Killers slaughtered 60 then sold bodies as fresher corpses meant more money

They were London’s answer to the notorious Burke and Hare – the Edinburgh serial killers who sold their victims’ bodies for dissection.

John Bishop, Thomas Williams and James May were the London Burkers who went from grave robbing to murder in the 1820s and 30s.

They dug up thousands of bodies that were sold for dissection at hospitals in the capital, earning between £500 and £1,000 per corpse in today’s money.

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But it’s thought they actually murdered up to 60 more.

Their gruesome tale is told in the London Dungeon’s summer show Bodysnatchers, which is on until Sunday and was created with the help of Dr Drew Gray, a lecturer in the history of crime.

Back in the 19th century, the only way for doctors and surgeons to learn about the human body was to cut one up and examine it.

So they needed bodies – the fresher the better, before any decay set in – for students to learn from.

This is where grave robbers such as the London Burkers came in.

Dr Gray says: “They’d be looking for a burial that had taken place that day, then that night they’d go in and dig up the body.

“They might do two or three in one night and then take them to one of the London teaching hospitals, St Bart’s for example.

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“They would meet a porter or a representative of the main surgeon in a pub or around the back of a hospital. Then they would negotiate a price for the dead body.

“The body is taken away by the porter, while they pocketed the money and went off to dig up the next one.

“By the time we get to the 1820s, it’s become really profitable. It’s supply and demand.

“They’re beginning to earn eight to 14 guineas for a body. That translates to £500 to £1,000 in today’s money. It’s a nice little earner.

“More importantly, that sort of money is much more than you could earn as a working-class labourer or even a skilled tradesman. They probably dug up thousands.”

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The London Burkers turned to murder. They were caught after the murder of a 14-year-old Italian boy named Carlo Ferrari in 1831.

Dr Gray says: “They got a bit greedy. When they took that body to be sold to the surgeons, the person examining it realised if this is somebody you’ve dug up, who’s been cleaned and laid out for burial, there shouldn’t be any blood.”

The true number they killed may have been much higher.

“There were rumours at the time that they killed something like 60 people. We have to accept they probably killed more than the three for which they were convicted," he added.

“Their bodies were taken to a nearby surgeon and given over to be dissected. They ended up on the slab – where they had sent all those thousands of dead bodies before them.”


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