The William Burke Museum, which displays only one exhibit – a calling card case made out of the skin of notorious Edinburgh “bodysnatcher” William Burke, opened its doors to visitors in Edinburgh’s West Bow on Saturday – exactly 188 years after the execution of William Burke on January 28, 1829.
Burke and Hare committed a number of murders in Edinburgh in 1828, and then sold the corpses to Dr Robert Knox at the Edinburgh Medical School for use in his dissection classes.
After his public execution in January 1829, Burke was publicly dissected (like his victims) and grisly souvenirs were made from skin taken from various parts of his body.
The murders raised public awareness of the need for bodies for medical research and contributed to the passing of the Anatomy Act 1832.
Scotland’s capital was a leading European centre of anatomical study in the early 19th century, in a time when the demand for cadavers led to a shortfall in legal supply. Scottish law required that corpses used for medical research should only come from those who had died in prison, suicide victims, or from foundlings and orphans. The shortage of corpses led to an increase in grave robbing.
The calling card case, made from skin taken from the back of William Burke’s left hand, was sold at auction for £1050 in 1988, to Robin Mitchell of The Cadies & Witchery Tours, by the family of Piercy Hughes, a descendent of one of the surgeons involved in the dissection.
Mr Mitchell said: “We used to carry the calling card case around on our walking tours, but decided that we needed to protect it from wear and tear and loaned it to the Police Information Centre in Edinburgh’s Royal Mile.
“When the Police Information Centre closed we needed to come up with another plan of action for this grisly relic and The William Burke Museum concept was hatched.”
Cameron Pirie, manager of The Cadies & Witchery Tours, said the museum will be unique: “This will be the smallest museum in the world. I know of museums in England and the USA claiming to be the smallest but we’re the only museum with ONE exhibit.”
In 1997, the calling card case was sent to London to feature in the Wellcome Trust’s exhibition Dr Death – Medicine at the End of Life.
It also featured on Channel 4’s Four Rooms and the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow where it was described as “priceless”.
The William Burke Museum is open at The Cadies & Witchery Tours shop, 84 West Bow (Victoria Street), Edinburgh.
Entry is free. For more details visit: www.witcherytours.com/william-burke-museum