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Up the close and down the stair
But and ben with Burke and Hare,
Burke's the butcher, Hare's the thief
Knox the boy that buys the beef
(famous verse about Burke & Hare)

It was Voltaire who thought mass murdering dated back to the very first king, priest or hero. Since that time, there has been no shortage of that type of criminal who sees repetition as an obligatory part of his craft. Two notorious examples in Edinburgh, Scotland's history of this black art were William Burke and William Hare.

By day, the two Irish immigrants appeared as normal, hardworking fellows. William Burke even rented out rooms to new arrivals. But by night, the pair lurked in dark corners of Edinburgh's ancient graveyards, digging up bodies of the recently departed to sell to anatomy instructors in the city's fast growing medical schools.

In those days, (Burke was born in 1792) Edinburgh was one of the major centers of medical education in Europe. Dr. Robert Knox of the city's medical school was one of the most popular anatomists, attracting as many as 500 students per class.

Early in 19th Scotland, obtaining cadavers for medical research was not an easy matter. Schools were restricted by law, allowing the dissection of only one body per year and it had to be the body of an executed criminal.

For Burke and Hare, graverobbing was a fast way to make money. But they were not alone. As early as the 1700's there were complaints of bodies being exhumed for the purpose of medical dissection. This practice so outraged the general public, that watchtowers were constructed in some Edinburgh cemetaries to protect those recently buried. Protective walls and iron bars can still be seen around some old Edinburgh graves.

Burke and Hare were successful graverobbers but soon, greed led to murder. Why wait for someone to die, when they could speed along the process? Dr. Knox had cash to pay for bodies and he didn't ask any probing questions. Under the cloak of darkness, Burke and Hare strangled their victims and handed them over to local anatomists such as Knox.

Although we may never know the exact number of Burke and Hare's unsuspecting victims, the number is probably between 13 and 30. If was only when neighbors starting asking about a missing Irish woman named Mrs. Docherty, that the scheme began to unravel.

When the case came to trial, Hare turned evidence against Burke and Burke was found guilty of murder. He was executed on January 29, 1829. He was hung before a crowd of 20,000 jeering spectators. In an ironic twist of fate, his body was donated to the Medical School for what they called "useful dissection."

Forced to leave the city by the mob who demanded a similar fate should behall him, William Hare escaped. Blind and hunted from place to place, he died in a dank cellar in London.

Even though Dr. Knox was named as the recipient of the bodies, he was never charged with any crime. He eventually left Edinburgh and also went to London. It's said he died destitute.