Revealed: the true face of evil

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HE IS, arguably, the most infamous serial killer in Scottish history. But 180 years after he was hanged at the gallows, William Burke, the murderer who killed for profit, remains an enigmatic figure.

Only casts of his life and death masks and contemporary newspaper sketches of the time have given any inkling of what he may have actually looked like as he stalked the streets around Edinburgh's Grassmarket in the hunt for victims he planned to turn into corpses for cash.

But now, using computer technology, a graduate student in forensic art at Dundee University has captured Burke's features as a 3D full-colour image.

The recreation of the face of the notorious murderer by Bijan Moghbel, a graduate of the university's MSc Forensic Art course, is the star exhibit at this year's Dundee Masters Show.

He created the dramatic reconstruction of Burke's face using detailed measurements taken from Burke's life and death masks, housed in the Museum of Anatomy at Edinburgh University, as well as contemporary accounts of his appearance during his trial at the High Court in Edinburgh.

Mr Moghbel, 26, explained the motivation behind his macabre exhibit. He said: "I was really interested in the whole history behind Burke, and the relationship between his crimes and anatomy, in that he sold the corpses for medical dissection.

"I am more interested in the facial reconstruction and depiction aspect of the course, rather than the police forensics side of it, which is why I chose this as my project."

He added: "The depiction was completed using Burke's death mask as reference, and I conducted research on early 19th century costumes and men's hairstyles to improve the accuracy of the depiction."

It is hoped that after the Masters Show, the exhibit will be permanently housed at Edinburgh University Anatomy Museum, which is already home to the largest collections of artefacts and objects linked to the murderer.

The museum possesses both the original life and death masks of Burke as well as his skeleton.

The life mask was made while Burke was awaiting trial and the death mask of his shaven head was cast after his public execution in front of 25,000 people.

Gordon Findlater, the curator of the anatomy museum and director of anatomy at Edinburgh University, praised the initiative of the forensic art student.

He said: "He has done really well. It is a welcome addition to what we know about this man."

In 11 months between November 1827 and October 1828, Burke and his accomplice William Hare were responsible for a reign of terror in the streets around Edinburgh's West Port and Grassmarket, murdering between 16 and 30 people.

Burke and Hare, both Irish immigrants, sold the corpses of their victims to provide dissection material for Dr Robert Knox, an anatomy lecturer at Edinburgh Medical College.

Hare escaped the hangman by giving evidence against his partner in crime. Following his execution, Burke's body was skinned and dissected.

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