Dodgy antique dealers Harke and Burr* from Judge Dredd Megazine 3.05 (1995) [detail] by Jason Brashill v William Burke (1792–1829; right panel, bottom) and William Hare (born circa 1798–date of death unknown; right panel, top) pictured here in West Port Murders; or An Authentic Account of the Atrocious Murders Committed by Burke and His Associates by anon. (Thomas Ireland, Junior, 1829)
The Burke and Hare murders – or the West Port murders – were a series of 16 murders committed by Burke and Hare over a period of about ten months in 1828 in Edinburgh, Scotland, a leading centre of anatomical study in Europe at a time when high demand for cadavers outstripped supply and led to an increase in grave robbing by so-called “resurrection men”. The corpses in this case were sold to Dr. Robert Knox FRSE, FRCSE, MWS** (1793–1862) for dissection at his anatomy lectures.
Dr. Knox was a surgeon, anatomist and ethnologist, and at one time the most popular lecturer on anatomy in Britain, where he introduced the theory of transcendental anatomy†. He was never prosecuted for complicity in the murders committed by Burke and Hare, but was forced to relocate to London where he continued to practice and lecture, and is buried there in an unmarked grave.
Hare was granted immunity from prosecution if he “turned king’s evidence” (ratted out his colleagues) and he confessed everything; and Burke, having been found guilty of only one murder at his trial, was hanged on 28 January 1829, and – somewhat fittingly – publicly dissected and his skeleton displayed at the Anatomical Museum of Edinburgh Medical School where, as of 2018, it remains.
*Series created by Si Spencer and Dean Ormston
**FRSE: Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh; FRCSE: Fellow of The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh; MWS: Wernerian Natural History Society [an offshoot of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, named after German geologist Abraham Gottlob Werner (1749–1817), and concerning itself with natural history]
†Also known as “philosophical anatomy”, a form of comparative anatomy that sought to find ideal patterns and structures common to all organisms
‡Photo of Dr. Knox by Robert Adamson (1821–1848) David Octavius Hill (1802–1870), courtesy National Galleries Scotland