Life After Trial Graverobbers and Dr. Robert Knox Part 1

About a series of murders and graverobbings in Scotland, Dr. Robert Knox's place in the crimes and life after the trials.

WILLIAM HARE (fl. 1829) AND DR. ROBERT KNOX (1791-1862)

Before: In the 1820s, it took a Scottish worker 10 weeks to earn pound 10, so Dr. Robert Knox's standing offer of that sum in exchange for fresh corpses was a generous incentive to rob graves and, in the case of William Burke and William Hare, to murder. Dr. Knox--known as Old Cyclops because he had lost the use of one eye as a result of smallpox--was a prominent anatomy professor at Edinburgh University, and he used these bodies for classroom dissection. Most of the bodies he received were several days old and beginning to decay, so he was delighted when Burke and Hare began bringing him bodies so fresh they were sometimes still warm. Dr. Knox must have known what the two Williams were up to, for he dissected the bodies himself and certainly realized that the cause of death was usually suffocation. The freshness of the bodies alone should have aroused his suspicions, but Dr. Knox asked no questions.

In 1827 Burke and a prostitute named Helen McDougal had moved into the boardinghouse of Maggie Laird, Hare's "wife." One day a Highlander named Old Donald had the misfortune to die in the boardinghouse still pound 4 in arrears to Maggie. The foursome decided to sell Old Donald's body to collect this debt. They found the taking easy. Soon they were accepting only frail, sickly boarders in the hopes that others would follow Old Donald's example. They soon despaired of this waiting game, so Burke and Hare took to suffocating their ailing lodgers. As they grew accustomed to the frills and good whiskey that money could buy, they were driven by greed into the streets, where potential victims were numerous. They delivered somewhere between 14 and 28 victims in their trusty tea chest to Dr. Knox over a period of just two years.

One night Helen McDougal found Burke in the company of two drunken prostitutes. She went into a jealous rage and scared away one of the prostitutes, but the other, beautiful Mary Paterson, had passed out. Perhaps as an excuse, Burke told Helen that he was entertaining the girls "for business," and with that he killed Mary Paterson. When he delivered the body, however, one of Dr. Knox's assistants, Dr. William Fergusson (later surgeon to Queen Victoria), recognized the girl--having himself slept with her--and knew that she had been healthy just a few days before. Suspicion was born.

Nonetheless, Dr. Knox found Mary's body so exceptional that he decided to pickle it for a while. This attracted hordes of male students who wanted to examine the voluptuous corpse, and Dr. Knox's classes swelled. Mary was not dissected for three months.

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