A Book of Death?: A Story for Halloween

Halloween seems like the perfect time to share this post as it deals with murders, execution and some extra gory details. Come join me in my story for Halloween. (This is a repost from 31st Oct. 2022.)

How would you feel about visiting a museum to see an exhibit of a notebook bound in human skin? This is the invitation I faced in the summer. I was squeamish at the prospect and really wasn’t looking forward to seeing the book. However, I had started my blog and needed some curiosities to write about. Halloween seems the perfect time for this exhibit.

Surgeon’s Hall Museum

Proudly displayed in one of the glass cases of the Surgeon’s Hall Museum in Edinburgh is a book bound with the (human) skin of a serial killer. Today I’m going to tell you a little about how the book came into being.

Many people may have heard of the most prolific Edinburgh murderers of the 19th Century – Burke and Hare? The notebook in question is reportedly bound with William Burke’s skin.

Notebook bound with Burke’s skin

Edinburgh – Centre for teaching

In the 1820s Edinburgh was a leading international centre of medical teaching and anatomical science. It attracted many international students wishing to study there. With an increasing demand, sourcing dead bodies for study and teaching was becoming a problem. Consequently there was an issue with grave robbers digging up the recently departed in order to meet the demand.

The story of Burke & Hare

Despite common misperceptions, Burke and Hare were never involved with the grave robbing practices. However, circumstances led them to commit murders to supply a Dr. Robert Knox, surgeon and anatomy lecturer at the Surgeon’s Hall with the dead bodies for his teaching. Burke and Hare supplied at least 17 bodies, 16 of which were murdered. The first body sold to Dr. Knox died at Hare’s Boarding House. Our murderers saw the opportunity to make money passing on the corpse rather than reporting the death. Seeing the chance to make more money through the sale of the bodies, they progressed to murder.


Anyone who watches crime/legal dramas on TV knows that we need evidence to bring someone to trial. The same was true here, with the investigation into the murders committed by Burke and Hare (and their respective wives). Although all four were arrested, the police and prosecuting lawyers didn’t have enough evidence to proceed to trial. Hare was persuaded to turn King’s evidence, testifying against his partner in crime. Consequently, he was given immunity and not prosecuted for his crimes.

The prosecution

I was familiar with the story of Burke and Hare (I don’t think you can grow up in Scotland without being aware) but I always thought they were grave robbers who progressed to murder. I also always believed they were both tried and found guilty of murder.

The reality is they were initially charged alongside their wives, but Mr and Mrs Hare were not charged. Hare because he turned King’s evidence, and his wife as she couldn’t be forced to testify against her husband.

Burke was tried on Christmas Eve 1828 and sentenced to death the following day (Christmas Day). His wife, Helen McDougal, was acquitted with a not proven verdict. This is a type of verdict unique to Scotland. So Ms McDougal got off Scot free.

Burke’s Sentence

When sentencing Burke to death, his sentence included the directive that his body should be dissected for study and if preserving skeletons became possible, his skeleton should be placed on permanent display for educational purposes. You can still see his skeleton on display today at the Edinburgh University Anatomical Museum. The notebook apparently made from his skin along with his death mask is on display at the Surgeon’s Hall Museum. Regrettably, I was not permitted to take photographs in the museum, so must rely on links to the images.

New Legislation

Recognising the worry and pain of families in mourning given the rise of grave robbing or worse, The Anatomy Act 1832 became law. It was introduced in an attempt to formalise arrangements for the supply of bodies for dissection and study for medical students. As a result of the Act, supplies could only come via hospitals or where someone specifically left their bodies to medical science.

My visit to the Museum

Personally, some aspects of the visit to the Surgeon’s Hall Museum were interesting – learning about the evolution of medical science and evidence based practice and how pioneers led the way. It was also really interesting to discover that some of the surgeon teachers also shaped the thinking and interests of Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle who applied much of the teachings at the Surgeon’s Hall (where he was a medical student) to the creation of Sherlock Holmes. That, however, is for a future blog.

I was initially quite squeamish by the notion of seeing a book bound with the skin of William Burke. I don’t know why I was surprised, but it just looked like any other leather-bound book. There is also a note written in Burke’s blood held at the Edinburgh University Anatomical Museum. All of these really seem appropriate as a tale for Halloween.

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Additional Reading





    • True. Once I started writing it, I must admit I did have fun 🙂 Hope you have a good Halloween across the pond

      • I’ve read about Burke and Hare, and saw the film 😁

        I did like the theatres when I was an undergraduate! I did go to that New Scotland Yard exhibit at the London Museum in 2016 (I think it was). It was after my interview lol 😆 but that museum would have been right up my street!

        I’m fine, ta! Getting a little exhausted as I was holding the fort on my own for 2 weeks. I need a week to sleep and recover!

        How’s it going at your end?

      • Needing time to sleep and recover too. It’s just been non-stop but hoping I can find some time to write

      • Good luck 👍 I hope you find that time, too 😊

        My next module starts in 2 weeks. I’m looking forward to it! A new adventure 😁

      • I have decided to carry on and changed my programme to a postgrad diploma, so I will be doing 4 more modules for this academic year. The first one is called “omics techniques and their application to genomic medicine”. I wanted to read about them in advance, but for some reason, I could not find a reading list on my learner’s page. Might need to get in touch with the module lead. 😊

  1. Not long ago I watched a rather fictionalized version of this very story about Burke and Hare!

    I would really like visiting Surgeons Hall, not just for the medical aspects but for all the creepiness as well. I love that sort of stuff 🙂

      • The book idea surely give me chills!!

        Usually we are comfortable with seeing leather and even wearing it.

        But knowing that it made from human skin, it’s creepy

        I want to acknowledge it publically that I missed you dear friend. Your work brings a special energy and I love reading it.

      • You’re right and even other leather bound books and notebooks. I think if it had been described as leather or hide it would have had less impact … but to say skin …

      • It’s amazing how much impact words can have

        And talking of which, thank you so much for your kind words. I’ve really missed writing, sharing my work and chatting with the community. I’m focused on reclaiming time so I can write again more regularly.

        It makes me happy that you enjoy reading my work, and to discover you find it brings energy. It’s so good to get feedback. thank you xxx

  2. I’d feel squeamish too at seeing something like that… glad to read it looks “normal”.
    as spooky as very interesting too, Brenda.
    Hope you been well. 🤍🤗🙏

  3. I love the Surgeons Hall Museum in Edinburgh, but I know it’s not a place for everyone as some of the things on display such as human remains in chloroform might be a little disturbing. I find it to be one of the best museums in Edinburgh – interesting, thought-provoking & so many exhibits. Thanks for sharing, and have a good day 🙂 Aiva xx

    • Thanks Aiva. I love the feel of the Surgeon’s Quarter generally and plan a couple of other connected posts in the future. One more focused directly on the museum. I wasn’t keen on the specimens, but some of the other themes were really interesting and informative

  4. I have heard of Burke and Hare but did not know a lot about them. Rather gruesome, especially given that their wives were also involved.

    Thanks for the link to the picture of the notebook made from human skin, Brenda. Looking at it, I’d never have thought it was human skin. It looks so much like leather, but I have seen skin a little like that on people who do a lot of sunbathing. Their skin always looks very leathery.

    • I guess when we think about it, leather is just treated skin.
      I agree about the involvement of their wives. I didn’t know that either until I started researching it.

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