Mur­der most foul

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - GRAVE ROBBERS -

The high prices the bodysnatchers could com­mand for corpses nat­u­rally led to mur­der. In Novem­ber 1827 in Ed­in­burgh, Wil­liam Hare was owed money by one of his lodgers who sub­se­quently died of an ill­ness. To re­coup the debt, Hare and his friend Wil­liam Burke sold the body to some as­sis­tants work­ing at Dr Robert Knox’s med­i­cal school. They were paid £ 7 10s. Dr Knox had more than 300 stu­dents and Burke and Hare quickly re­alised they could make easy money by sup­ply­ing bod­ies for dis­sec­tion.

They turned to mur­der in­stead of dig­ging up graves and looked specif­i­cally for vic­tims among the poor with no fam­ily to miss them. Burke and Hare reg­u­larly re­ceived as much as £10 per ca­daver with no ques­tions asked. Us­ing the same method of suf­fo­ca­tion (af­ter­wards known as ‘ burk­ing’), the pair killed 16 peo­ple in nine months be­fore sus­pi­cions were aroused and they were ar­rested in early Novem­ber 1828. Hare turned ‘ king’s ev­i­dence’ and tes­ti­fied against Burke, who was tried and found guilty of the mur­der of his last vic­tim. He was ex­e­cuted on 28 Jan­uary 1829 and his body was dis­sected.

The Lon­don Burkers was a gang of res­ur­rec­tion men ap­par­ently in­spired by Burke and Hare. The group in­cluded John Bishop, Thomas Wil­liams, Michael Shields and James May. In 1831, af­ter try­ing to sell a “sus­pi­ciously fresh” body of a 14-year-old boy to the King’s Col­lege School of Anatomy, they were ar­rested. Bishop and Wil­liams con­fessed to the mur­der of the so-called “Ital­ian Boy”, who they said was from Lin­colnshire, as well as two other vic­tims; the three had all been drugged and then drowned in a well. The rest of the gang were ex­on­er­ated. Bishop claimed he had been a bodys­natcher for 12 years and had ob­tained and sold be­tween 500 and 1,000 bod­ies over that time. He and Wil­liams were ex­e­cuted in De­cem­ber 1831.

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