‘Burking’ is defined as the crime of murdering a person, ordinarily by smothering, for the purpose of selling their corpse. The word ‘burking’ is derived from a man who perfected this method, one William Burke. Along with his partner William Hare, the pair wreaked havoc for a ten month period in 1828 throughout the city of Edinburgh, Scotland. Burke and Hare initially sold the bodies of their victims to Robert Knox, who would dissect the anatomy and use the parts to educate during his lectures. As word of their cadaver offerings permeated the medical community and demand for bodies rose, they settled on the method of suffocation as they realized that it was the most quick and efficient way to kill.
The preferred method of suffocation involved sitting on the chests of their victims, who were usally highly intoxicated and putting a hand over their nose and mouth, while using the other hand to push the victim’s jaw up. This method assured the corpses would be free of visible injuries, and this made the corpses more desirable for use at medical schools.
With their technique perfected, the men became known for providing the freshest bodies to medical schools for research.
But Burking wasn’t limited to Scotland; Cincinnati, which was home to several medical colleges in the 19th century also had high demands for corpses. Enter William Cunningham a.k.a ‘Old Cunny’ perhaps the best known “burker” in our region. Old Cunny was an Irish immigrant who landed in Virginia and eventually made his way to our fair city and made a name for himself as one of the best sack-’em-up men around these parts. While there is nothing funny about the business of burking it was not without it’s comical moments, especially this story that was published in the February 1, 1877 edition of the Cincinnati Commercial, attached below along with the photos. I think you will find it “humerus.”
“How Old Cunny Lost a Stiff”, Cincinnati Commercial. February 1, 1877