18th March 1752

Body snatchers Waldie and Torrence are hanged in Edinburgh

While Burke and Hare may be Scotland’s most famous bodysnatchers, they weren’t they first. Almost 80 years earlier, Jean Waldie and Helen Torrence had been plying a similar trade in Edinburgh’s streets.

Students in the city were in need of a regular supply of fresh cadavers for dissection as part of their studies for medical degrees. However, bodies weren’t always easy to come by, which made grave robbing – and murder – a profitable trade.

Get rich quick scheme

Jean Waldie, who had been tasked with watching over a child that was close to death, hatched a plan for making a quick profit. When the child died, she would hide its body and put an equivalent weight in its otherwise empty coffin to convince the authorities that it had been boxed up for burial. The body could then be sold to university students who could use it however they chose.

It seems that the child’s parents had been aware of the plan and, at least initially, happy for it to proceed. Perhaps they would get a cut of the proceeds. However, they changed their mind, which left Waldie with waiting customers but nothing to sell them.

Waldie and Torrence turn to murder

Not wanting to lose a sale, Waldie and her accomplice, Helen Torrence instead murdered John Dallas, a young child who lived close by, by getting him drunk, then suffocating him. They presented his body to the students who agreed to go ahead with the purchase.

However, when the students later dumped the body and it was discovered, attention turned to Waldie and Torrence, since they already had a history of kidnapping children. When they were arrested, they argued that, while they may have sold the body of a dead child, there was no proof that they were responsible for the death itself.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this line of defence didn’t convince the court. They were convicted, sentenced to death, and hanged in the Grassmarket on 18 March 1752. William Burke met the same fate, at the same location, early the following century.



Other events that occured in March

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