Medical Men and Murderers: The Barber-Surgeons, Burke & Hare

In the Middle Ages, medical physicians favoured academia and aristocracy, working at universities or in private residence for the castle-dwelling wealthy. They offered consultations, but turned their noses up at surgery. With Europe frequently in battle during this long era, however, soldiers required more than consultation.


Out of necessity, barbers, with their steady hands and sharp blades, were utilised in times of war. Their duties ranged from simple hair cuts, to leeching, to full amputations. The β€˜barber-surgeon’ soon became a common figure in European medical practice, with continued popularity for centuries.

Though barbers and surgeons are now wholly separated professions, one reminder of their shared past survives: the classic red and white striped barber pole. Signifying blood and bandages, it was an accessible message indicating where medical assistance – and hair care – could be found.

Despite their popularity and willingness to get their hands dirty where physicians would not, barber-surgeon’s success and survival rates were low. As the centuries passed and medical knowledge continued to develop, they needed bodies to study, to practice on, and to dissect.

Henry VIII and the Barber Surgeons, Hans Holbein, c.1543 | Wiki Commons

Although corpses, or β€˜cadavers’, have been used in medical research since the days of the Ancient Greeks, religious [moral] objections kept the practice underground for years.

In the 14th century, everything changed after the first recorded human dissection, in Italy, exposed the need for human – rather than animal – subjects.

In 1506, James IV, King of Scotland, was the first British monarch to legalise dissection on cadavers, allowing the Barber-Surgeons of Edinburgh to anatomise convicted criminals who had died by execution.

In 1540, Henry VIII followed suit, allowing London’s Company of Barber-Surgeons four criminal corpses a year. Whilst this annual figure eventually increased to six cadavers under Charles II’s reign in the 1600s, it wasn’t enough for surgeons and apprentices to progress in their field. And so, other means of acquisition were sought…

“𝕴𝖓 π–‰π–Šπ–†π–™π–, 𝖓𝖔 – π–Šπ–›π–Šπ–“ π–Žπ–“ π–™π–π–Š π–Œπ–—π–†π–›π–Š 𝖆𝖑𝖑 π–Žπ–˜ 𝖓𝖔𝖙 π–‘π–”π–˜π–™!”

– Edgar Allan Poe

A trend of gathering unclaimed corpses that were, apparently, scattered about the streets of 17th and 18th century British cities followed.

Then came the Murder Act of 1752, which stated that, after execution, all convicted murderers would be made an example of through the public display of their hanged corpse, or be handed over to barber-surgeons for dissection. The latter was widely believed to be the worse fate.

But even so, supplies failed to meet increasing demands. And once again, alternative methods were employed…

Master John Banister Delivering an Anatomical Lecture, John Banister, 1580 | Wiki Commons


Operating in a gruesomely grey area of the law, ‘resurrectionists’ were necessitated by the state’s inability to provide 18th and 19th century British anatomists with all the cadavers that perfecting their craft demanded.

Despite their romantic, messianic name, resurrectionists were, quite simply, grave robbers filling a gap in the market. Skulking around in the dark of night they plundered fresh graves and turned the dearly departed into medical cadavers.

In response, the landscape of our cemeteries changed. Dirt covered graves were protected by stone. Coffins were used, and coffins inside coffins, and triple coffins if wealth allowed. Stone burial vaults, mausoleums, and mortsafes raised the skyline. Servants and nightwatchmen were left graveside, on guard.

Sacramento Historic Cemetery | Β© Generally Gothic

A more subtle and lesser known tactic (with thanks to Spookypress, from whom I recently learnt about it) was to place something valuable in the hand of the deceased. As riga mortis took hold, their death-grip would tighten… bones would be broken for the extra prize. This approach relied entirely upon the morals of the surgeons who, these mourners trusted, would refuse purchase of a cadaver with broken bones and report the bearer for their crimes.

Despite the various attempts of the living, it remained a lucrative business, with religious figures, graveyard workers, poor mourners, and even anatomists assisting resurrectionists… all for their cut of the ill-gotten share. Soon, things got even more Hare-y, Burke it didn’t end well…
(I’ll see myself out.)

π•­π–šπ–—π–π–Š 𝖆𝖓𝖉 π•³π–†π–—π–Š

1828 was an important year in the dark history of the medical cadaver during which, two Northern Irishmen in Edinburgh surpassed even the loose moral bonds of the resurrectionists. Both christened William, Burke and Hare were body-snatchers who turned the living into cadavers. (More thanks to Spookypress, this time for inspiring my research into Burke and Hare.)

Their career shift began fortuitously when a lodger of Hare’s died unexpectedly. They sold his body in lieu of his last, missed rent payment. Next, was a feverish tenant whose ill health was bad publicity for Hare’s lodging house; murdering him was their elected response.

