William Sinclair Manson

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Infamous Scots. / Writings · 21 March 2024

Infamous Scots. Burke and Hare.

Doon the close and up the stairs
But an Ben wi Burke and Hare
Burke’s the butcher
Hares the thief
Knox the man who buys the beef!

You may remember in the early 19th century there was a craze for medical growth, students eager to learn how the body operated, what killed people and also eager to make a name for themselves in the World of medicine. There wasn’t the technology we share today, Students did not have labs they could work in and learn they sometimes carried out their studies in dimly lit rooms without the proper tools and sterilization methods we have today.
As the science of the body was important needless to say there was a shortage of bodies for medical research, body snatching wasn’t a new thing, it had been going on since the early 18th century. But concerning Burke and Hare, they captured the World with their devious methods of Grave robbing so much, so they became infamous and a part although not a pleasant part of Scottish History.

Dr Knox was a famous doctor in Edinburgh and in his medical school he attracted up to 500 students from all walks of life to experience his famous dissections of the human body, science was important as I said earlier. Officially back then only one body was allowed per Annum for each medical school and it had to be a dead convicted criminal, this wasn’t enough for the Medical schools so underhanded “body snatching” became big business for people like Burke and Hare.
On a moonlit night, shadows could be seen sneaking around the graveyard looking for fresh specimens to do the medical research and most of the time it was the Students themselves who robbed the graves to supply their medical school with a fresh subject. They were also known as “resurrectionists” by the public who were horrified when they found out this was going on. Special watchtowers, walls and Iron fences were erected in some graveyards (which are still present today) to make sure the bodies were not exhumed after death.

This did not stop Burke and Hare, they concentrated on the waifs and strays coming into Edinburgh, people they knew would not be missed. Lured away into a dark street then murdered to allow them to pass the body on to the medical research students. To this day no one knows how many went missing but it was estimated between 20-30 people at that time. On the 17th December 1828 the trial began against Burke and Hare, crowds gathered in the streets booing the prosecuted as they were led into the High Court. There was no evidence to prove both men had killed the number of people that had gone missing however the court had proof of an old Irish lady called Mrs Dougherty but the evidence was flimsy.

So flimsy that it was turned around that Hare would not be prosecuted in turn he was to give evidence against his partner Burke and the lady he lived with. Mrs Dougherty had only just arrived in Edinburgh from Ireland, she became to know Burke after a short while Burke had two lodgers in his house, he asked them to leave to allow Mrs Dougherty to live there, they did move out however Mr Mrs Gray was suspicious about Burke’s motives, Mrs Gray returned to the home a few days later and found Mrs Dougherty lying under a bed of straw, dead. She had given this evidence in court. Dr Knox was called to the stand as a witness for the prosecution he told the court that Burke had called on him to say he had a fresh sample for his medical school. It appeared that Dr Knox had done lots of Business with Burke and Hare, as told by eyewitnesses.

Hare had told the court that Burke had suffocated Mrs Dougherty but many believed Mr Hare not to be as innocent as he made out. After 24 hours the jury made a decision that Burke was guilty of murdering Mrs Dougherty by suffocation. Burke stood alone charged with the murder and was hanged by the neck in the Old Town (Edinburgh) in front of 25,000 people, Hare fled to England and was never seen again. Burke’s body was given to MEDICAL SCIENCE for dissection after his death.
Dr Knox was not charged with being an accomplice, probably his status prevented that, however, he was turned out of Edinburgh by popular demand and started his practice somewhere else. Burke’s skeleton is on display at the Edinburgh Medical school as ordered by the then Lord Meadowbank as a reminder of the heinous crimes against humanity by Burke and Hare. The legend lives on, the local children at the time made up a song regarding the duo it went.


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