A comedy mystery podcast in which two friends discuss a weekly mystery.

Burke & Hare Murder Dolls

Rachel you are a musician aren’t you? You’re also a regular listener of MysteriYES right? So you’re well aware of the MyHISTORY jingle that friend of the podcast Lin Manuel Miranda wrote for us right? Well you better bust it out because this week we’re going all the way back to 1836! We’re going back to the Jackson administration this week. Or rather I should say all the way back to the William IV administration because this week we’re also making the trans atlantic trip to Scotland.


In Edinburgh 1836 we’ll find five young boys hunting for rabbits and exploring the woods of Holyrood Park (which may or may not have been a park at the time). As they approach the area around Arthur’s Seat (a gorgeous hill with fantastic views of Scotland’s capital) they came across a small cave cut into the hill. I say it was a cave but it was more of an alcove. A strange little divet in the side of the hill. Like any adventurous kids they decided to see what was inside. Rachel at this point would you like to guess what they found?


That’s exactly right! Inside were 17 miniature coffins each filled with their own super creepy doll made out of wood and cloth which were carved, painted, and dressed to look like people. If you would like to see these dolls I’d suggest googling Burke & Hare Murder Dolls.


The dolls were split into 3 levels. One was placed on the top of a display/alter, eight were placed in the middle, and 8 more were places around the bottom. The descriptions of the dolls are a little murky after that because the boys that found them did the single most logical thing you could possibly do when you stumble upon a creepy alter surrounded by coffins filled with terrifying dolls. They started throwing them at each other. This resulted in 9 of the original 17 dolls being either lost or broken. I’ve heard some people claim that there were dolls in the shapes of both men and women but the only dolls that remain all seem to be in the shape of men. The dolls closer to the ground had decayed a fair bit but the dolls that were placed higher up had not.

That’s pretty much the mystery this week Rachel. What are these weird dolls? Why were they place in a weird cave alter? Why were they in coffins? Why would anyone make them?

The first thing that comes to mind is probably witchcraft. Maybe the person who made them was trying to cast a death spell by creating effigies of people they wanted to see dead. This is definitely seems like something that a lot of people would assume was witchcraft in 1836. It’s possible that is why these dolls were created. It’s certainly a possibility, but there isn’t any evidence to prove it nor is there a specific spell or ritual that would match these dolls.

Another theory is that these dolls are related to an infamous series of murders known as the West Port Murders.

In the early 19th century Edinburgh was a hotbed for the study of human anatomy. Many of the scientists living in Edinburgh at the time pioneered our understanding of the human body and helped it develop into a modern science. However, to properly conduct their research these people needed a lot of bodies.  At the time the only corpses the law would allow them to dissect were, people who died in prison, suicide victims, and the bodies of abandoned children and orphans. Because of this the demand for corpses far outweighed the supply and a black market for exhumed cadavers was formed.

At the time disturbing a grave was a crime as was stealing the property of the deceased but stealing the body itself was not a crime because it didn’t legally belong to anyone. Prices for stolen corpses shot up to close to $1,300 in modern American dollars. By the 1820s people became aware of the practice and started to guard against it. Guards were hired to watch graveyards, watchtowers were built in cemeteries, large stone slabs were laid over graves until the body had decayed past the point of use for scientists. This higher level of protection led a critical shortage of corpses for anatomists which led two men William Burke and William Hare to a terrible solution.


When we left off we were talking about William Burke and William Hare. These two enterprising entrepreneurs decided the solution to the cadaver shortage was not to rob graves but to simply create more bodies.

They started with a sitcom like problem. Hare had a man die while staying at his house so he turned to his old pal Burke for advice. In a stroke of genius Burke suggested that they should sell the body to Dr. Robert Knox so that he could dissect it in his class. They were payed slightly below the going rate at just over 7 pounds but this sparked a terrible idea. Together they started to search for living people who wouldn’t be missed and when they found a target they would invite them back home for a drink. Once their victim was drunk enough Burke would smother or strangle them to death. The two would then take the body to Dr. Knox. In total they murder 17 people including a 12 year old mentally handicapped boy named Jamie, and the daughter of a victim who came looking for her mother who they had previously murdered. In total they killed 16 people over a period of 10 months.

Eventually the two were caught and arrested. Authorities at the time decided that it would be easier to convict just one of them so Hare was turned crown’s witness on Burke. Burke was sentenced to death and executed on my birthday December 28th, 1829. They then performed a public dissection of his body, and put his skeleton on display in a museum. Oh and they also reportedly bound books in his skin.

Hare became incredibly famous and hated across the country. Some people say he was thrown into a pit of lime, blinded, and forced to spend the rest of his life as a beggar but I can’t find a source to confirm this.

By now you’ve probably forgotten what I was talking about to begin with but the diversion was necessary I mean they’re called the Burke & Hare Murder Dolls. The connection is this, if you include the man who died of natural cause there were 17 bodies involved with the West Port murders. If you remember there were 17 dolls originally found at the alter. They were also divided into two groups of 8 and one by itself. Perhaps they separated the one that died of natural causes.

It’s possible that either Burke or Hare made these dolls as they were killing their victims. It’s absolutely impossible to diagnose someone after their death but I do think it’s safe to say these men suffered from some form of mental illness. People have suggested that these dolls were some kind of fantasy or way to relive the killings. Perhaps it was remorse, a small way to atone for the terrible thing they were doing.

Perhaps it wasn’t even Burke or Hare. Maybe someone had their own gross fantasy after hearing about the murder. There were also plenty of people at the time who believe that if a body was not properly buried their soul could not enter heaven. Perhaps it was a way for someone to help the victims.

Maybe the number of dolls was simply a coincidence. There were plenty of other things that could have been killing people at the time. Scarlet fever, typhoid, and a ton of other infectious diseases were running rampant across Britain. Maybe the dolls were made to commemorate lost loved ones.

Ultimately there’s no way of knowing why these dolls were made or by whom.