William Burke (1792-1829), Irish criminal, was born in Ireland in 1792. After trying his hand at a variety of trades there, he went to Scotland about 1817 as a navvy, and in 1827 was living in a lodging-house in Edinburgh kept by William Hare, another Irish labourer. Towards the end of that year one of Hare's lodgers, an old army pensioner, died. This was the period of the body-snatchers or Resurrectionists, and Hare and Burke, aware that money could always be obtained for a corpse, sold the body to Dr Robert Knox, a leading Edinburgh anatomist, for £7, 10s. The price obtained and the simplicity of the transaction suggested to Hare an easy method of making a profitable livelihood, and Burke at once fell in with the plan. The two men inveigled obscure travellers to Hare's or some other lodging-house, made them drunk and then suffocated them, taking care to leave no marks of violence. The bodies were sold to Dr Knox for prices averaging from £8 to £14. At least fifteen victims had been disposed of in this way when the suspicions of the police were aroused, and Burke and Hare were arrested.
The latter turned king's evidence, and Burke was found guilty and hanged at Edinburgh on the 28th of January 1829. Hare found it impossible, in view of the strong popular feeling, to remain in Scotland. He is believed to have died in England under an assumed name. From Burke's method of killing his victims has come the verb "to burke," meaning to suffocate, strangle or suppress secretly, or to kill with the object of selling the body for the purposes of dissection.
See George Macgregor, History of Burke and Hare and of the Resurrectionist Times (Glasgow, 1884).