Scotlands History

Anatomists, body snatchers and Burke and Hare

In the early 19th century, Edinburgh was a city renowned for medical research. Medical schools needed a regular supply of bodies for anatomical dissection.

Only hanged criminals could be used legally, but bodysnatchers - also known as ‘Resurrectionists’ or 'Resurrection Men' – plundered graves to find fresh corpses.

Across Scotland bodysnatchers dug up the dead and sold corpses to medical schools. Concerned locals kept watch in kirkyards. By the 1820s watchtowers were built at three Edinburgh graveyards to safeguard the dead.

In Edinburgh, Burke and Hare decided that digging up bodies was too much like hard work. They embarked on a series of murders, selling the bodies of their victims to the anatomist Dr Robert Knox.

William Burke and William Hare were Ulstermen who had come to Scotland to work as navvies on the building of the Union Canal. They suffocated at least sixteen people to meet the demand for bodies.

Burke and Hare were finally arrested but only Burke was hanged for his crimes. Hare, his fellow murderer, had turned King’s Evidence against him.

The professor of anatomy, Dr Robert Knox, was not indicted for receiving the bodies even though they were the centre of interest at his well attended lectures.

Burke’s body was publicly dissected. His death mask and skeleton are on display at Edinburgh University’s Anatomy Museum. Wallets and business card holders were made from Burke’s tanned skin.

  • Photograph, Memento mori, taken in Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh Scotland.
  • An old drawing of William Burke.

Click on the image to view a larger version.