Hanging amongst the many cabinets of this macabre museum hall lies a skeleton with a curious story: it’s the remains of a serial killer who unwittingly helped the development of modern medicine. William Burke and his partner William Hare took part in a string of murders in the early 19th Century, selling the bodies to the university that holds Burke’s skeleton today. While these terrible crimes took the lives of many innocent victims, it turned out to be the catalyst society needed to adjust its thinking on anatomical studies.
In the early 1800s, cadavers were hard to come by for scientific research as only bodies of criminals were allowed to be examined. In Edinburgh, a city becoming known for anatomy research, this meant there were constant shortages of scientists and university doctors to study. Universities began paying for cadavers in desperation, leading to a concept known as “body-snatching” where people called “resurrectionists” would dig up newly buried graves and sell off what they contained for almost a year’s wages.
Burke and Hare took this trend one grisly step further: murder. After a patron renting a room in Hare’s home died of natural causes, Hare and Burke conjured up the idea to take part in the body-snatching scheme, taking the patron’s body to Dr. Robert Knox at the University of Edinburgh. Seeing how much money could be made in this terrible business, the two partners decided that they should make cadavers themselves instead of waiting for fate to fall upon another patron. Over the course of ten months in 1828, the criminals murdered 16 people in Hare’s home, promptly giving the bodies up for sale to Dr. Knox. It was not until the winter of that year that their rotten scheme would be discovered by other house guests who found their last victim. Burke was eventually sentenced to death, Hare was given immunity for giving testimony against his partner, and Knox came out of the horrendous situation with only a scathed reputation.
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The twist is, the acts of the criminals and willing doctor led to the passing of the Anatomy Act of 1832, allowing for the study of bodies outside of criminals and thus curbing the market for body-snatching. While a terrible tale, it was the passing of this act that would lead to further understanding of the human body, with advances made in the 19th century affecting modern medicine even today. Silver linings aside, it doesn’t make that Burke skeleton any less creepy.