Burke & Hare Murder Dolls – Edinburgh, Scotland - Atlas Obscura

Edinburgh, Scotland

Burke & Hare Murder Dolls

Tiny effigies of the victims of Edinburgh's famous Anatomy Murders. 

Just a few years after the “Anatomy Murderers” Burke and Hare were apprehended in Edinburgh, two boys discovered these tiny dolls, each nested into a miniature coffin hidden away in the city park.

At first theories on the dolls’ significance ranged from witchcraft to child’s toys, but eventually it began to seem that the 17 tiny figures could be effigies for the 17 murder victims a decade earlier.

Between 1827-1828 William Burke and William Hare lured in and murdered their lodgers in a scheme to provide fresh bodies to the local anatomy school. Dr. Robert Knox, a brilliant and well-known local anatomy lecturer, purchased the bodies and most likely knew that something was a bit suspicious about his supply chain.

The crimes were exposed when another lodger discovered the body of a previous tenant and reported it to the police. Burke and Hare were apprehended along with Burke’s mistress, Helen McDougal, and Hare’s wife, Margaret Laird. Despite finding the body of this last lodger in Knox’s classroom, ready for dissection, the evidence was not truly damning until Hare turned on Burke and gave a full confession. William Burke was hanged in January of 1829. His body was handed over for dissection, and his skeleton and a book bound from his skin remain in the collection of the Royal College of Surgeons, Edinburgh.

The four-inch-long dolls were in the hands of a private collector until 1901, when eight of them were handed over to the National Museum of Scotland where they can be visited today. Although it is generally agreed that the mysterious little dolls are associated with the crimes of Burke & Hare, no one is certain who among the killers created them. DNA studies conducted in 2005 using DNA extracted from Burke’s skeleton attempted to prove that they had been created to assuage the guilty conscience of William Burke, but the test proved inconclusive so the truth of their creation may never be known.

Burke’s death mask and skeleton are on display in the Edinburgh University Anatomy museum and a book bound in his skin is across town at the Surgeon’s Hall Museum.

Know Before You Go

Daith Comes In, Level 4, Scotland galleries, National Museum of Scotland

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