Some thirteen victims followed – an assortment of male lodgers taken ill, impoverished females enticed with drink, and one drunk woman delivered to Burke directly from the arms of an unsuspecting policeman.

Most were asphyxiated. Each was stuffed, dead, into tea-chests or herring-barrels and sold to Dr Robert Knox of both Edinburgh University, and the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.

Detail, The Murderers of the Close, Robert Seymour, 1829 | Wiki Commons

Dr Knox was an extremely influential figure in the field of anatomy. He lectured frequently, and vowed to always demonstrate on fresh cadavers. And although Burke’s confession (spoiler: they were caught) claims the good doctor’s ignorance, Knox knew well enough to promptly remove the penultimate cadaver’s identifying body parts when he recognised him as a local beloved character…

Illustrated above is the Halloween murder of their final victim, number sixteen. Margaret Docherty was discovered, hidden in a straw mattress, by two lodgers that escaped with their own lives and saved countless many more.

The police detained Burke, Hare, and their wives, following the murder of Docherty. Accusations of previous crimes surfaced, but lacked sufficient evidence. In an attempt to extract a full confession, Hare was questioned individually. He complied. After turning King’s evidence against Burke for his own immunity, he disappeared, never to be seen again. William Burke, however, paid for their actions.

On Christmas eve, 1828, William Burke stood trial for the murder of Docherty, alongside his wife, in front of a brimming courtroom and 300 members of the policeforce. The proceedings went through the night, and on Christmas day, Burke was found guilty and sentenced to death.

William Burke’s death mask and pocket book, Surgeons’ Hall Museum, Edinburgh, Kim Traynor, 2011 | Wiki Commons

On the 28th of January, 1829, Burke’s public execution took place. This time the crowd is rumoured to have been 25,000 witnesses strong.

On the 1st of February, Burke’s hanged corpse became a cadaver at the hands of Professor Monro in the Old College building at the University of Edinburgh. Once again, the event gained huge popularity; police intervention was required to subdue excited throngs of medical students all eager to witness the dissection.

Following the two-hour-long medical post-mortem procedure, Monro wet his quill-tip in the cadaver:

“π•Ώπ–π–Žπ–˜ π–Žπ–˜ π–œπ–—π–Žπ–™π–™π–Šπ–“ π–œπ–Žπ–™π– π–™π–π–Š 𝖇𝖑𝖔𝖔𝖉 𝖔𝖋 𝖂𝖒 π•­π–šπ–—π–π–Š, π–œπ–π–” π–œπ–†π–˜ π–π–†π–“π–Œπ–Šπ–‰ 𝖆𝖙 π•°π–‰π–Žπ–“π–‡π–šπ–—π–Œπ–. π•Ώπ–π–Žπ–˜ 𝖇𝖑𝖔𝖔𝖉 π–œπ–†π–˜ π–™π–†π–π–Šπ–“ 𝖋𝖗𝖔𝖒 π–π–Žπ–˜ π–π–Šπ–†π–‰…”

Burke’s bones were passed on to the Anatomical Museum at Edinburgh Medical School. His skeleton can still be viewed there today. At the Surgeon’s Hall Museum, alongside his death mask (and Hare’s life mask) is a leather-bound book… An example of the eloquently named practice of β€˜anthropodermic bibliopegy’, this binding is purported to be composed of Burke’s own, tanned skin.

β€œπ•΄ π–π–†π–›π–Š π–‡π–šπ–™π–ˆπ–π–Šπ–—π–Šπ–‰ π–’π–†π–“π–ž π–’π–Šπ–“. 𝕬𝖑𝖑 π–†π–—π–Š π–Žπ–“π–“π–”π–ˆπ–Šπ–“π–™ 𝖆𝖓𝖉 π–Šπ––π–šπ–†π–‘π–Šπ–‰ π–œπ–π–Šπ–“ π–™π–π–Šπ–ž π–†π–—π–Š 𝖔𝖓 π–™π–π–Š π–™π–†π–‡π–‘π–Š. 𝕬𝖑𝖑 π–†π–—π–Š π–Šπ–π––π–šπ–Žπ–˜π–Žπ–™π–Š 𝖆𝖓𝖉 π–Œπ–—π–”π–™π–Šπ–˜π––π–šπ–Š.”

– E. B. Hudspeth

The actions of Burke, Hare, and their accomplice wives, were undeniably abhorrent… but does it justify the medical mutilation of the criminal dead? What do you think? Let me know in the comments below, or join me on Instagram.

This post is part of the Generally Gothic Horrible Histories series – click through for more! And if you have any ideas, thoughts, suggestions, or terrible jokes, I’m all ears.

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