also posed some significant problems. While much of the study of medicine could be conducted in lecture halls, and in small labs by dissecting small animals, it was essential for students to study human anatomy in order to understand how to diagnosis and treat illnesses in humans.
To do this, students needed to see actual bodies of humans, learn about their organs from actually seeing them and by dissecting them. The more medical students there were, the more bodies were needed to teach these valuable lessons.
Laws passed in Scotland at the time, only allowed for the bodies of executed criminals to be used for this purpose. Ironically, just as the enrollment of medical schools were rising, new laws made for fewer executions. This meant there were only two or possibly three corpses a year available for medical research. This was not nearly enough bodies to provide for the education of all these up-and-coming doctors.
Doctor Robert Knox, an anatomy instructor at the Edinburgh medical school found this lack of teaching material highly inconvenient. He therefore, became known as a doctor who asked few questions as to where his supply of corpses came from.
There were many enterprising men who found a way to supply Dr. Knox with the needed material to teach his anatomy classes. Men who, in the dark of night, would dig up graves of the recently deceased, remove the bodies from the coffins, and then rebury the coffins without the grieving families of the deceased even being aware that the graves of their loved ones were empty.
These corpses invariably found their way into Knox's anatomy classes.
Two of these enterprising men, William Burke and William Hare, found that selling corpses to Knox was a very lucrative business. They also found that digging up graves was a lot of hard work and required much more effort than they wanted to exert.
They sought a solution to their problem and when one morning in October of 1827 a tenant at the boarding house of Mrs. Hare's, William Hare's wife died in his sleep, a solution to their problem presented itself. Filling the box full of bark so that it would appear as though there was a body inside, they carried the deceased to Knox.
How much easier it was to earn money for a body they did not have to unbury!
Of course, since most of Mrs. Hare's boarders were in reasonable health, Burke and Hare could not simply wait for another one to die so they decided to take matters into their own hands and provide themselves with corpses that were not yet buried.
Preying upon the citizenry of Edinburgh that would be least likely to be missed, they decided to kill prostitutes and others who had no family to ask questions. They first needed to devise a way of killing that would not show signs of obvious murder. They hit upon a plan where they would get their victims drunk, then sit themselves upon the victims chest. The weight of a full grown man upon their chests would not allow the victims lungs to expand and they would then suffocate.
For a year, with the help of Burke's mistress and Hare's wife, these men preyed upon the poor and downtrodden of Edinburgh's society, claiming 16 victims in all.
Knox knew, or at least suspected, where these corpses were coming from, but he was so determined to have these bodies that he kept silent and in one case even helped cover for Burke and Hare when his students identified the body of a missing young man that was brought before them.
Knowing that the police would arrive to view the body, Knox cut off the young's mans hands and feet, and began dissecting his face, making it impossible for him to be identified. He then told the police that the report of who this young man was false.
Without evidence of the corpse's identity the police could do nothing.
In November of 1828, Burke and Hare would finally make the mistake that would lead to their arrest. Burke lured a woman into the Hare boarding house by claiming that his mother was related to her. Marjory Docherty, curious to meet this relative went with him willingly.
Burke's plan to suffocate her, had to be held up because a couple boarding at the Hare's were in the house. He waited until James and Ann Gray had left for the night before killing the unsuspecting victim.
However, the Grays returned before he could transport the body to Dr. Knox and he was forced to hide it under the bed. The Gray's found the body and went immediately to the police.
By the time the Grays had told their story and the police arrived at the boarding house the body was gone. However, suspecting where the body had been moved to, the police decided to visit Dr. Knox's anatomy class once again.
Taking Mr. and Mrs. Gray with them, they arrived to find the intact body of a female corpse.The Grays were able to identify the body as the same one they had seen under the bed at the boarding house.
Hare and Burke were immediately arrested. However, the evidence against them was scant and so the prosecutor at the time made a deal with Mr. Hare. If he would testify against his partner William Burke, they would drop all charges against him.
Hare, seeing a chance to avoid prosecution, did so. Burke was sent to the gallows on January 28, 1829.
Doctor Knox was never prosecuted and continued teaching anatomy though he saw a sharp decline in his pupils.
In 1932, Edinburgh's lawmakers, horrified by the murders that their laws made possible, sought to keep such a thing from ever happening again and passed new laws that would make cadavers for medical schools more readily available.
Ironically, in the instance of Burke and Hare, Murder did contribute to the advancement of medicine.