Burke and Hare, Who Didn't Steal Corpses


Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class from www.HowStuffWorks.com.

Katie Lambert: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I am Katie Lambert.

Sarah Dowdey: And I'm Sarah Dowdey.

Katie Lambert: And this is our episode on Burke and Hare in which we learn not to die when you owe your landlord rent, and that perhaps a wooden coffin is not the best coffin, at least not in the time of the Sack-'Em-Up-Men, also known as the Resurrectionists.

Sarah Dowdey: But to start with, we are going to speak a little song for you.

Katie Lambert: Up the close and down the stair.

Sarah Dowdey: In the house with Burke and Hare.

Katie Lambert: Burke's the butcher, and Hare's the thief.

Sarah Dowdey: And Knox is the boy who buys the beef.

Katie Lambert: I don't think they're really talking about beef, Sarah.

Sarah Dowdey: No. I think this is a Sweeney Todd kind of situation.

Katie Lambert: Our subjects today, the Williams Burke and Hare were killers and not Resurrectionists. We want to make that clear from the beginning, but they were part of a society in which grave robbing had become a common if not a publicly accepted career. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, the only way medical schools could get bodies for dissection was from felons who were condemned to death and dissection as their fate.

Sarah Dowdey: Wait a minute. What?

Katie Lambert: Yeah. Let's back up a little bit and give a history of dissection. We have evidence the dissecting humans goes back as far as 4,000 B.C. Then it was thought that your innards could tell the future, although I much prefer the Harry Potter approach to divination.

Sarah Dowdey: Of tea instead of innards. Yeah. I'd agree with that. one of our early notable dissectors was Leonardo da Vinci, of course, who believed in empirical observation, so when he drew the body, he wanted to actually understand it, to understand the structure of muscles and nerves, and what was inside. But at the time, you had to dissect your cadavers in secrecy. It was not something that was looked upon kindly.

Katie Lambert: And most people weren't even inserted. They relied on Galen's texts, which were completely inaccurate. At the time, this was how medical students learned about the human body. They would assemble in an anatomy theater which was so crowded they couldn't even see the body being dissected. While they tried to look over each other's heads, they listened as an anatomy text was read to them. Whether the text matched up to the body simply wasn't a matter of concern. Who needs nerves anyway? You could just ignore them because no one could see.

Sarah Dowdey: Da Vinci was hoping that if you actually investigated the body, you wouldn't just learn about how everything worked, but maybe you would find the soul. We've talked about that on an earlier podcast.

Katie Lambert: He didn't, but what he did do was author the first real anatomy textbook, even though it wasn't considered important until late in the 18th century. But his text was finally widely published because this idea of empirical observation suddenly seemed essential to science. When more people who go into hospitals are ending up sicker or even dead than cured, perhaps we can figure out why. But how did dissection go so awry and lead to grave robbing?

Sarah Dowdey: In this podcast, we're going to focus on the grave robbing situation in the United Kingdom. The whole thing probably started with James the Fourth in Scotland. In the 16th century, he gave his patronage to the Edinburgh College of Surgeons and Barbers. Barbers doesn't really seem to fight in there, but barbers were surgeons and dentists too, back in the day. It wasn't until later that surgeons with actual medical training and academic knowledge were separated from barbers. So you could be going and getting your hair cut, getting your teeth cleaned, maybe have a little light surgery. It would be a time saver.

Katie Lambert: If you didn't die, it might be a real time saver. But James was the one who decided that felons who had been executed could also make good lessons for medical men, and they couldn't be buried after that, so this was a pretty heavy punishment, but the problem was that once medical students started dissecting, they all realized how important it was for medical knowledge to really know the body, but there weren't many bodies. So few criminals were executed and then donated. They all went bad since refrigeration wasn't exactly all figured out at the time. They need these bodies, but they can't get them. There's demand, but there's no supply - or is there?

Sarah Dowdey: Well, there is a supply, and that's fresh graves, of course, at first. The medical students actually do this themselves. They go out and dig up the graves, but it's soon forbidden by med schools, and it's really weird, I think, to imagine these young doctors going out and hunting for bodies. It's very Doctor Frankenstein.

Katie Lambert: So once they're forbidden, someone else had to steal the bodies, a Resurrectionist, so we've got some entrepreneurship in a flash. But the Resurrectionist would sell the bodies to the doctors or med students, so everybody's getting what they want, except perhaps the families of the deceased.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah. We should talk a little bit about how they would actually get these bodies, too, how Resurrectionists would work. It was easiest to do this in pairs. Obviously we're talking about a possible adult body dead weight that you're lugging. One person would be the lookout while the other one dug. Then according to an article in History magazine by Phil Jones, there was a pretty efficient way of carrying out the exhumation. Here's what you would do. You would dig the hole at one end of the grave. Then you would crowbar the part of the coffin you uncovered, sort of popping it back against the soil.

