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William Burke, 1792 - 1829. Murderer

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William Burke, 1792 - 1829. Murderer 1829

Not on display

  • Scottish Art
William Burke was one of Scotland’s most notorious criminals. Between November 1827 and October 1828, Burke, along with William Hare, murdered approximately sixteen people in Edinburgh. As part of what became a lucrative business, they infamously sold the bodies of their victims to anatomy lecturer, Dr Robert Knox, for dissection purposes. When they were caught, Burke was sentenced to death, whereas Hare was spared (for giving evidence against Burke) and Knox denied knowing where the bodies came from. Burke was hung in January 1829 and, fittingly, his body was handed over to the university for dissection. This is Burke’s death mask which was made due to the growing interest in phrenology at this time. Eerily, the rope mark from the noose is visible around Burke’s neck.

Glossary Open


Phrenologists believed that the brain was made up of many individual organs, each associated with s single human activity or characteristic. It was thought possible to determine the power of personality traits from the size of the corresponding areas of the brain which could, in turn, be seen in the surface bumps of the head.



  • Acc. No. PGL 2302
  • Medium Plaster
  • Size
  • Credit The University of Edinburgh Collections