"Burke's the butcher, Hare's the thief,
Knox the boy that buys the beef"
From a well-known 19th century verse.
Despite the fact that Edinburgh was a center of medical research at the time, all medical schools in Scotland in the early 19th century were restricted to just one cadaver per year for dissection purposes, with the further restriction that it had to be the body of an executed criminal. There was consequently a thriving black market in corpses.
William Burke and William Hare were Ulster men who had moved to Scotland to work as laborers on the Union Canal. Once in Edinburgh, they turned their laboring abilities to an altogether better paid venture; they began robbing graves and selling the corpses to Dr. Robert Knox, a popular anatomist at the Edinburgh Medical School.
Burke and Hare were by no means the only people offering this service to the city's many schools and anatomists, and in fact the trade in corpses was so prevalent that watchtowers, iron fences, and defensive walls were built around Edinburgh's cemeteries in an effort to protect the bodies of the recently interred. Burke and Hare's distinction was that they decided to make their unpleasant job a little less arduous by eliminating the whole messy enterprise of digging up rotting corpses; instead, they simply killed people at random and delivered them fresh to Dr. Knox, who was good enough not to ask any awkward questions. Even so, they killed their victims by carefully smothering them in order to leave no signs of violence on the bodies.
They were eventually arrested for the murder of an Irish woman named Mrs. Docherty. Although they were suspected of murdering between 13 to 30 people, there was only enough evidence to prosecute this one case, and even that must have been less than conclusive, because when the case came to trial at the end of 1828 Hare was allowed to turn evidence against Burke in return for his freedom.
William Burke was hanged on January 29th 1829 in front of 20,000 jeering spectators. In what was perhaps an attempt at poetic justice, his body was donated to the Edinburgh Medical School for "useful dissection".
William Hare was released from jail on Feb 5th 1829 and he and his wife (who was Burke’s former mistress) were allowed safe passage out of the city. He is said to have died blind and destitute in London.
Dr. Robert Knox was never prosecuted.
Of the three, only Burke has left a tangible legacy. His skeleton is still on display at the Edinburgh Medical School, the Police Museum on the Royal Mile displays a wallet made from his skin, and his name gave the verb to "burke", meaning "to smother without signs of violence", to the English language.
- Webster 1913