A Body Snatcher in Kilkeel: The Story of Burke and Hare

The inmates of the Kilkeel workhouse are buried along the river, with no visible markers indicating their graves. One infamous inmate, a body snatcher, William Hare is said to be buried here.

William Hare is reported to have been born in Newry between 1792 and 1804. He moved to Edinburgh where he met William Burke. Hare helped run a boarding house which catered for vagrants and elderly people.

When an old lodger died still owing money in rent, Burke and Hare decided to sell his body to medicine, making £7.10.0. They sold the bodies, to be dissected, to a Dr. Knox. The money they made spurred them on and they began digging up graves and selling off these bodies. The two men began eventually got sick of digging up corpses, and decided to  prey on the living instead. They mostly chose old or ill people, got them drunk and then strangled them. [1]

The two men became careless and carried away with their gruesome exploits, arousing the suspicion of neighbours. It is estimated that Burke and Hare murdered between 14 and 28 people, a crime spree now known as the ‘West Port Murders’. Hare testified against his accomplice Burke, who as a result was hanged in 1829.


The story goes that Hare decided to ‘lie low’ in Kilkeel, and lived out his last days in the Kilkeel Workhouse. His body is said to be buried in the Burial Banks

Another version of the tale claims that Hare did seek refuge in the workhouse until a Dr. Reid from Edinburgh recognised him, and told the local population of his crimes.

Hare apparently escaped to Carlisle where a lynch mob blinded him and threw him in a lime pit to die. Despite this fate, Hare is said to have escaped again and went to London where he died penniless in 1859.[2]

A rhyme capturing the chilling crimes of Burke and Hare goes as such;

'Up the close and down the stair,
In the house with Burke and Hare.
Burke's the butcher, Hare's the thief,
Knox, the boy who buys the beef.'[3]


We had a visit from a Northern Irish historian during the summer who is writing a book on this dreadful duo. This reseacrher has discovered that Hare did in fact escape to Kilkeel and actually had a wife and child who lived in a house on Newry Street. He also told us that Burke and Hare didnt dig up bodies as people widely believe, but simply smothered them. This was their preferred method of murder as they would get more money for an unmarked body (£10) than a marked/damaged one (£7). He claims that William Hare was originally called Thomas O’Hare, born near Scarva, and a very nasty charater. He went on the run and left Ireland after murdering his masters’ horse. He told us that his face was compared to that of a reptile and one of his eyes were positioned higher than the other, conjuring up quite a sinister image!

For more information on this contact the researcher Shaun P. Cheyne on shaunpcheyne@btinternet.com

[1] Ireland, edited by Mark Connolly, p. 726

[2] Ireland, edited by Mark Connolly, p. 726 and


[3] (http://archiver.rootsweb.ancestry.com/th/read/NIR-DOWN/2007-11/1195155768)