Tuesday, August 20

The Anatomy of a Murderer

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By Grant Davies

It was January 28, 1829 and a man was appearing before a standing room only crowd at the Edinburgh Medical College in Scotland. Quite an honor you might think. But for a man named William Burke, it wasn't the way he wanted to have these folks see him. After all, he had been hanging around all morning and wasn't looking his best.

The story all began back in November 1827. That was when Burke teamed up with his fellow Irish immigrant William Hare to figure out how to recoup the rent that was owed to Hare's wife for the room she was providing to a boarder at her lodging house.

The poor devil ran up his bill and then died of natural causes in his room. Naturally this was a financial problem for the Hares since the newly departed didn't look like he would be squaring up anytime soon. So the two men talked it over and came up with a plan. Selling the boarder's belongings didn't seem like it would cover all the overdue rent, so they decided to sell him instead.

Luckily for them, an acquaintance, Dr. Robert Knox by name, was in the market for fresh human remains. You see, Dr. Knox had been buying bodies for a while so he could dissect them and learn more about human anatomy. Cold hard cash for cold hard bodies was the only way to get such "study materials" back in the day. Hare and Burke were able to raise the money by raising the dead, so to speak. Add a little extra for the vigorish and everyone was happy. Even the dead guy didn't seem to mind. He never made a peep.

But decent business ideas like that sometimes lead to improper future development. The next guy was only really, really sick...so they decided to help him along a bit. It just got easier after that. By November of 1828 another thirteen unfortunates who didn't even feel ill had become dissection exhibits.

Finally the local authorities figured out the connection between the disappearing citizens and the way too fresh cadavers which were being used for carving practice by the good doctor and his medical students. But they had a least one more dissection to perform and they didn't have to pay anyone for the corpus delicti. Hare flipped on Burke in return for immunity. (And you thought plea bargaining was a recent phenomenon?)

Burke himself became the main attraction for the above described standing room only presentation after he was hanged in January 1829. The public was invited to witness both events. Everyone had fun except Burke. But he must not have minded too much, he never made a peep.


Information for this story was taken from the excellent book Here is Where, by Andrew Carroll.

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