Body Snatching: The Original Cash for Gold Business

burke and hare

William Burke and William Hare

In this inaugural episode, I will be discussing literal skeletons in the form of the infamous case of Burke and Hare along with a case of burking in Cincinnati.

If you were studying to become a surgeon in Edinburgh, Scotland in the early to mid-1800s, chances are you were learning anatomy of the human body via dissection of cadavers. Because Scotland became an epicenter of anatomical study during this time, there was a huge demand for these cadavers. However, Scotland had a law about the source of bodies for medical research. They had to have died in prison, be a suicide victim or an orphan. A gap formed between the demand for bodies and the amount that were legally available for study. This is where resurrection men stepped in to fill the void, causing an increase in grave robbing. The Scottish government responded to this increase by then implementing increased measures to ensure graves were left undisturbed. This back and forth between the grave robbers and the government only managed to increase the need in the medical schools; creating the perfect setup for the events that followed.

On November 29, 1827 William Hare discovered that a lodger in his boarding home had died, shortly before receiving a pension that was to settle his back rent. Hare complained of his monetary loss to his friend William Burke, who helped him concoct the plan to sell the body to the medical school for a profit. The pair took the corpse in the cover of darkness to Edinburgh University where they were referred to Dr. Robert Knox. Knox paid for the corpse and as the pair was leaving it is reported that one of Knox’s assistants said they, “would be glad to see them again when they had another to dispose of.” For two people living at poverty level, a scheme for continued income was hatched, albeit an extremely amoral one.

They realized that they couldn’t wait around for another person in the boarding house to simply die and the likelihood of stealing a body with the increased sanctions put on the corpses in the cemeteries was very slim. They decided to start taking matters into their own hands, literally. The first murder was likely that of another lodger in Hare’s house in January or February of 1828. The pair plied him with whisky and then Hare suffocated the man while Burke lay across his torso to make sure that he could not move or make noise. This became the pattern for the following 15 murders. The pair would ply their victim with whisky and then suffocate them – leaving next to no trace of foul play. Each body was taken again to Knox at Edinburgh University in a tea chest.

The last two of the murders were when questions arose. The second to last murder was of a man known in the streets of Edinburgh as a disabled beggar. He was stronger than many of the victims and could fight back. However, the pair eventually overpowered him and he succumbed to suffocation as well. The real trouble for the pair occurred when a few of the students recognized the man and informed Knox of this.

The last victim, Margaret Docherty, was killed on October 28, 1828 in a Mr. Broggan’s home – where Burke was residing. He lured her in by stating that his mother was also a Docherty and was from the same area of Ireland. Once again, they began drinking whisky. The Grays, two other lodgers in the home, became an impediment to his plan, so Burke sent them to stay at Hare’s home. Burke, retrieving Hare in the meantime to take care of business. The pair and their wives spent the night drinking with Margaret. Eventually the pair murdered Margaret and put her body in a pile of straw at the end of the bed in the room the two lodgers had originally been staying in.

When the lodgers returned the next morning, they became suspicious when Hare wouldn’t allow them close to the bed to collect some of their belongings. They called the police, who discovered bloody clothing under the bed. The ten-month killing spree that left 16 people in its wake was finally over.

Burke, Hare and their wives were arrested and kept separate from each other in prison. The police received differing reports of the events from each of them. Burke and Hare eventually confessed to 16 murders. Knox was cleared from legal recourse. Though he was deemed immoral, he hadn’t clearly broken the law.

Burke and Hare turned on each other during the course of questioning. Hare turned state’s evidence and testified against Burke in court for immunity. Burke was subsequently hanged on January 28, 1829 and his body was publicly dissected. His skeleton was given to the Anatomical Museum of the Edinburgh Medical School. Hare was kept in custody until February 5, 1829 for his own safety. He was sent to Dumfries, Scotland, but when it was discovered by the locals that he was there, the constable told him he needed to make his way to the English border. There were no reliable sightings of him after that time. Both pairs wives were found not-guilty and fled Scotland after their trial.

Burking became a verb shortly after the trial. It means to smother a victim or commit an anatomy murder.

As a native of Cincinnati, I wanted to tie this first episode back to my hometown.

In 1884 Cincinnati had its own case of burking to contend with known as the Avondale Horror. On Friday, February 15, 1884 Louis Mills, a dairy farmer in Avondale, noticed a fire coming from a log cabin on his property. It was rented to Beverly Taylor, his wife Elizabeth and their granddaughter Emma Jean. When he arrived at the property they were nowhere to be found and the cabin was devoured by flames.

The next day he searched through the remains, expecting to find their bodies. However, he was able to find remnants of furniture, but not human remains. He consulted the Avondale Marshal, who began searching for the missing family. By Wednesday of the following week, the officer went into Cincinnati to find out if their bodies had turned up at any of medical schools. Infamously, in 1878 the body of John Scott Harrison, son of President William Henry Harrison, had turned up at Ohio Medical College or Cincinnati Murder College when it was found to be missing from its grave. (This will probably be an episode of its own.)

When Brown consulted Ohio Medical College, then on 6th Street, in downtown Cincinnati, Dr. Cilley realized that he had been delivered three bodies matching their description on Friday night. He said that he did not know the two men who brought the bodies, but that he knew them only as Jack and Harrison. The latter name probably a nod to the body snatching of John Scott Harrison. The post-mortem done on the bodies by the medical school determined they had all been bludgeoned.

After asking for a description of Jack and Harrison, the Marshal was able to determine that Jack was a local shifty character who had helped with initial search efforts for the family named Allen Ingalls. Interviews of his fellow boarders revealed Ben Johnson to have been his accomplice. They were both housed in the Cincinnati Courthouse and were there during Courthouse Riot of 1884. Shortly after this riot, Ingalls hung himself in his cell.

Johnson was found guilty after a three-day trial and was hung at the Hamilton County Jail on May 2nd, 1884. Men crowded the court yard to watch the hanging and afterward rushed the scaffold to retrieve pieces of the rope as souvenirs.

In both cases these men were faced with the prospect of killing someone for money and didn’t think twice about it. But was the system just as much to blame as the individuals? In each case the doctors were knowingly paying for corpses and didn’t ask questions about where they came from. When a dollar value is put on a human life, is it any wonder that someone decides to cash in, in any way possible?