This item brings together the Burke and Hare murders with scenes from Shakespeare’s plays. The murders were the first to attract widespread media attention, and this collection of illustrations indicates the hold they had on the popular imagination.
Each page consists of illustrations relating to the murders, accompanied by extracts from Shakespeare. In some cases, Shakespeare’s language is changed to reflect the circumstances of Burke and Hare’s crimes, and the names of those involved in the murders replace the names of the characters in the plays.
The case of Burke and Hare
Over a period of 10 months in 1828, William Burke and William Hare murdered 16 individuals in Edinburgh by suffocating them – a method that came to be known as ‘burking’. They sold the corpses to Dr Robert Knox, a surgeon who used them for medical dissection. In Image No. II, you can see Dr Knox dissecting a body in front of an audience.
The murders fascinated and horrified the public, exacerbating existing fears about the illegal trade in bodies. The trial took place in front of a packed courtroom on Christmas Eve. The judge granted Hare immunity after he informed against Burke. When Burke was publicly hanged in January 1829, more than 20,000 people gathered to watch.
Burke and Hare in George Eliot's Middlemarch
George Eliot's novel Middlemarch is set between 1829 and 1832, after the trial of Burke and Hare but before the passing of the Anatomy Act. The townspeople often speak of the medical profession with distrust, and on occasion they relate this directly to the illegal trade in corpses and the Burke and Hare murders. When Lydgate asks the relatives of the deceased Mrs Goby if he can perform an autopsy on her body, they feel that the ‘association of her body with the victims of Burke and Hare [is] a flagrant insult to her memory’ (ch. 45). Mrs Dollop, the landlady of the Tankard, suspects Lydgate of planning to let people die in the New Hospital, or even to poison them, in order to ‘cut up their dead bodies’ (ch. 45).
- Article by:
- John Mullan
- The novel 1832–1880, Power and politics
Middlemarch is set in the period leading up to the 1832 Reform Act. Professor John Mullan explores how George Eliot uses the novel to examine different kinds of reform and progress: political, scientific and social.