During the month between Burke’s sentencing and his execution, he made two comprehensive confessions, which detailed 16 murders that he and Hare had committed, although the sheer number of victims meant that he was unclear of the exact order in which each murder was committed. It didn’t seem to occur to the authorities that Dr. Knox might have kept a record of disbursements, and he was never questioned, or charged with any offences. His reputation was irreparably damaged, however, and he was forced to leave Edinburgh and move to London.
Helen McDougal was held in her cell at Calton Prison until 26 December, the day after the trial, for fear that the crowds around the courthouse would attack her. She was driven from Edinburgh by public condemnation, heading first to England, and then to New South Wales in Australia, where rumour has it she died in a house fire in 1868.
Margaret Hare was released from jail on 19 January 1829, and was similarly pilloried by her neighbours. She fled for Ireland and was never heard from again.
Jamie Wilson’s mother tried to bring a separate case against William Hare for his murder, but it was decided that his immunity from prosecution prevented charges being laid. He was released from Calton Prison on 5 February 1829, using the alias Mr Black to confound the public, and he left Edinburgh immediately. He was rumoured to have ended his life a beggar in the streets of London, although the last reliable sighting of him placed him in the town of Carlisle.
The hanging of William Burke was a festive occasion, and between 25,000 and 40,000 people turned out for the event, on 28 January 1829. Sensing unrest in the crowds, the police proceeded swiftly, and a huge cheer went out as Burke was taken to the gallows and blindfolded. There were calls for Hare and Dr. Knox to be hanged as well. The trapdoor was released at 8.15 am, and every twitch of Burke’s body was greeted with roars from the crowd. A half hour later, his body was cut down and taken directly to Edinburgh University, where public interest was so intense, and the mood so volatile, that authorities were forced to place his remains on display, an extremely unusual occurrence. An estimated 25,000 people filed past Burke’s body for a final look, and some students managed to hack off pieces of his skin, and preserved them for sale later. Following dissection, Burke’s skeleton was preserved, and it is now permanently held at the Anatomical Museum at the University of Edinburgh, a fitting, if ironic, epitaph.
As a direct result of the Burke and Hare case, the 1832 Anatomy Act was passed, which required that all cadavers used in dissection come only from persons who had died in hospitals, and only if they remained unclaimed after 72 hours. It also enabled any individuals to choose to have their bodies donated to science. The Act prevented unscrupulous operators, like Dr. Knox, from continuing to support the cadaver supply business, and the practice of grave robbing died out as a consequence.