One of the most gruesome trials to take place in 19th century Scotland was that of the famous grave robbers William Burke and William Hare. By day, the two appeared as hardworking Irish immigrants: William Burke even rented out rooms to recent arrivals in Edinburgh. But by night, the pair lurked in dark corners of the city's ancient graveyards, digging up bodies of the recently departed to sell to anatomy instructors in Edinburgh's fast growing medical schools.
In those days, Edinburgh was one of the major centres 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. But in early 19th century Scotland, obtaining human cadavers for medical research was not a simple matter. Schools were restricted by laws that allowed the dissection of only one body per year - and it had to be the body of an executed criminal.
It was just a matter of time before someone found an illegal way of providing dead humans for dissection. Enter William Burke and William Hare. Smelling a profit, they cooked up a scheme to supply freshly dead bodies to the anatomy schools with "no questions asked". Burke and Hare were successful grave robbers. But success soon turned to greed and greed to murder. When they realized the profits they could make they started murdering victims in Edinburgh's Old Town using strangulation and then handed the corpses over to local anatomists such as Dr. Knox.
It was only when suspicious neighbours starting asking about a missing Irish immigrant named Mrs. Docherty, that the whole scheme began to unravel. Before long, the two grave robbers turned serial killers were up on charges of murdering the old lady and the whole of Britain was riveted to the grisly details of the trial throughout that Christmas and New Year season of 1828.
Christmas morning 1828, the jury gave their verdicts: Burke was guilty and Hare was innocent. Burke was executed on January 28, 1829. In the month between his sentencing and the execution, he gave two detailed confessions. In both of them he cited 16 murders that he and Hare had committed. At his scaffold, enormous crowds shouted for Hare and Dr. Knox to join him at the gallows.
So what happened to Burke’s body - you guessed it - donated to the Medical School for what they called "useful dissection". Nearly two hundred years after his death, Burke's skeleton remains on display at the University's Medical School. Ironically, the anatomists to whom Burke and Hare supplied bodies were never brought to trial. Although Dr. Knox was named as the recipient of bodies, he was never charged with any crime.