The Cinematic Legacy of Graverobbers Burke and Hare

by Kyle Anderson | Nerdist

Two of the most infamous criminals in Victorian Britain, Burke and Hare have been the subject of several horror films, some great, some ghastly.

We take a lot of the medical field for granted at this point. Doctors, if you allow them to, are very good at determining what ails us and get us on the mend. This didn’t just happen; it took years and years of research and experimentation to get to this point. In the 1820s, Edinburgh, Scotland, was at the forefront of this work. Advancements came fast and furious and to facilitate this, the researchers needed bodies upon which to perform this research. This need led to one of the most infamous series of murders of the Victorian Age, and made the names Burke and Hare perfect fodder for horror films.

William Burke and William Hare were Irish immigrants living in Edinburgh who began work as “Resurrection Men” for Dr. Robert Knox in the prestigious Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh. Due to some unscrupulous practices, Knox would pay for corpses upon which to perform this anatomical research. The idea, apparently, was that these would only be the bodies of vagrants who died in the street; rather than bury them in a Potters field, Knox would pay for the use of the cadaver. That’s how it started.

Burke and Hare began digging up the bodies of recently buried people (hence the term “Resurrection Men;” the bodies rose from their graves) and sell those bodies to Knox. After a while, when there weren’t enough newly buried bodies to dig up, the pair got the wacky idea to cut out the middleman. In total, Burke and Hare faced charges of murdering 16 people to sell to Dr. Knox, who knew how the victims died and paid for them anyway. Hare, the apparent mastermind of the scheme, testified against Burke, who physically performed the bulk of the killings. Burke hanged while Hare got off without jail time.

The tawdry, seedy story of Burke, Hare, and Dr. Knox has been dramatized many, many times over the years. There’s something about the Victorian-era setting, the rather jovial, gallows-humor attitude of Burke and Hare, and the ghastly circumstances that have kept people engaged all these years. Poet and novelist Dylan Thomas wrote an unproduced screenplay called The Doctor and the Devils in 1953. That story changed the names of those involved but kept just about everything else.

The first film on the subject was 1945’s The Body Snatcher produced by the legendary Val Lewton and directed by Robert Wise. Though loosely adapted from Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1884 story of the same, the movie all but celebrates the legacy of Burke and Hare. Boris Karloff plays Cabman John Gray, a nasty sort of fellow who sells bodies to Dr. Macfarlane (Henry Daniell) as a sort of continuation of the B&H murders. Gray doesn’t just murder and grave-rob, he extorts and torments Dr. Macfarlane all while evoking the memory of Burke and Hare every step of the way.

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