Definition: to murder by suffocation or strangulation in order to obtain a body to be sold for dissection
When an elderly pensioner died at the Edinburgh boarding house of William Hare in 1827, the proprietor and his friend William Burke decided to sell the body to a local anatomy school. The sale was so lucrative that they decided to make sure they could repeat it. They began luring nameless wanderers (who were not likely to be missed) into the house, getting them drunk, then smothering or strangling them and selling the bodies. The two disposed of at least 15 victims before murdering a local woman whose disappearance led to their arrest. At Burke's execution by hanging, irate crowds shouted "Burke him!" As a result of the case, the word burke became a byword first for death by suffocation or strangulation and eventually for any cover-up.
In a grisly twist—and as part of his punishment—Burke himself was dissected after his execution. His skeleton, pictured above, hangs in the Anatomical Museum of the Edinburgh Medical School; his skin was supposedly turned into wallets, calling-card cases, and a pocketbook.
“Why sir, bless your innocent eyebrows, that’s vere the mysterious disappearance of a respectable tradesman took place, four year ago.”
“You don’t mean to say he was burked, Sam?” said Mr. Pickwick, looking hastily around.
—Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers, 1837