Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Grisly Story of Burke and Hare and the Mystery of the Miniature Coffins

Eight years after the “Anatomy Murderers” Burke and Hare were apprehended in Edinburgh, Scotland, two boys discovered sixteen tiny dolls, each nested into a miniature coffin hidden away in a rocky niche on the north-eastern slopes of Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh in June 1836.

At first, theories on the dolls significance ranged from witchcraft to child’s toys, but eventually it began to seem that the sixteen tiny figures were most likely effigies for the sixteen murder victims of Burke and Hare made by Burke himself.
 From January through October 1828, William Burke and William Hare had lured in and murdered their lodgers in a scheme to provide fresh bodies to the local anatomy school for money. They killed a total of sixteen people: twelve women, three men and one child. Dr. Robert Knox, a brilliant and well known local anatomy lecturer purchased the bodies, and most likely knew what was going on but was not arrested for the murders due to insufficient evidence.

 The crimes were exposed when another lodger discovered the body of a previous tenant, and reported it to the police. Burke and Hare were apprehended along with Burke’s mistress, Helen McDougal, and Hare’s wife, Margaret. Despite finding the body of the last lodger in Knox’s classroom, ready for dissection, the evidence was not truly damning until Hare gave a full confession.
William and Margaret Hare turned King’s witnesses, that is, witnesses for the prosecution, in return for immunity. Burke and McDougal were tried for the murders. McDougal was acquitted while Burke was convicted and sentenced to death. He was executed on January 28, 1829 by hanging.
His body was handed over for dissection, and his skeleton and a book bound from his skin (pictured above) remain in the collection of the Royal College of Surgeons, Edinburgh.
The miniature dolls and coffins were in the hands of a private collector until 1901, when eight of them were handed over to the National Museums Scotland. Although it is generally agreed that the mysterious little dolls are associated with the crimes of Burke & Hare, no one is certain who among the killers created them. DNA studies conducted in 2005, using DNA extracted from Burke’s skeleton, attempted to prove that he had created them to assuage his guilty conscience, but the tests proved inconclusive.

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