Looking into the face of a mass murderer: haunting death mask of William Burke on display in macabre exhibition of medical artefacts
The haunting facial cast of mass murderer William Burke, taken shortly before his execution, is to go on display later this month.
It will be shown alongside Burke’s skeleton at the University of Edinburgh’s Anatomy Museum as part of an exhibition of medical artefacts.
Together with accomplice William Hare, Burke carried out at least 15 murders in the 1820s and sold the bodies for use in anatomy lessons.
When the pair were caught, Hare was offered immunity from prosecution if he confessed and agreed to testify against his former partner.
Burke was sentenced to death by hanging in 1829, and then publicly dissected at the Edinburgh Medical College.
The dissecting professor, Alexander Monro, dipped his quill pen into Burke’s blood and wrote, ‘This is written with the blood of Wm Burke, who was hanged at Edinburgh. This blood was taken from his head.’
Edinburgh University’s Museum of Anatomy has now undergone a major revamp, and will open to the public on January 28 – the 183rd anniversary of Burke’s execution.
More than 40 masks, created from casts taken in both life and death, will be on display.
Historic faces on show will include Sir Walter Scott, Isaac Newton, Shakespeare and King George III.
Such masks were popular in the 19th century, when they were used in the now-discredited practice of phrenology.
This postulated that the shape and size of a person’s skull could help explain their mind and behaviour.
Other artefacts at the museum include 19th century anatomical teaching models made from wax and wood, as well as a preserved body from the late 1790s, which is exhibited alongside an etching carried out when the remains were embalmed.
Visitors to the museum at the Teviot Medical School, which opened in 1884, will also be able to see the historic anatomy lecture theatre.
Gordon Findlater of the university’s anatomy department said: ‘The museum provides a fascinating insight into how anatomy has progressed from the late 1700s to the present day.’
The Anatomy Museum, in Teviot Place, Edinburgh, will be open to the public on the last Saturday of every month, from 10am-4pm, starting on January 28.