Finding William Burke: The Relics of A Murderer

Execution of the William Burke
Image | Execution of the William Burke| Wellcome Collection

If you’re interested in the macabre story of the now infamous murderers Burke and Hare, you’ll know that William Burke is spread around Scotland, with a (tiny) little bit of him scattered in England.

Following Burke’s execution at Edinburgh’s Lawnmarket in January 1829, little bits of him were either secreted away or professionally prepared as anatomical specimens.

But where can you find the relics of the murderer William Burke?

The majority of relics can be found in Edinburgh. Burke’s skin was made into a notebook and is now at Surgeons’ Hall Museum together with his death mask. A card-case is kept on the counter in the smallest museum in the world, The William Burke Museum, and Burke’s skeleton hangs in the Anatomical Museum at Edinburgh University. A letter, written in Burke’s blood is kept at Edinburgh University Archives, and a piece of Burke’s brain is sealed in a glass jar and kept at The Science Museum in London.

I decided to find out just what bits of Burke still remained if you can see them, and where exactly could you find them.

This post aims to put Burke back together again, bit by bit.

A Brief Story of Burke & Hare

No blog about finding bits of a murderer can begin without giving a brief overview of their crimes. Although there is far more to the story of Burke & Hare than is described here, not everyone is familiar with their murderous tale and for the benefit of everyone, the outlying facts are thus…

Attracted to the large sums of money that could be made after selling the body of a recently deceased lodger to anatomist Dr. Knox for £7 10s, the two Irish men William Burke and William Hare embarked on a murdering spree covering 10 months and 16 victims.

Cutting out all middlemen in their quest to supply the anatomists with fresh bodies, these two Irish navvies smothered or ‘burked’ Edinburgh’s down-and-outs; those members of society that no-one would miss.

They were eventually caught after the body of their final victim, Margaret Docherty was found lifeless under a pile of straw in the lodging rooms of William Burke by his current lodger Ann Gray.

William Burke died after hanging for 40 minutes on the end of a rope in Edinburgh’s Lawnmarket.

His accomplice  William Hare, having turned King’s Evidence was left to roam a free yet utterly perishable life.

The last sighting of him being on the road two miles outside of Carlisle after he was trying to make an inconspicuous journey as far away from Edinburgh as he could get.

The frenzy at the gallows for bits of William Burke and the attraction at his dissection led to macabre relics secreted away for centuries. Those that we know have survived are now kept in museums, large and small across Britain.

Burke's Skeleton

After hanging in front of a crowd of more than 25,000 spectators on 28 January 1829, Burke’s body was taken to the anatomy theatre in Edinburgh University’s Old College and publically dissected.

Afterward, his bones were then defleshed and cleaned and, according to his sentence to remain on display ‘for all time’.

The day immediately following Burke’s dissection, his skeleton was put on display in the Museum. It is said that on this first day alone more than 30,000 members of the public came to see him.

If you skip to around the 2-minute mark in this video clip from the museum’s website, you can get a glimpse of Burke.

The Death MAsk of William Burke

Made for the Edinburgh Phrenological Society, Burke’s death mask was cast following his execution. This fascinating exhibit can be found at Surgeon’s Hall in Edinburgh.

A copy of Burke’s mask was discovered, together with a hangman’s noose in the back of a store cupboard in 2009 in Inveraray Jail in Argyll, Scotland, along with a life mask of William Hare which was taken during the trial.

A number of other masks are known to have existed, one is said to be in America and another in a Welsh Museum and copies of the mask are at the universities of St Andrews in Fife and Edinburgh.

Notebook MAde From The Skin Of William BUrke

Reverse of Burke's Skin Book
Reverse of William Burke's Skin Book | RCSEd
Notebook made from William Burke's Skin
Front of Notebook made from William Burke's Skin | RCSEd

Perhaps the most famous of Burke’s relics to have survived, alongside his skeleton, is a notebook that has been bound in skin taken from Burke’s back.

On the back of the book is inscribed the date of his execution, 28 January 1829 and the front has the word’s ‘Burke’s Skin Pocket Book’ embossed in gold. Gold edging also adorns the front cover.

