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Landis’ Burke and Hare Comedy Due for Release in the United States...But What’s the Real Story?

As John Landis’ comedic portrayal of serial killers Burke and Hare makes its American debut, a documentary by a Scottish media company examines the horrifying truth that murder is still fuelling the illegal trade in bodies for profit.


They were the entrepreneurs of the Georgian underclass who scandalized 19th century Scottish society by furnishing the mortuary tables of an Edinburgh medical school by way of killing in order to earn a crust. Their names have become synonymous with medical malpractice, skullduggery and downright wickedness. The story of Burke and Hare has fascinated people for nearly two centuries and has spawned various re-tellings of their hideous and gruesome trade; the latest film adaptation being the 2010 “Burke and Hare” by Director John Landis, which is now set for its American release.

But the foul deeds of William Burke and William Hare were infinitely more damnable than is portrayed in the Landis film, as a documentary on the two men by Scottish-based media company, Orickle Limited, which recounts the truth behind the story of their crimes, reveals.

In the Landis movie, a dark comedy with just enough of the macabre to satisfy the enduring public and media fascination with all things morbid, the title characters are treated as lovable rogues who have made some questionable choices and bear little relation to their real-life counterparts.

The real Burke and Hare were villainous predators who used the veneer of friendship to prey on weak and vulnerable people who were down on their luck; the waifs and strays of Edinburgh’s Old Town who would go unmissed. Their lack of scruples meant that not even the elderly, the handicapped or children were safe from being lured to their deaths by the murderous duo.

As Scotland’s most notorious serial killers, they made such an indelible mark on the nation’s cultural history that their story has become the subject of rhyme and song, providing these two murderers an almost mythological status. It is hardly surprising therefore that most peoples’ understanding of the events surrounding Burke and Hare are based on a mixture of fact and fiction.

Leona Tyrie, producer of the “The Body Merchants: The Shocking Truth about Anatomy Murder” explains: “When we asked people what they know about Burke and Hare what really became apparent to us was the general assumption that both men were involved in grave robbing and that this was how they obtained the bodies which they sold, which is, in fact, not the case. The evidence points to a truth that is far more disturbing but because the theft of bodies from graves was a common practice of the time the misnomer that Burke and Hare were body snatchers has become part of popular consciousness, largely because of how these two men have been portrayed in popular culture. Ironically, Burke and Hare are the most famous grave robbers in history despite the fact that they never stole bodies from graves.”

The production also probes the legal, social and medical problems of the time, which together resulted in the establishment of a trade in bodies for profit, an enterprise secretly supported by Britain’s most prominent anatomists who chose to look the other way for the benefit of scientific advancement. Of particular interest, is a section devoted to The Burns Collection, a group of 200 year old mummified remains of bodies which were robbed from graves and preserved in order to teach anatomy to medical students, together with expert commentary from the custodian of the Collection, Dr. Ronn Wade, an eminent American anatomist, who is Director of the Anatomical Services Division of the University of Maryland School of Medicine and the Maryland State Anatomy Board.

But the focus of the documentary is very much on the future as well as the past.

“The Body Merchants: The Shocking Truth about Anatomy Murder” also investigates shocking claims that crimes of this nature are not confined to the pages of history but that, in actual fact, a conspiracy of obtaining bodies for profit still exists and that in many cases people are being killed to order to supply the black market trade in body parts.

The modern-day issues relating to the selling of body parts is, according to producer Leona Tyrie, an important addition to the Burke and Hare story.

Said Leona, “It forces the viewer to confront the moral issues of whether or not we, as a society, have progressed as much as we would like to believe we have in the last two hundred years or so.”

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