With Halloween approaching, and historian Lisa Rosner on the road discussing her latest book, The Anatomy Murders: Being the True and Spectacular History of Edinburgh's Notorious Burke and Hare and of the Man of Science Who Abetted Them in the Commission of Their Most Heinous Crimes, we are giving readers a glimpse into the lives and deaths of some of the more curious corpses connected to the case. The first of the 17 cadavers that Burke and Hare sold originally belonged to a man who is known to history only by his first name, Donald.
Donald, an "old pensioner" in William Hare's boarding house, was not murdered by William Burke and William Hare. Sick with dropsy, Donald died in late November, 1827--but his swollen body only briefly saw the inside of a casket. Hare arranged for the local parish to pay for funerary expenses; and, a day or two after Donald's death, a carpenter came and sealed the body in a wood coffin.
Somewhere in this interval--perhaps while aggravated by the smell of decomposition in his house--Hare had the bright idea to sell the body. There was a vibrant market for such commodities in the fiercely competitive world of anatomy, where professors and students needed corpses for dissections.
Hare turned to another boarder, William Burke, for help with his plan. Although what the two men were doing was not technically a crime, they acted with a furtiveness befitting more sinister deeds. With a chisel and tanner’s bark, Hare and Burke first opened Donald’s coffin and then filled it with the bark—a ruse that either fooled, or was winked at by, the carter who took the coffin away.
Burke and Hare initially tried to sell the body to Professor Alexander Monro of the University of Edinburgh, but he had retired for the day. Instead, they found a willing buyer in Dr. Robert Knox, a man with considerably less prestige than the tenured Monro—but far later hours.
The price for a two-day-old corpse with edema? £7 10s. Too elated to haggle, Burke and Hare divided their reward and went back to Hare’s house with their fortunes considerably bettered by this resourceful use of the dead.
And thoughts of more corpses dancing in their heads.