Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

William Burke & William Hare

The Grave Robbing Business

Scientific curiosity about the inner workings of the human body has led to countless medical breakthroughs.  Medical discovery has been a noble path, but one that has also experienced detours, such as this one, into crime and murder.

In the early 1800s, Great Britain saw an increase in the number of students wanting anatomical training, and classrooms of medical colleges swelled to capacity.  Most classes could easily be taught in lecture halls to many students, but anatomy classes had the special requirement of a corpse for lecture and demonstration purposes.

Until the 19th century, Britains laws specified that the only cadavers that could be used in these classes were those of recently executed criminals, as religious thought and superstitions of the time deemed it unthinkable to disturb a persons remains.  The number of executions was, as William Roughead wrote, "...wholly inadequate to meet the growing needs...and the surgeons' and barbers' apprentices had been in use diligently to till the soil and reap the harvest of what has been finely called 'Death's mailing.'"

This practice soon became the regular occupation of some underworld characters, and author Hugh Douglas wrote of the proficiency of these workers: (Grave robbers) could open a grave, remove a body and restore the soil between patrols of the night watch....  Relatives of the subject could mourn by the grave the following day, unaware that their loved one was gracing some anatomy slab in Edinburgh.

Upon receiving a delivery of a cadaver from someone other than those authorized to transport criminals corpses, doctors and their assistants most likely suspected that the bodies were from graves, but generally said nothing in order to keep the anatomy classes full of interested (and paying) students.

Irishmen William Burke and William Hare, however, developed a more direct method to provide fresh cadavers to Edinburgh anatomy schools.


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