The Darker Side of Edinburgh – Burke & Hare

Up the close and down the stair,
In the house with Burke and Hare.
Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief
Knox, the man who buys the beef.


With the launching of our new game “The Darker Side of Edinburgh” we've put together a quick guide to two of the shadiest characters to have ever resided in the city - Burke & Hare.

Humble Beginnings to a Gruesome End

  • William Burke and William Hare were both immigrants to Scotland from Ireland, moving across the Irish sea like so many of their Irish contemporaries, they found work on the Union Canal.

  • The first body they sold for anatomical study was that of an elderly pensioner named Donald, who was not killed but had died of natural causes in the lodgings that William Hare ran. Donald still owed £4 rent upon his death, so Hare more than made his money back, receiving £7.10, an amount that equates to hundreds of pounds today.

  • Burke & Hare went on to murder at least a further 16 individuals, initially preying on those in poor health in Hare's lodgings, but soon turned to luring people off the street to get them drunk before murdering them.

  • Their preferred method of murder was to suffocate their victims, one of them covering the nose and mouth while the other restrained them. This method ensured the victims had no marks on their bodies that suggested foul play, very important if they were to be viewed by hundreds of people.

  • Hare stated that the murder that disturbed him he most was that of a 12 year old mute boy. Hare stretched the boy over his knee and broke his back, the young boy's face haunted Hare for the rest of his days.

Caught Out

  • It was Burke who was eventually caught out, his lodgers discovering the body of their final victim, Mary Docherty, under the bed in the spare room. The lodgers turned down a panic offer of £10 a week to keep quiet, going straight to the police.

  • Upon his arrest Burke promptly blamed Hare who was then also arrested. Hare turned King's evidence against Burke to save himself, leading to Burke's conviction and eventual hanging.

  • A crowd of 25,000 people attended Burke's execution in he Lawnmarket.

The Aftermath

  • Ironically Burke's body ended up being dissected in anatomy lectures.

  • Some anatomy students removed parts of Burke's skin and used it to bind books.

  • Burke's skeleton is still  on display in Surgeon's Hall in Edinburgh.

  • There was immense anger at Hare getting off with no punishment, he was released in 1829 despite victims families seeking to have him prosecuted. He is rumoured to have escaped to England, ending his days a blind beggar in London.

  • Professor Knox who actively encouraged the pair to supply as man bodies as the could was acquitted an suffered no punishment. However, his reputation never recovered in Edinburgh, he as forced to move to England to continue his work.

This is one of many stories that proves that even a city as beautiful as Edinburgh can a have a dark and gruesome history.