|William Burke on trial, 1829.|
[William Burke, executed at Edinburgh in 1829 for murdering by suffocation or strangulation to sell bodies for dissection.]
1 Kill (a person) to sell the body for dissection;
suffocate or strangle secretly. archaic. E19
2 figurative. Stifle, smother (publicity or inquiry);
hush up, suppress (rumour);
avoid (a problem). M19
In the 19th century, Edinburgh had a problem: although it was a world-renowned centre of medical science and anatomical research, it had a shortage of bodies for dissection. The main source of legal cadavers, executed criminals, was dwindling, and while body-snatchers (the ghoulishly termed Resurrectionists) did their best to keep up with demand by their covert exhumations, it was not enough and the universities were still left choked of good, clean, healthy bodies to open, probe and pick apart. Cue the entrance of the entrepreneurial Irishmen William Burke and William Hare, who simply cut out the middleman (death by natural causes), delivering straight from murder scene to dissection table in a matter of hours.
|William Hare giving evidence, 1829.|
|Dr Robert Knox|
Their crimes were detected after a body was discovered in Burke's house. It was generally agreed that Burke, being the more intelligent of the two, was the brains of the operation, and so Hare was offered immunity from prosecution if he confessed and testified against Burke. He did, and Burke was convicted and sentenced to death. He was hanged on the 28th January 1829 before a crowd of over 20,000 onlookers. The following day his body was publicly dissected to a sell-out audience, and his skeleton in still displayed in the University of Edinburgh's Anatomy Museum. William Hare left Edinburgh and, after several sightings, he disappeared from public view altogether; his ultimate fate remains unknown. Dr Knox, while legally cleared of any implication in the crimes, was found guilty in the court of public opinion (probably not least because he was one creepy looking guy) and his reputation, business and research suffered irreparable damage.
|The execution of William Burke, 28th January 1829|
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