The early 1800s was a booming time in Edinburgh, Scotland. For those who sought it, opportunity for profit was everywhere. There were illegal and underground distilleries, lodging houses, and prostitution all over the city. Few vocations, however, were more lucrative than the one that grew up out of educational need.
The beginning of the 19th century saw an explosion in the medical field in Scotland. The Edinburgh Medical College was attracting students from all around the area, and the teachers, including Doctor Robert Knox, were very willing to teach their young apprentices, but, without the know-how and technology to preserve cadavers, there wasn’t much for students to learn their craft on. Teachers at the school had to wait for citizens to die, and hope the corpses held up long enough to present them to a class for lab work.
William Hare was an Edinburgh citizen, and owner of a lodging house at which William Burke and his mistress Helen MacDougal were common borders. When a tenant at the lodging house died, owing four pounds in rent to Hare, Burke helped him steal the body from the coffin and sell it to the Edinburgh Medical College for seven pounds. It was during this initial transaction that Burke and Hare became acquainted with Doctor Robert Knox.
Seeing that the medical profession was just starting to boom, and there would be no decline in the need for fresh cadavers for some time, Burke and Hare realized what a lucrative business they had stumbled into. The demand for bodies to experiment on was far higher than the supply of bodies on which to experiment, and Burke and Hare were there to fill that void.
The next body they supplied to Doctor Knox was that of an ailing man staying at the lodging house. They gave him whiskey, suffocated him, and sold him to the doctor for use at the college. With no sickly tenants left to sell, Burke and Hare turned their greed into one of the most widely known stories in Edinburgh history, the story of the Body Snatchers.
That first sickly man they murdered in the boarding house would become known as the first victim in the West Port murders. The victims of the men would be a series of tenants, people lured in off the streets, prostitutes, and even acquaintances, whom all met their ends for the sole purpose of making Burke and Hare more and more money.
In the end, seventeen victims would lose their lives at the hands of the infamous duo in the eleven months before a boarding house lodger would finally become suspicious of the men and find a body beneath one of the beds. Even with that discovery though, the evidence against Burke and Hare was not enough to convict, so Hare received immunity from death for testifying against his former partner. William Burke received a death sentence in December of 1828. Though Burke’s mistress and Hare’s wife were rumored to have helped in the murders, and though Robert Knox was known as the purchaser of all of the deceased, Burke’s was the only conviction that came of the dark time in Edinburgh history.
The Anatomy Act was passed in 1832, which increased the legal supply of cadavers in an effort to remove any motivation to those who would make a supply for the right price.