In the early 1800s, Great Britain's medical colleges grew to capacity, and while most classes could be taught in lecture halls, anatomy classes needed a corpse for demonstration purposes.
Up until the 19th century, the only cadavers that could be used in these classes were those of recently executed criminals, as at the time it was unthinkable to disturb a person's remains. The number of executions was, as William Roughead wrote, "...wholly inadequate to meet the growing needs, and the surgeons' and barbers' apprentices had been in use diligently to till the soil and reap the harvest of what has been finely called 'Death's mailing.'"
The practice of grave robbing soon became the regular occupation of some underworld characters, and author Hugh Douglas wrote of the proficiency of these grave robbers. They could open a grave, remove a body and restore the soil between patrols of the night watch. The following day, the relatives could mourn by the grave, unaware that their loved one was on an anatomy slab in Edinburgh.
Though doctors and their assistants most likely suspected that the bodies were from graves, they generally said nothing in order to keep students interested in the anatomy classes.
Irishmen William Burke and William Hare developed a more direct method of providing fresh cadavers to Edinburgh anatomy schools.