The Infamous Burke and Hare, The Anatomy Murders

The Infamous Burke and Hare
By R. Michael Gordon | McFarland & Company Inc. | $39.95 | 265 pages | 2009

The Anatomy Murders
By Lisa Rosner | University of Pennsylvania Press | $29.95 | 328 pages | 2010

Grave robbing was rampant in 1828 at Edinburgh. Dr. Robert Knox and his colleagues on Surgeons’ Square needed corpses for their anatomy classes.

These two recent books chronicle the methodology of William Burke and William Hare. They didn’t supply disinterred bodies; they delivered fresh flesh for around 10 pounds per cadaver.

How? They would entice unfortunate men and women from the street into a lodging, ply them with liquor in a prone stupor, and “Burke” them. That procedure involved one murderer lying on the victim to prevent expansion of the lungs. The other murderer covered the mouth and nose. Suffocation killed quickly.

Burke and his mistress Helen McDougal were tried on Christmas Eve and Day 1828 for murdering Mary Docherty on Halloween night 1828. Hare testified for the prosecution. Burke was convicted and hanged. As to McDougal, the Scottish verdict was “not proven.”

Of the two books, I prefer Mr. Gordon’s because of the edited excerpts from trial testimony. But both are informative and will enhance your knowledge of legal history.


Don Paine Donald F. Paine is a past president of the Tennessee Bar Association and is of counsel to the Knoxville firm of Paine, Tarwater, and Bickers LLP. He lectures for the Tennessee Law Institute, BAR/BRI Bar Review, and the Tennessee Judicial Conference.