Katie Lambert: You had to break it.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah. You would cover that with sacking so it wouldn't make a really loud noise and alert authorities or angry family members. Then you would put ropes around the corpse and heave it up through that hole that you've made, but there's a weird legal loophole here. To get around it, these people had to further desecrate the bodies.

Katie Lambert: Right. You had to take all of their clothing and belongings and then put that back into the coffin, so they're stripping these corpses and returning everything to the grave. That was because it was a crime to steal property, but there wasn't anything specifically mentioned about taking bodies. So if you just took the corpse, you were fine, but if you took a corpse who was dressed and perhaps wearing jewelry, that was just taking things too far.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah. So this obviously doesn't sit well with families. Soon we have armed guards at cemeteries and walls built with steel housings called mort saves put over graves. Think more actually of your modern cemetery with that concrete casing around a grave. Wealthier people were even buried in metal coffins, so families were really trying to protect their dead.

Katie Lambert: Grave robbers are very resourceful, however. They started buying bodies directly from the undertakers or pretending that they were the relative of the dead person and claiming the body, so they're either outright stealing the bodies before they're buried, or they're getting them from an undertake and having him fill the coffins with something else.

Sarah Dowdey: In case you're wondering why people want to go through the trouble of digging up probably kind of gross old bodies and selling them, it's because it was very, very lucrative. It turns out to be pretty lucrative for Burke and Hare, too, in 1827 and 1828 when they start their plan.

Katie Lambert: William Burke and William Hare were both Irish men who ended up in Scotland. To give you a little physical description, Burke was about 5'5" and considered attractive while Hare was hideous and stupid-looking, and this was not my assessment. I would never be so mean. It's a contemporary, and they were drinking buddies. Jerks tend to find each other, and they ended up in the same boarding house together. Burke was living with a woman named Helen McDougal, and Hare with Margaret Laird who ran the place after her husband died. An opportunity arises.

Sarah Dowdey: An old man who was boarding there died, and he owed Margaret money, so Hare suggests that maybe to get the money back and maybe even make a little extra, they should sell the body.

Katie Lambert: Oh yeah. Why didn't I think of that?

Sarah Dowdey: That's what you do when one of your guests dies. It was surprisingly easy. A med student told them to go see Doctor Robert Knox who was in charge of this private anatomy school and must've had a little reputation for buying bodies, and he pays them what was then several months' wages and promises more if they can find him a fresh corpse. So these two scoundrel type of guys suddenly have a really good prospect in front of them.

Katie Lambert: Because how do you get the freshest of the fresh in corpses? By killing someone and then delivering the corpse immediately, and that they do. Their MO was to give the person plenty of alcohol, and then when he or she was drunk or passed out, one of them would immobilize the body while the other suffocated the person with his hand over his or her mouth and nose. They killed perhaps 15 people, older women, younger women, prostitutes, beggars, in general the down and out or people who were not as likely to be missed. Their cockiness eventually caught up with them, however. They murdered a mentally retarded boy that everyone around town knew, and when he was brought into the anatomy lab, some of the students told Doctor Knox that they recognized him. They knew who he was. So Knox took off his face first.

Sarah Dowdey: Even then, they weren't quite caught yet. Their last victim was an older woman named Marjory Docherty. This is found out in a very poor way of running their hotel business. There's another couple staying at the lodging house at the time, the Gray's, and they're asked to leave one night, leave their room. That's kind of weird, they think. So when they come back the next day, Mrs. Gray is trying to get back into the room to look at some of her belongings, and she's not allowed in. This is just raising their suspicions even more.

Katie Lambert: Yeah, something is fishy.

Sarah Dowdey: Something is going on, so they wait. When the coast is finally clear, they go back into the room. When she's looking for her belongings, instead she finds the body of an old woman under her bed, and it is Docherty. Burke and Hare try to bribe them, try to split the money with them, but they refuse, and they go to the authorities.

Katie Lambert: By the time the police get there, the body had been smuggled out, but it was soon found in Doctor Knox's school in the trunk they always used to transport their bodies, so now they're caught. But it turns out that there wasn't much hard evidence against any of them, - not against Burke, not against Hare, not against their common-law wives. So to pin any sort of crime on them, Hare was offered a deal. He and Margaret Laird could have immunity if he would testify against Burke, and he took it. The trial started on December 24th, 1858, and the very next day, Burke was found guilty of Docherty's murder. Everyone else got off completely scot-free, and no one knows for sure if the women knew about the murders or even had a hand in them, but public suspicion leaned toward yes.