If you’d like to read more about the practice of covering books in the skin of executed murders, this post, ‘The People Who Became Book Bindings’ by UCL PhD Candidate Arendse Lund may be of interest to you.

William Burke Calling Card Case

Image | William Burke Calling Card Case | Witchery Tours

This small but significant reminder of William Burke sitting in an ornate box on a counter in a shop. Not just any shop, however, this is the shop for The Cadies & Witchery Tours located in Edinburgh’s West Bow.

The ‘relic’ or souvenir is made from the skin on the back of Burke’s left hand, so you can perhaps imagine the size.

Purchased at auction in 1988 for £1050, information on the Witchery Tours website gives further details to its background:

The story appeared in a number of national newspapers, including The Sun which showed its customary flair for a good headline with: '£1000 Bid for Bit of a Burke

In 1997, the calling card case was sent to London to feature in the Wellcome Trust's exhibition Dr Death: Medicine at the End of Life. It also featured on Channel 4's Four Rooms (2012) and the BBC's Antiques Roadshow (2006), where it was described as "priceless"

Burke's Brain In a Specimen JAr

Specimen Jar Containing piece of William Burke's Brain From the Science Museum London via Wellcome Images
Specimen Jar Containing Willliam Burke's Brain | Science Museum

Following Burke’s hanging in Edinburgh’s Lawnmarket and subsequent dissection at the University of Edinburgh’s Old College by Professor Monro, a rival to the purchaser of Burke’s victims, Dr Robert Knox, a small piece of Burke’s brain was preserved.

The specimen was taken at the time of dissection and placed in a glass jar.

Within the records at the Science Museum is a note beside the entry reading

presented by the doctor who used Burke’s body for anatomical purposes, in a sealed glass tube 3” long

This specimen is now said to be hidden in the collection at the Science Museum in London. If you do visit the museum in the hope of seeing this relic, please get in touch with them beforehand to avoid disappointment.

If you’d like to see the Science Museum before you visit, or if you can’t make it there in person, there are virtual tours online for you to follow.

Recently updated and hosted by the Keeper of Medicine at the Museum, sit back and let this 3-minute video on YouTube of the world’s largest medical gallery get you inspired for your visit. ‘Medicine: The Wellcome Galleries’ quickly shares some of the highlights of the museum like the sculpture ‘Self Conscious Gene’, inspired by the tattooed body of Rick Genest aka ‘Zombie Boy’ or the real Victorian Pharmacy.

You can also get a great view of the museum via Google Streetview which was captured in 2016.

Letter Written In Burke's Blood

Burkes Letter Written in Blood
Burkes Letter Written in Blood | Edinburgh University

A letter, written in Willliam Burke’s blood has survived forgotten in the archives in Edinburgh University ever since it was pasted into a scrapbook. 

The letter says the following : 

This is written in the blood of William Burke, who was hanged at Edinburgh on 28 Jan. 1829 for the murder of Mrs Campbell or Docherty. The blood was taken from his head on the 1 Feb. 1829

You can see the letter in full here, plus other related images, in a newspaper article published in the British newspaper The Daily Mail on 5 May 2015.

If you wish to contact the Edinburgh University archives regarding the letter, you can do so here. The reference for this source is EUA IN1/ACU/A2/21/1 and further details about the item in their online catalogue can be read here

Researching The Relics of A Murderer

As museums alter their opening hours and rearrange their exhibits, it is wise to always contact them directly or to search their website/collection catalogue for information in determining if the items are available to the public for viewing.

Science Museum London has currently re-opened after being closed due to lockdown. I encourage you to follow the link to check on current opening times before you make your visit.

Surgeons’ Hall Museum has recently undergone an upgrade, a must for all fans of medical history

The Anatomical Museum in the University of Edinburgh only opens it’s doors on select days, the rest of the time the University’s medical students use the museum for their studies.

The William Burke Museum is actually an ornate box that sits on the counter in the shop of The Cadies & Witchery Tours in Edinburgh. This is the only item in the museum, making it the smallest museum in the world, but still definitely worth seeing.

The University of Edinburgh Archives has an online catalogue should you wish to search through its collection. The catalogue can be accessed here

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Finding William Burke
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