Murder most foul
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.