london burkers


In the early 1800s surgeons in England were desperate for cadavers, bodies to dissect in order to learn what makes what run with us humans. To their dismay, the only bodies these doctors were able to ply their trade on were executed convicts. Around 1825-1830 the supply of convicts was on a drastic decline due to less death sentences, which of course some entrepreneuring criminals took advantage of. Most crime buffs know about the notorious Burke and Hare, two men who murdered then sold the bodies then were put on trial for their lives. A lesser known but very similar case is that of the London Burkers. Named after the aforementioned Burke, which was a gang of men who dug up freshly buried bodies and murdered for profit. On November 5th, 1831, a fresh corpse was delivered by John Bishop and James May to the King’s College School of Anatomy. It was so fresh that it raised the suspicions of the demonstrator of anatomy who called the authorities. It was confirmed that the body was that of a 14 boy who had not died naturally. Police arrested the whole gang and searched their residence in Nova Scotia Gardens, a slum area of London. Police found multiple items of clothing and suspected more than one murder had occurred. A short trial commenced and the arrested men, May, Bishop and Thomas Williams, were all convicted and sentenced to death. On November 4th, Bishop made a full confession, claiming to have sold between 500 and 1000 bodies over 12 years. More macabre than that he confessed to two more murders and explained how he did it. Luring his victims, the poor and lost of society, he would drug and brutally murder the poor helpless victims. On December 5, 1831, Bishop and Williams were hung at Newgate prison. May was spared death as it was believed he had no idea about the murders, just the ‘dead from natural causes’ body selling. That same year Elizabeth Ross killed Catherine Walsh of Whitechapel to sell her corpse to a surgeon. These crimes, plus the Burke and Hare murder spree, led to the passage of the Anatomy Act of 1832 which provided a better supply of cadavers to medical schools. This supply took away the enterprising murderers’ chance of filling the schools with victims. Pictured above: a depiction of Bishop, May and Williams, a newspaper from the time about the crimes, a depiction of the murder that brought them to the attention of the authorites, Nova Scotia Gardens where some of the murders took place and finally a song wrtten about the Burkers in 1832.