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Burke and Hare

Crime Files
Burke and Hare

William Burke and William Hare were probably the most notorious multiple murderers in 19th century Scotland; their trial, for providing fresh corpses for the rapidly developing medical & surgical profession, sparked huge public interest, and the hanging of William Burke drew one of the largest spectator crowds ever assembled in Edinburgh up to that time. Their crimes were also directly responsible for changing the law that governed the availability and supply of cadavers for the medical profession. The study of anatomy at Edinburgh medical schools had become extremely popular during the course of the 18th century, and the scarcity of available cadavers for study was driven principally by existing law, that stated that each medical school was allowed one cadaver, of an executed criminal, per year. The popularity of Anatomy studies increased hugely by the end of the 18th century, and the pressure of satisfying a growing body of paying students, with a single cadaver, was considerable. In practice, it meant that surgeons turned a blind eye to the origins of any additional cadavers that came their way, and paid generously for their provision. Body snatching became prevalent as a result, and the snatchers became known as “Resurrectionists”: cemeteries were forced to increase security by building walls and watchtowers, manned by guards. William Burke was born in the Irish town of Orrey, in County Tyrone, around 1792, into a poor Roman Catholic family. He lived at home until the age of 18, working as a weaver, before leaving to become a manservant to a local gentleman. When the gentleman died a year later, he joined the Donegal Militia, where he remained for five years, and he also married during that time. His wife, from County Mayo, bore two children, one of whom died in infancy. Following an undisclosed marital dispute, Burke left his wife in 1818, travelling alone to Scotland to find work on the Grand Union Canal, settling in the town of Maddiston. There he met a prostitute named Helen McDougal, and they lived as common-law man and wife, as both were already married. When the canal work ended, they moved to Edinburgh, where Burke had a number of jobs, including cobbler and second-hand clothing hawker. William Hare was another Irishman, born in Newry, who also emigrated to Scotland to work on the Grand Union Canal, although he and Burke did not meet until later, when both were living in Edinburgh. By all accounts Hare was the more ruthless of the two, willing to do anything to get ahead. He settled in the West Port area of Edinburgh, where he found lodgings in a filthy house run by Margaret Logue and her husband. Hare began an affair with the woman, but was soon discovered and thrown out by her husband. However, when the husband died shortly thereafter, Hare moved back in swiftly, and the two ran the establishment as husband and wife. Contemporary accounts describe it as an “abode of profligacy, vice and drunkenness”, and it was here that Burke and Hare first met, in the autumn of 1827, swiftly becoming regular houseguests.

