In Scotland in the early 19th century, there was a crisis of supply and demand. Hundreds of medical students needed to dissect human cadavers for study. The only bodies that were legal for dissection were those of convicted criminals that had been put to death, and after a law passed in 1823 that made the number of crimes punishable by death drop dramatically, the number of available bodies dropped too. For this reason, medical schools paid handsomely for fresh cadavers, leading to a spate of grave robbing and, in the case of two Irishmen named William Burke and William Hare, murder. The town of Edinburgh, where the two lived, was becoming industrialized, so it had a large population of transient workers, many of whom would stay in the boarding house run by Hare's wife Margaret. This made it easy for the men to sell the bodies of their victims without anyone recognizing the cadavers. To keep the bodies unmarked for proper study, Burke and Hare would get their victims very drunk, then cover the nose and mouth while pressing on the chest in order to make them suffocate, a technique later dubbed "burking." The men would then sell the bodies to Professor Robert Knox, an anatomy lecturer, for £7–£10 apiece -- roughly $400 U.S. today. They were eventually found out when a lodger found the body of their final victim hidden under a bed. In the end, among Burke, Hare, and the men's wives, Burke was the only one convicted of their crimes.
Lisa Rosner Author of The Anatomy Murders based on the history of Burke and Hare
Curiosity StaffAugust 4, 2016
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