William Burke Museum – Edinburgh, Scotland - Atlas Obscura

Edinburgh, Scotland

William Burke Museum

Possibly the world's smallest museum is home to one exhibit that sheds light on the capital city's dark criminal history.  

Scotland’s capital contains well over three dozen museums that often showcase the metropolis’s contributions to The Age of Enlightenment and beyond.

However, along this picturesque winding street of the West Bow, resides a storefront that boasts the “world’s smallest” museum. Those who enter The Cadies & Witchery Tours shop are first confronted with a vast assortment of doodads and other items for sale. The museum section of this shop features just one exhibit. On a counter nestled under a glass box is an artifact that will certainly send a chill down anyone’s spine. 

Inside the container, resting on a plush velvet cushion, is a small leather-clad object. After reading the posted description, visitors are confronted with the knowledge that they are looking at a calling card case composed of human skin. The item was actually a souvenir created from one of the city’s most nefarious serial killers, William Burke.

During the early part of the 19th century, Edinburgh was on the cutting edge of advancements in anatomical dissections. However, laws were strict about who qualified as a scientific cadaver.  To work around these laws, scientists employed “resurrection men” to bring them fresh bodies, often taken from cemeteries. Burke and his accomplice William Hare were professions of the trade, although they decided to take a different route. They lured people back to a boarding house not far from the museum, where they executed the unknowing victim. They would then sell their corpses to science.

By the end of their 10-month killing spree, 16 people had died at the hands of the duo. Hare gave evidence against Burke to avoid the hangman’s noose, while Burke was hanged on January 28th, 1829.

After Burke’s death, skin from various parts of his body were taken by citizens. A section removed from the back of his hand was used to make the calling card case. The case was purchased at an auction in 1988, and was once owned by the descendants of a surgeon who worked with Burke during his murderous career. 

Know Before You Go

The museum is located inside the Witchery Tours building. There is no charge to enter and the museum is open seven days a week.

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