Human Dissection, Part 2 – Murderers, Body Snatchers and Burkers

The history of medical students using human cadavers for dissection is a long and choppy one (no pun intended). Before Christianity, mutilation and use of human corpses was widespread. It is common knowledge that ancient Egyptians mummified their dead, dissecting and preserving specific organs. After Christianity became a widespread influence, however, the practice of dissecting human cadavers to study was considered taboo. The remaining 1700 years of European history in regards to human dissection ranged from the illegal body-snatching of human corpses to using only the cadavers of executed criminals as subject of study, and finally, making human dissection a regulated scientific practice.

Unlike France, which made it easier for medically minded men to obtain human bodies for dissection, Great Britain had a much more difficult time obtaining and normalizing the practice of using real human cadavers for study.

The Murder Act

In 1752, Great Britain passed an act for better preventing the horrid Crime of Murder. Otherwise known as the Murder Act, it essentially legalized the dissection of human bodies for medical study. More specifically, it gave the bodies of executed murderers to medical universities, so that they could be dissected for medical examination. The Murder Act served dual purposes: it was an extra deterrent for murder, as no one wanted to be dissected, but it also made a legal supply of fresh human cadavers on which medical students could study.

The executions of murderers were usually held at eight o’clock on Monday mornings, after which the body of said murderer would be left hanging for an hour for good measure. This would ensure that he (or she) was actually dead. After the execution, the body would then be delivered to the London’s Royal College of Surgeons, who’s College Master, dressed in his full regalia, would receive the body, taking it into the college for dissection and study.

At this time, the Royal College of Surgeons had the only legal right to human bodies, and as the supply of murderer-bodies was relatively scarce, there were few legal avenues for human cadavers. Because of this, they often performed a “proper examination,” consisting of little more than a cut over the sternum, and then donated the rest of the body to other London hospitals, private schools of anatomy, or other well-connected surgeons or students. This was one way in which the Royal College remained in favor with London’s most powerful surgeons.

Body Snatchers and Burkers

Fortunately (or perhaps not so fortunately), there were very few executions that were eligible for human dissection, averaging about a dozen a year. This meant that there had to be another means of obtaining human remains to study. This meant that medical students and surgeons often had to raid the gravesites of the recently deceased, obtain unclaimed bodies from almshouses or hospitals, or purchase freshly dead bodies from body snatchers and murderers.

In the 1820’s, two men made a killing (pun intended) by murdering people and selling their bodies to medical professionals. In 1828 it was discovered that William Burke and William Hare, two Irishmen living in Edinburgh, had murdered and sold the bodies of at least sixteen men and women for dissection by doctors at the medical school of Dr. Robert Knox.

The two men had carefully crafted a method of murder, which went completely undetected by the medically-minded men to whom they sold their prey. They would douse their unsuspecting victim with a good amount of liquor, and once passed out drunk, would suffocate them in their sleep. Their method was so complete that the doctor dissecting the patient would have no knowledge of the way in which the person died. They would then pack the body in a tea-chest and carry it through the streets of Edinburgh, where they would present it to the school of Dr. Knox for sale.

By the time they two criminals had been caught, it was found out that Knox had personally bought the bodies of sixteen of Burke and Hare’s victims.

Burke and Hare were not the only ones to follow the same model, however, as further rings of murderers were later found in London, each of whom sold the bodies of their victims to doctors for medical study.

An Ironic Twist of Fate (or, A Fitting Punishment)

The most interesting (and fittingly ironic) part of the history of Burking, as it came to be called, was the fate of the movement’s founders. Having been found out by the authorities, Hare sold out his partner in crime, Burke, and escaped the noose by providing enough evidence to convict his partner of murder. Burke, on the other hand, was not so lucky. He was found guilty of murder, and sentenced to both death and dissection.

The hanging and subsequent dissection of Burke turned out to be a festive affair, as tens of thousands of spectators jostled for a peek. Small pieces of Burke’s body were souvenired out at the dissection, and a purse was made out of his skin. This Burke-skin purse is still on display at the Police Museum in Edinburgh.

The Anatomy Act

As a direct result of the Burking controversy, and the ensuing episodes of Burking in London, the British Parliament passed an Act for Regulating Schools of Anatomy, in 1832. In addition to rescinding the Murder Act, which allowed the dissection of executed murderers, this new act provided additional legal ways in which doctors could obtain human bodies for dissection. It also established a system of licensing physicians for “anatomical examinations” and specified where such “examinations” would take place.

After the implementation of the Anatomy Act, all physicians who were in legal possession of human bodies, such as hospitals and workhouses, could make the bodies available for dissection. Essentially, the act made it legal to claim all bodies that had been unclaimed for more than 48 hours for dissections.

After this legislation the heretofore theatrical act of hanging a murderer, delivering his body to the Royal College of Surgeons, and publicly displaying it’s dissection was regulated into a scientific affair. The British Anatomy Act of 1832 changed the scientific method of dissection from a public punishment for a crime into a regulated, scientific practice.

By the middle of the 19th century, the “necessary inhumanity” of human dissection for medical study had transitioned from a moral dilemma, to a punishment for vicious crimes, to a purely scientific practice. That being said, there was (and still is) serious moral, ethical, and legal issues regarding the use of human cadavers for study, and the use of human bodies for scientific study is still an important issue in contemporary medicine.


MacDonald, Helen. Human Remains: Dissection and Its Histories. London: Yale University Press, 2005.

Warner, John H., and Edmonson, James M. Dissection: Photographs of a Rite of Passage in American Medicine: 1880-1930. New York: Blast Books, 2009.

Elizabeth Roberts, MA, CPC

Elizabeth Roberts, MA, CPC, holds a Bachelor of Arts in History and Philosophy, and a Master of Arts in Curriculum and Instruction. She is a freelance writer who enjoys sharing her love of history with others. She also enjoys writing as a way to get out of the boring gray cubicle that she occupies in her full time day job. She spends what time she has left with her two daughters and husband, family, and friends, cooking, reading, and creating just about anything with her hands. She also hopes to one day get her PhD in History, and finish one of the many books that she has been writing. Elizabeth has recently been credentialed as a Certified Professional Coder (CPC) by the American Academy of Professional Coders.
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