Burke & Hare Murder Dolls: the mystery of the dolls in miniature coffins
William Burke and William Hare were two serial killers who lived and operated in Edinburgh, Scotland, from November 1827 to October 1828. The duo, with the complicity of their companions, lured in and murdered their lodgers in a scheme to provide fresh bodies to the local anatomy school. Here Dr. Robert Knox, a brilliant and well-known local anatomy teacher, purchased the human remains and most likely knew that something was a bit suspicious about his “supply chain”.
They killed 17 people and the crimes were exposed when another lodger discovered the body of a previous tenant, a woman, under their bed 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.
As a result, only William Burke was sentenced to the death penalty, while William Hare was eventually released.
William Burke was hanged in January 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.
A few years after the end of the story of what were defined as “Anatomy Murderers”, two boys discovered a series of 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. Despite the correspondence between the number of victims and the number of coffins, identification with the victims of the killers is uncertain, and others hypothesized that the figurines were meant to represent sailors lost at sea who hadn’t received a proper burial, of which these represented the effigies.
Holyrood Park, where the dolls were discovered, has a clear view of the Firth of Forth estuary, where it is said the nearby ruins of St Anthony’s Chapel served as a beacon for mariners.
The little 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 still be seen 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 and correspondence has never been ascertained. In 2005 a study was even conducted 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.
Thus, the mystery linked to the dolls of Burke & Hare and the truth of their creation may never be known.