Between 1827 and 1828, William Burke and William Hare murdered 15 people over the course of a year to make extra money, selling the bodies as cadavers for university students to dissect.
These murders took place starting in November of 1827 to October of 1828.
At the time, it was very difficult for universities to get human bodies for students to dissect. The only ones that could legally be acquired by universities were those from executed convicts.
This had once been an adequate supply, but thanks to certain legal changes that resulted in a drastic reduction of executions and thanks to the fact that the study of anatomy had become more popular as medical science progressed, there began to exist a huge shortage of human bodies.
In order to get around this problem, college professors and private tutors would sometimes pay under the table for bodies, no questions asked.
It was not uncommon for people known as “resurrectionists” or “body snatchers” to watch cemeteries and, when a fresh body was buried, they would dig it up. They’d then take any valuables that may have been left with the person.
Finally, if the body was fresh enough, they’d take it to sell. This practice became bad enough that relatives of a deceased loved one would often stand in shifts over the grave for several days to keep the body safe from being stolen while it was still fresh.
As author Hugh Douglas noted: “(Resurrectionists) could open a grave, remove a body and restore the soil between patrols of the night watch…. Relatives of the subject could mourn by the grave the following day, unaware that their loved one was gracing some anatomy slab in Edinburgh.”
William Burke and William Hare took this practice a step further.
Rather than wait for people to die, they began a year long killing spree, providing a steady stream of bodies for Dr. Robert Knox who was a private lecturer, teaching anatomy classes to University students.
The murder spree started relatively innocently enough. At the lodging house that Hare operated they had an elderly gentlemen named Donald who owed Hare £4 in rent when the old man died.
Knowing that one could sell a body to universities, they decided to fill the coffin with bark and steal the body to sell to make up for the loss of the rent money the dead man owed.
They originally intended to sell the body to Professor Alexander Munro of Edinburgh Medical College, but after making inquiries were re-directed to Dr. Robert Knox, a private lecturer, whose assistant instructed them to bring the body after nightfall.
When they arrived with the body, it was inspected by Dr. Knox’s assistants and Burke and Hare were offered £7.10s, which would be around £730 today, or around $1100.