Burking, fortunately, is a crime that has disappeared, leaving only the word itself to testify to its horror.
Writing in the April 2, 1881 issue of his weekly magazine, All the Year Round, Charles Dickens reminded his readers of its meaning:
*William Burke and William Hare were Scottish serial killers who in 1827 and 1828 murdered seventeen people and sold their corpses to the Edinburgh Medical College.
Detail, HOLLIS 002428269
The above illustration depicts Carlo Ferarai, a street urchin who traveled about London displaying trained white mice and a turtle in exchange for coins. On November 4, 1831, he was lured into a boarding house with the promise of a job and murdered by three London burkers, John Bishop, Thomas Williams, and James May.
Detail, HOLLIS 002943153
The perpetrators were quickly apprehended on suspicions raised by the hasty sale of the fresh body and the discovery that Carlo’s white mice were found in the possession of John Bishop’s children. The next month the men were tried at the Old Bailey, and Bishop and Williams were condemned.
Detail, HOLLIS 002938163
References to the circumstantial evidence provided by the white mice quickly entered legal literature (William Wills, An Essay on the Rationale of Circumstantial Evidence ), and the case itself became a staple of popular culture. The major incentive for burking was removed the following year with the passage of Anatomy Act 1832 (2 & 3 Will. IV c. 75), which allowed the legal transfer of cadavers for medical education and research.
The case of the Italian boy is extensively documented in a new digital collection just released by the Library. Titled “Dying Speeches and Bloody Murders: Crime Broadsides Collected by the Harvard Law School Library,” the collection contains images of more than five hundred broadsides published between 1707 to 1891 and includes accounts of executions for such crimes as arson, assault, counterfeiting, horse stealing, murder, rape, robbery, and treason.