The Bodysnatchers Murders

by Dee


Scotland Series: Post #3

The Bodysnatchers Murders is the second topic we were introduced to in The Witchery Tour. I think everybody knows about Burke and Hare, but this was my first time face-to-face with their stories. 

The Bodysnatchers Murders

The Bodysnatchers

Leaving behind the witches of Edinburgh, our walking tour continued to another notorious event that happened in Edinburgh in the 17th century. As our group walked through the cold night, Adam Lyal (deceased) enlightened us with a story about the bodysnatchers murders. 

On the first half of the 17th century, Edinburgh had transformed into a buzzingly busy city filled with workers moving to a more urban setting in search of employment. 

The once medieval city tried to cope with the influx of new tenants-to-be by constructing or converting existing buildings into towering tenements. All this crowding resulted in rampant poverty, unsanitary living conditions, and diseases. 

Major killers during this time were tuberculosis, typhus, and smallpox (Bailey, 2002: 1-3). At the same time, pioneers of modern medicines were also on their paths in advancing knowledge of understanding human and diseases. Professions of medical doctors and surgeons were much in demand to assist with the ailing members of the community. During this period, you need to be trained by qualified teachers of anatomy and surgery if you want to become a practising surgeon. 

Hang on a minute! I’m all the way up north trying to remove the everlasting stench of the morgue in Sheffield and yet, here I am face-to-face with some other cadaver-related story? Goodness me! 

Anyway, to learn anatomy, you will require a corpse (duh?). I know this first-hand, of course… The high number of anatomy students means more cadavers are needed. A charter in 1505 granted the surgeons of Edinburgh one condemned man every year to be subjected to dissection (Bailey, 2002; Lennox, 2016). But anatomy is such a popular subject, and there aren’t enough bodies to dissect. 

People, including some doctors and medical practitioners, often resorted to graverobbing, body-snatching, or even murder. Cases of desecrated graves increased, and people began to protest the activity of dissection and at times, also causing riots. 

Some people also resorted to watching the newly buried graves of family members or friends and cemeteries started installing watchtowers in the attempt to control graverobbing for new corpses. Why? Because the freshest the corpse, the higher its price (Johnson, no year). William Burke and William Hare were only two of these graverobbers and/or bodysnatchers. Their reign of terror lasted nearly a year from 1827 to 1828. 

The demands of obtaining corpses for dissection seemed to be seen as a business opportunity for these two. They ended up murdering seventeen (some says sixteen) lives of random people around Edinburgh’s Old Town area and selling the bodies to Dr Robert Knox, an anatomist lecturer at the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh. 

Williams Burke and Hare were known to have particular gameplay in choosing their potential victims. They don’t pick a well-known community member, they prefer poor and weaker people, and they also prefer their prospective victims to be someone whose absence won’t be noticed.

It seemed like the business as bodysnatchers is booming. Burke and Hare committed murder after murder, and they even had favourites spots to pick their victims. We visited some of the usual hangouts of Burke and Hare where they screen for potential victims in this tour. The first one was Lady Lawson Street, where a lodging house ran by Hare and his wife once stood. 

It is now converted into Argyle House, an office building. It was a little bit blurry in my memory, but I think we also stopped at High School Yards where Dr Knox’s anatomy school was located. Another hangout spot of these two bodysnatching murderers was the White Hart Inn in Grassmarket. Anne and I already walked past this establishment a couple of times today but didn’t think about Burke and Hare straightaway. I’ll write more about this pub in the next post.

The Trials

Burke and Hare were caught after murdering Margaret Docherty, an Irishwoman who was lured by Burke to the lodge. Two other lodgers reported the crime after their suspicion and the two perpetrators were then arrested. Hare would then confessed to the crimes they’ve committed in exchange for immunity from prosecution. Their trial began on Christmas Eve 1828 in Edinburgh’s Parliament House. Burke was found guilty and executed by public hanging in Lawnmarket on 28 January 1829. Hare was released (!!!) on 5 February 1829 and decided to leave Edinburgh. Even though he was spotted and recognised on his way to Dumfries, he managed to escape an angry mob, and no recorded accounts of Hare’s whereabouts is known beyond this point. 

Fun fact or irony or karma—whatever—Burke’s corpse was dissected in a public lecture by Dr Monro on 1 Feb 1829. You can still meet Burke today if you visit the Anatomical Museum of the Edinburgh Medical School cause his skeleton is still there today.

If you shall ask why there are not many pictures in this post, that was because my camera ran out of battery. Our tour ended at Mercat Cross, you know, where those accused witches were beheaded. It was nearly 9 pm when we finished, I think. Even though Anne and I returned to our hostel room exhausted and overwhelmed with the history shared in the tour, I felt that I did not want the tour to end. 

I wish Adam Lyal (deceased) could be our guide for the rest of our stay. He was really good. He didn’t go off the rail with his character and the stories were amazing! Come to think of it, we were just going in circles in the Royal Mile and it’s surrounding. But as I now found out that every corner in Edinburgh has a history to tell. 

Now, we were spent, both energy and mind. We didn’t have the strength to shower and went straight to bed immediately as our heads touched the pillows. Tomorrow is another day and we want to be ready for it. 


1. Bailey, B. 2002. Burke and Hare: The Year of the Ghouls. Mainstream Publishing: Edinburgh & London.

2. Holder, G. 2010. Scottish Bodysnatchers: A Gazetteer. The History Press Ltd.

3. Johnson, Ben. no year. The Story of Burke and Hare. Historic UK

4. Lennox, S. 2016. Bodysnatchers, Digging Up The Untold Stories of Britain’s Ressurection Men. Pen & Sword History: Barnsley, UK.

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