The Body-Snatcher

This morning I watched last night’s recorded rugby World Cup match between Japan and Samoa.

William Burke and William Hare, (respectively, born 1792, Orrery, Ireland—died January 28, 1829, Edinburgh, Scotland; flourished 1820s,  Londonderry, Ireland), pair of infamous murderers for profit who killed their victims and sold the corpses to an anatomist for purposes of scientific dissection.

Hare immigrated to Scotland from Ireland and wandered through several occupations before becoming keeper of a lodging house in Edinburgh, where Burke, also Irish-born, arrived in 1827. On November 29 an old pensioner died in the house, and Hare, angry that the deceased still owed 4 pounds in rent, devised a plan to steal the corpse from its coffin and sell it to recover the money he was owed. With Burke’s aid, the pair sold the corpse to Robert Knox, a surgeon, for 7 pounds 10 shillings. The profit led the two men, assisted by their common-law wives, during the following months to entice at least 15 unknown wayfarers into the lodging house, where they got them intoxicated and then smothered them (in order to leave no trace of violence). Afterward, they sold the corpses to Knox’s school of anatomy. Burke and Hare were exposed when neighbours and police discovered their murder of a local woman on October 31, 1828.

Hare turned king’s evidence and, along with his wife, Margaret, testified against Burke and his wife, Helen. Hare eventually was released, never to be heard from again. Burke was tried for murder, found guilty, and hanged. In his confession, Burke exonerated Knox of all knowledge of the crimes, but some years passed before Knox lived down the condemnations of the public and the press. Helen was released after the jury found that the charges against her were “not proven.” She later moved but was haunted by vigilantes seeking her death.” (

Burke and Hare were undoubtedly the models for those who supplied Stevenson’s Mr K with subjects for dissection in the title and final story of the Folio Society’s collection which I read this afternoon.

Our author put his own stamp on the story. Using lanterns and candle light illuminating snatches of a pitch black shape-changing figures and soaking precipitation to set the scene in his customary way. The alcoholic wreck of an accomplice of an extremely successful surgeon who as students had dealt in the trade of victims many years before, upon meeting him by surprise, is the vehicle by which Stevenson tells the tale of their crimes, giving us his own spine-chilling conclusion.

Michael Foreman’s frontispiece to the book illustrates this tale.

This evening we all dined on tender roast pork; roast potatoes sweet and standard; firm broccoli and carrots; piquant cauliflower cheese; meaty gravy; apple and other sauces according to taste, with which Jackie drank Hoegaarden and I drank more of the Grenacha Old Vines.