William Burke and William Hare were two serial killer who lived and committed their crimes in Edinburgh, Scotland, from November 1827 to October 1828. The couple of murderer killed 17 people with the purpose of selling their corpses to the anatomist Robert Knox, scientist who would study the human body through dissection. The two were finally discovered and only one of the two, William Burke, was sentenced to death while William Hare got spared, accused only to be his accessory and for this reason released.

Below: illustrations of William Hare and William Burke, 1850 circa

Some years after what obtained the name as “Anatomy Murderers”, two boys discovered a series of tiny dolls, all laid inside small wooden coffins hidden in a park of the city.

Below: picture by Kim Traynor shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons

Initially it was thought that they could be part of some witchcraft ritual or some macabre children toys, but soon a new theory arose: could those 17 little figures represent the victims of a decade before? Despite the correspondence between the number of victims and the number of the coffins, the identification with the killers victims is not certain. Fort this reason other people started looking for other ideas; considering the position in which the dolls were found, Holyrood Park, facing the estuary of Firth of Forth with the nearby ruins of St Anthony’s Chapel which worked as a lighthouse, people hypothesised how the small puppets could represent some sailors died in the sea.

The homicides

Between 1827 and 1828, William Burke and William Hare, with the help of their partners, attracted and killed some tenants in order to provide corpses to the school of anatomy of Edinburgh. Doctor Robert Knox, brilliant and well known local teacher of anatomy bought the bodies despite his probable awareness of how their suppliers were obtaining them.

Below: book covered with the skin of William Burke.Picture by Kim Traynor shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons

The criminals were reported when a couple of lodgers found a body of a woman under their own bed. Burke and Hare were arrested along with Burke’s lover Helen McDougal and Hare’s wife Margaret Laird. William Burke was hanged in January 1829. His body was used for dissection as well and his skeleton as well as a book bound book with his own skin are part of the collection of the Royal College of Surgeons, Edinburgh.

Below:  William Burke’s skeleton. Picture by Kim Traynor shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons

The small dolls were owned by a private collector up until 1901, when 8 of them were given to the National Museum of Scotland, where they can still be seen today. Despite the theory in which the dolls are the representation of the victims of Burke&Hare is a generally accepted one, it has never been confirmed. In 2005 a DNA test was conducted on the dolls trying to connect them to the condemned killer, William Burke. The research though, resulted null.

Below: a video about the mystery of the coffins and some theories about their identification

The mystery linked to the dolls of Burke&Hare is perhaps destined to remain as such. Unless it will be possible to find evidence that the miniatures can be linked to the two popular killers of Edinburgh.

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Matteo Rubboli

I am a publisher specialised in the digital distribution of culture and founder of the portal Vanilla Magazine. I don't wear a tie or branded clothes, I keep my hair short so I don't have to comb it. That's not my fault but just the way I've been drawn as...

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