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Murder and the making of a legend

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xactly 189 years ago this month the reign of terror inflicted by notorious bodysnatchers Burke and Hare came to a sudden end, for one of the pair at least.

Burke murdering Margery Campbell, the last of the Burke and Hare murders

On 28 January 1829 William Burke, one half of the deadly duo, was publicly hanged and his body dissected for both scientific purposes and a sense of justice. Since then their names, and the series of grisly murders committed by them in the West Port district of Edinburgh, have become part of the city’s popular culture and continue to haunt the collective memory and imagination of millions of people around the world. Edinburgh in the early 1800s was the centre of The Enlightenment and a hotbed of scientific exploration and endeavour amid a ravenous appetite for knowledge. At a time when important research into anatomy was being hindered by a supply of fresh corpses for experimentation grave robbing by

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The Resurrectionists, as they were dubbed, was a lucrative trade. Only people executed for murder were made available for dissection and due to a voracious demand from medical students there weren’t enough bodies to go around. Digging up graves to steal fresh corpses was hard work, made all the more difficult but increasingly elaborate security measures introduced by cemetery owners and families of the dearly departed. But,

it was in an attempt to feed demand that William Burke and his partner in crime William Hare went into business. But, despite their murderous reputation, the road to infamy was less calculated than would appear at first glance. In 1827 an old man called Donald was a tenant in Hare’s lodging house when he died suddenly from natural causes owing the Irishman about four

Profile for Scotland Correspondent

Scotland correspondent issue 13  

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