Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

William Burke & William Hare

The Legacy

Burke and Hare would live on in the culture of Britain, and stories of their crimes would eventually become known around the world.  Ironically, they would become most well-known as the kings of the grave robbers, although no proof has ever come to light that they had ever robbed a single grave.  In fact, in Burkes confessions of the 16 murders, he specifically denied ever engaging in the much-lesser crime of grave robbing.

Dramatizations of the West Port murders played to packed houses in Britain throughout the 19th and early 20th century in melodrama theaters and community playhouses.  In the 1930s, James Bridie's play The Anatomist portrayed the tale on the formal theater stage.  Films such as The Greed of William Hart, The Body Snatcher, The Doctor and the Devils, and The Flesh and the Fiends depicted Burke and Hares story with varying degrees of accuracy.

Burke and Hare also have inspired fiction writers ranging from Robert Louis Stevenson (The Bodysnatcher) to Sheri Holmans acclaimed modern novel The Dress Lodger

Their crimes even added to the English language.  Although not commonly used today, the verb to burke still means to murder someone by violent means or by smothering.

And finally, the West Port murders have entered the timeless culture of childrens folklore.  Threats of visits from Burke and Hare are used by some parents to discipline unruly children, and the pair are even prominently featured in a couple of sing-song rhymes that accompany childrens jump rope and hopscotch games:

Up the close and down the stair,
In the house with Burke and Hare.
Burkes the butcher, Hares the thief,
Knox, the boy who buys the beef.

Burke and Hare,
Fell down the stair,
With a body in a box,
Going to Dr. Knox.


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