But some doctors could not wait
for convict bodies to dissect.
This led to a new profession –
Body snatching or grave robbing!
One of the most gruesome trials to take place
in 19th century Scotland was that of the
famous grave robbers William Burke and
William Hare.
By day, the two appeared as hardworking Irish
immigrants: William Burke even rented out
rooms to recent arrivals in Edinburgh. But by
night, the pair lurked in dark corners of the
city's ancient graveyards, digging up bodies of
the recently departed to sell to anatomy
instructors in Edinburgh's fast growing medical
In those days, Edinburgh was one
of the major centres of medical
education in Europe. Dr. Robert
Knox of the city's Medical
School was one of the most
popular anatomists - attracting
as many as 500 students per
But in early 19th century
Scotland, obtaining human
cadavers for medical research
was not a simple matter. Schools
were restricted by laws that
allowed the dissection of only
one body per year - and it had to
be the body of an executed
It was just a matter of time before
someone found an illegal way of
providing dead humans for dissection.
Enter William Burke and William
Hare. Smelling a profit, they cooked
up a scheme to supply freshly dead
bodies to the anatomy schools with
"no questions asked".
Burke and Hare were successful
grave robbers. But success soon
turned to greed and greed to murder.
When they realized the profits they
could make they started murdering
victims in Edinburgh's Old Town using
strangulation and then handed the
corpses over to local anatomists such
as Dr. Knox.
It was only when suspicious
neighbours starting asking about a
missing Irish immigrant named Mrs.
Docherty, that the whole scheme
began to unravel. Before long, the two
grave robbers turned serial killers
were up on charges of murdering the
old lady and the whole of Britain was
riveted to the grisly details of the
trial throughout that Christmas and
New Year season of 1828.
Christmas morning 1828, the
jury gave their verdicts:
Burke was guilty and Hare
was innocent.
Burke was executed on
January 28, 1829. In the
month between his
sentencing and the
execution, he gave two
detailed confessions. In
both of them he cited 16
murders that he and Hare
had committed.
At his scaffold, enormous
crowds shouted for Hare and
Dr. Knox to join him at the
So what happened to Burke’s body - you
guessed it - donated to the Medical School for
what they called "useful dissection". Nearly
two hundred years after his death, Burke's
skeleton remains on display at the University's
Medical School.
Ironically, the anatomists to whom Burke and
Hare supplied bodies were never brought to
trial. Although Dr. Knox was named as the
recipient of bodies, he was never charged with
any crime.

Slide 1 - Crime and Punishment through time