Sarah Dowdey: I have to think of the poor jury on this court on Christmas day listening to this grisly trial.

Katie Lambert: They probably wanted to get out of there pretty quick.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah. After the conviction, Burke in an interview says, "Neither Hare nor myself ever got a body from a churchyard. All we sold were murdered, save the first one."

Katie Lambert: I don't know if he thought that was better or if he wanted to make more of a name for himself.

Sarah Dowdey: Clearly he's got a podcast about him now, so I guess it worked. He was sentences to be hanged and publicly dissected, fittingly. That was carried out January 28th, 1829. Twenty-thousand people showed up to see his hanging, and 40,000 people came to see the dissected body.

Katie Lambert: Burke had testified that Knox didn't know where the bodies came from, but no one really believed him. Public sentiment toward Knox wasn't positive, and his students eventually went away, but the public really came after the women, and also Hare. Burke being hanged wasn't enough. They basically ran them out of town. We don't know what happened to Hare. He may have become a beggar. He may have left for the United States. For the record, we did not want you, Hare. Plaster masks were made of both of them, perhaps for the edification of phrenologists trying to figure out what bumps exactly turn you into a criminal. In February 2009, two of them were found at a former prison in Scotland. You can see Burke's skeleton at Edinburgh University and supposedly his skin was used to cover books and a snuff box.

Sarah Dowdey: Like the skin book at UGA.

Katie Lambert: Exactly.

Sarah Dowdey: Supposedly.

Katie Lambert: Grisly.

Sarah Dowdey: What happens after this? Obviously this doesn't end, this body shortage in England. We have copycats, the London Burkers who are three guys who try to sell a teenage boys' body. He had clearly been murdered. Two are hanged. One is sent to Australia, and people start rioting. Something has to be done. Imagine how scary this is. It's not just your friends and relatives bodies being stolen from their graves anymore. You could just get bumped on the head one day and sold yourself.

Katie Lambert: No one is resting in peace. In 1832, Parliament took action. They passed the Anatomy Act which detailed that appointed medical inspectors would supervise the teaching of anatomy and also the getting of the bodies, but there's more to the legal procurement of bodies. The law meant that people in a hospital who applied for treatment, basically the poor, and died, were giving up their bodies for anatomical examination whether they liked it or not. The same went for the workhouse. If you were too poor to afford burial, which you probably were or you wouldn't have been there, your body could be donated against your will. Between 1839 and 1841, 300 paupers had been dissected under the act, which of course was perfectly legal.

Sarah Dowdey: So it takes several decades for this unfair treatment of the poor to end, but we were talking about how it's interesting that people are more willing to donate their bodies to science now. That's obviously how we get medical examination bodies today.

Katie Lambert: There still aren't enough.

Sarah Dowdey: There aren't enough, but it's perhaps because the bodies are eventually returned to the families. You know they're going to be treated with a certain amount of respect. People are more willing to donate them. Although -

Katie Lambert: I was going to say I don't know about the respect part.

Sarah Dowdey: I do think about that box of 20 heads that was just found at an airport.

Katie Lambert: I'm sorry. I think it completely missed that story. A box of heads?

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah. There was a box of about 20 heads, I think, found in an airport. They stopped it because it was a box of heads being shipped by airliner. It turned out to have the appropriate paperwork, but still, people were quite upset that remains were being shipped in this sort of haphazard manner.

Katie Lambert: I would love to see that paperwork and how you fill out the appropriate paperwork.

Sarah Dowdey: I thought you were going to say you'd love to see the box.

Katie Lambert: No.

Sarah Dowdey: I thought that was pushing it Katie.

Katie Lambert: Let's take care of the box. A little side note on the legacy of Burke and Hare, the word "burking" is in the Oxford English dictionary, which we English majors snottily refer to as the OED. Burking means that one person immobilizes a body while the other covers the nose and mouth of a person to suffocate them. So Burke lives on.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah. This is why he gave that little quote. That gets you in the dictionary, stuff like that.

Katie Lambert: We've gotten lots of emails asking for this one, so if you have another not-entirely-too-grisly-please topic to suggest for us, email as HistoryPodcast@HowStuffWorks.com. We also have a Twitter feed at Missed in History, and a Facebook fan page, which you should join because we put lots of interesting historical trivia on it. If you'd like to read a pretty cool article about snake oil, radioactive water, and implants of goat testicles that I edited, you can search for "Ten Instances of Medical Quackery Throughout History" on our home page at www.HowStuffWorks.com.

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