20th December 1862

Burke and Hare’s best customer dies

Born in Edinburgh, where he also attended the university, Robert Knox was an anatomist and customer of serial killers William Burke and William Hare. He died in London, on 20 December 1862, a week after suffering a stroke at his home in Hackney.

Death a shock

“His death was a shock to those friends and acquaintances who had seen him in tolerable health two or three weeks previously,” said the North British Agriculturist of 7 January 1863, quoting the Lancet, “but it was and is more especially felt by his few relatives and associates, who loved the old man for his affectionate and cheerful disposition, for his promptitude in doing any kind action which could serve another, and for his high intellectual qualities.”

Knox had enrolled as a medic in the army, and served in Brussels at the time of the Battle of Waterloo. During this time, he treated many of the injured infantrymen who were brought in from the battlefield. He later served in South Africa, before returning to Edinburgh where he lectured on anatomy. His lectures were extremely popular, but he would eventually be forced to leave the Scottish capital, and head south, when his association with the murderers Burke and Hare became public knowledge.

Steady supply of cadavers required

Knox had required a steady supply of cadavers for his lectures, but these were hard to come by as the only legal source, at the time, was convicts who had been sentenced to be executed and dissected (the fate ultimately suffered by William Burke). So, when Burke and Hare offered to sell bodies to Knox, he readily accepted. Unfortunately, he would appear not to have inquired too thoroughly where they were getting the bodies from, and thus the pair performed more than a dozen profitable murders before being caught. Fortunately for Knox, his assistants had dealt with Burke and Hare on his behalf, and he thus escaped prosecution. However, his reputation didn’t escape unscathed.

“Unless I am mistaken, he was a man of European notoriety, being the famous lecturer on anatomy whose school was so well supplied by the midnight labours of Burke and Hare,” wrote a correspondent for the Exeter Flying Post of 7 January 1863. “Knox could not stand up against the odium brought upon him by the revelations on the trial of those two wretches, and was compelled to come to London, where he lived (latterly) in reduced circumstances.”



Other events that occured in December

FREE Scotland history newsletter

Don't miss our weekly update on Scotland's fascinating history. We promise never to sell your data to anyone else, and there's a super-easy unsubscribe link on the bottom of each email so you can leave whenever you want.