Tag Archives: dissection

Burking by Means of Snuff: c. 1810s

coffin snuffbox

A coffin snuffbox from 1792. “Like snuff through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives.”

Burking by Means of Snuff.

The following Account is of so serious a Nature that no one can be too cautious how they receive Snuff from Strangers.

“It appears that, on Monday se’nnight, a man, named John Wilson, was apprehended at Edinburgh on a charge of Burking a number of persons by introducing arsenic into snuff kept by him. He had long excited the suspicion of the police of that place, but so deep-laid were his diabolical schemes that he eluded their vigilance for a considerable time, until Monday last. When, on the moors, on that day, between Lauder and Dalkeith, practising his dreadful trade, it appears that the victim of Wilson’s villainy was a poor man travelling over the moor, whom he accosted, and offered a pinch of snuff. He took it, and it had the desired effect. The next individual whom he accosted was a labouring-man breaking stones, who was asked the number of miles to Edinburgh; when answered, he then offered his snuff-box to the labourer, which was refused, alleging that he never used any. Wilson urged him again, which excited the man’s suspicions, but he took the snuff, and wrapped it up in paper, and carried it to a chemist at Dalkeith, who analysed it, when it proved to be mixed with arsenic. The police were then informed of Wilson’s villainies, who went in pursuit of him, and after a search of him for several days was at length apprehended at a place three miles from Edinburgh, driving rapidly in a vehicle like a hearse, which, on examination, contained three dead bodies. They were recognised from their dresses to be an elderly man, and his wife and son, who were seen travelling towards Lauder the day before.

“Wilson was immediately ironed and conveyed to Edinburgh, and a sheriff’s inquest was held on the bodies. After an investigation of nearly two hours a verdict of Wilful Murder was returned against John Wilson, who was fully committed to the Calton gaol to take his trial at the ensuing sessions.

“Wilson is described as a desperate character, and of ferocious countenance. He is supposed to have been two or three years in this abominable practice, and to have realised a considerable sum in the course of that time. His career is now stopped, and that justice and doom which overtook a Burke and a Hare are his last and only portion.


Of Burke and of Hare we have heard much about

Yet Burking’s a trade that was lately found out—

Their plans of despatching were wicked indeed,

’Twas thought of all others that theirs did exceed;

But the scheme first invented of Burking by snuff,

May yet be prevented by taking the huff,

For if strangers invite you to take of their

Decline their kind offers—refuse them you must;

And would you be safe, and keep from all evil,

Shun them as pests as you’d shun the d——l;

By these means you’ll live, avoiding all strife,

Shunning snuff takers all the days of your life.

The Diary of a Resurrectionist, 1811-1812: To which are added an account of the Resurrection Men in London, James Blake Bailey, 1896

Mrs. Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: A cautionary tale about the perils of tobacco…. 

Mrs Daffodil will not make the anticipated and vulgar play on words about “snuffing it.”

“Burking” was the eponymous term for smothering a potential candidate for the dissecting table, but came to mean any murder in that profitable line. The name comes from William Burke, who partnered with William Hare in a lucrative scheme to provide Dr. Robert Knox, Edinburgh anatomist lecturer, with the cadavers he needed to teach medical students. While the pair began with a man who died of natural causes while owning them rent money, they swiftly moved on to homicide to fill the growing demand for corpses. They murdered a total of 16 people and seem to have been caught because they could not resist killing two well-known Edinburgh characters, the pretty prostitute Mary Paterson and a disabled boy called “Daft Jamie,” whose bodies were recognized in the dissection rooms.

Hare was offered the chance to turn King’s evidence. He testified against Burke, who was hung on 28 January 1829, then publicly dissected. In the genteel fashion of the time, the hanging was witnessed by tens of thousands of the ghoulish public and there was nearly a riot when medical students were refused entrance to the dissection. The anatomy professor wrote a sentence in Burke’s blood during the dissection; the body was partially skinned and items such as wallets and a book binding were made from it. A calling card case of Burke’s skin may be seen in the Police Museum at Edinburgh.

Mr Bailey, who reprints the burking-with-snuff broadsheet, rather crushingly prefaces the story with this disclaimer, which is dampening to one’s enthusiasm, but does not conclusively prove that there is no truth to the story of the ingenious Mr Wilson:

The broadside here printed is an excellent example of this exaggeration. The facts are so circumstantial, that it appears as though there could be no mistake. Enquiry at Edinburgh, however, shows that no such case occurred. Mr. A. D. Veitch, of the Justiciary Office, has very kindly made search, and can find no record of Wilson’s supposed crimes. Had the statements in the broadside been true, there is no doubt that this case would have been referred to in books on Medical Jurisprudence. Poisoning by inhalation of arsenic is rare, and Wilson’s would have been a leading case. There would also have been great opportunities for studying post mortem appearances, as it is stated that three bodies were found in Wilson’s possession. Search through the chief books on the subject has failed in finding any reference whatever to this case.