The Crimes

Anyone living in Edinburgh at the time was aware of the threat of the “Resurrectionists”, and it seems likely that Burke and Hare, on the lookout as they were for an easy source of income, might have discussed the possibility of getting into the trade, but grave robbing was a strenuous and dangerous proposition, and both denied that they ever robbed graves, contrary to popular belief.When one of Hare’s tenants, a pensioner named Donald, died in the house on 27 November 1827, Hare was furious: the man had owed him £4 in rent. Burke and Hare came up with a plan to recoup the loss, filling the dead man’s coffin with tanning bark, and spiriting his body away to the Anatomy School of Dr. Robert Knox, situated at No. 10 Surgeon’s Square, Edinburgh. Dr. Knox paid them £7, 10 shillings, and asked no questions about the origins of the body; Hare’s loss had been neatly converted into a modest profit. Dr. Knox made it clear that any other bodies they might bring would be similarly rewarded.Some weeks later, another one of Hare’s tenants, an elderly man named Joseph, fell ill and, recognising the opportunity for profit, Burke and Hare decided to help him on his way. They plied him with whisky, then suffocated him by blocking his mouth and nose: the old man put up very little resistance, and soon he was delivered to Dr. Knox’s offices for a £10 fee, and they didn’t even bother with the charade of a funeral this time. Hardly believing their good fortune, the money was soon spent, and it became apparent to them that waiting for tenants to show signs of illness would not be the best way to secure an income; they would need to go out and actively recruit victims for Dr. Knox’s dissecting tables.Initially, they sensibly concentrated their efforts on the old and indigent; those least likely to be missed. On 11 February 1828, Burke and Hare met Abigail Simpson, an elderly woman from Gilmerton, in the streets, slightly the worse for drink, and invited her back to Hare’s lodging house in Tanner’s Close, where she spent the night and the following day. They plied her with alcohol, and smothered her in much the same way as their hapless tenant, Joseph, and enjoyed a similar benefit: a trip to Surgeon Square yielded another £10.Burke and Hare spent with increasing abandon, so much so that they had to pretend to have inherited money, to explain their new affluence to curious neighbours. Yet another tenant fell ill, with suspected jaundice, and he was despatched swiftly and exchanged for cash, further augmenting their new lifestyle. Another elderly female victim soon followed.Flush with cash, and success, Burke and Hare became increasingly brazen, as each new victim was despatched without detection. On 9 April 1828, Burke invited two prostitutes, Mary Paterson and Janet Brown back to his home, where they began to drink heavily. An argument broke out and Brown left Paterson alone with Burke and Hare. When she returned later, there was no sign of Paterson, her dead body having been swiftly exchanged for the usual fee. But Paterson was a well-known local girl, and some of Dr. Knox’s students, punters perhaps, recognised her at her dissection. This was the first of many of Burke & Hare’s errors, which lead eventually to their arrest. It’s not known whether Knox reproached them for bringing in a local body, but for a while they were more careful in their victim selection: an old beggar-woman known to Burke, called Effie, was next, followed by another old woman and her deaf 12-year-old grandson, both of whom were stuffed in a barrel and transported to Surgeon Square, in June 1838.Sometime around June it is believed that Burke and Hare had a falling out, ostensibly over the fact that, while Burke was away from Edinburgh that month for a holiday, Hare had “worked” solo in his absence and didn’t split the proceeds. Whatever the reason, Burke and McDougal moved out of the Hare lodging house, although they continued to “work” together.A washerwoman named Mrs Ostler vanished after visiting the lodging house, and suffered a similar fate, as did Ann McDougal, the cousin of Helen McDougal. On one occasion Burke even had the temerity to approach two policemen, who were supporting an elderly woman who was drunk, claiming to know her and promising to sort her out. She was swiftly smothered and added to the body count. This steady stream of victims produced a healthy income for both Burke and Hare, and the anonymity of the victims, none of whom were locals, kept Dr. Knox satisfied.Again they became careless and an elderly local prostitute, Mary Haldane, was their next victim, followed swiftly by her unfortunate daughter, Peggy, who suffered the same fate when she came to the lodging house looking for her mother. Neighbours became concerned about the disappearances, and again Knox’s students became aware of the identities of these local women. In October, a retarded 18-year old called James Wilson, who was known locally as “Daft Jamie”, raised further questions about the source of Dr. Knox’s cadavers. Burke and Hare had enticed Wilson home and then overpowered him, subduing the strapping lad only after a prolonged struggle. Not only was he locally known, he had a distinctive birth defect: a clubfoot. When he arrived on the dissection table this made him easily identifiable, and Dr. Knox was forced to deny his identity, whilst hurriedly dissecting all of the dead boy’s recognisable characteristics.Their final victim was the Irishwoman Mary Docherty who, on 31 October 1828, was lured back to Burke’s home on the pretext that they were from the same Irish town, and might be related. Burke summoned Hare, and Docherty was duly despatched, her body hidden under a bed until she could be transported to Surgeon’s Square for payment. During the day, Burke’s lodgers, Ann & James Gray, became suspicious at Docherty’s disappearance, especially when Burke warned them away from the bed where her body was hidden. Waiting for him to go out, they quickly discovered the body, confronting Helen McDougal. Realising what they had seen, she tried to bribe them into silence, recruiting Margaret Hare’s help as well, but the Grays refused payment and made off to summon the police.

The Trial

As was customary in the 19th century, the trial was very brief, and commenced on Christmas Eve 1828. Both Burke and McDougal pleaded not guilty. There was huge public interest, and people milled around in the streets outside the courtroom, awaiting news.Both Hare and his wife offered testimony against Burke, and the defence offered no witnesses. The case was wrapped up quickly, with Burke’s advocate arguing that he should be found not guilty, and McDougal’s asking the jury to return a verdict of “not proven” in her case, an option particular to Scottish Law.The jury took less than an hour to return with a verdict on Christmas Day: guilty in the case of Burke, and not proven for McDougal.The judge passed a sentence of death by hanging on Burke, after which, ironically, his body was to be given for dissection.


Born Burke Around 1792 Hare UnknownThe Victims 27 November 1827 - Donald (a pensioner) December 1827 - Joseph Miller February 1828 - Abigail Simpson & English Peddler 9 April 1828 - Mary Paterson May 1828 - Effie (beggar-woman) June 1828 - Old woman & her deaf son, Mrs Ostler, Ann McDougal, Mary Haldane, Peggy Haldane October 1828 - James Wilson 31 October 1828 - Mary DochertyArrested 1 November 1828Trial Burke - 24 December 1828Convicted Burke - 25 December 1828Died Burke - 28 January 1829 Hare - around 1858

The Aftermath

During the month between Burke’s sentencing and his execution, he made two comprehensive confessions, which detailed 16 murders that he and Hare had committed, although the sheer number of victims meant that he was unclear of the exact order in which each murder was committed. It didn’t seem to occur to the authorities that Dr. Knox might have kept a record of disbursements, and he was never questioned, or charged with any offences. His reputation was irreparably damaged, however, and he was forced to leave Edinburgh and move to London.Helen McDougal was held in her cell at Calton Prison until 26 December, the day after the trial, for fear that the crowds around the courthouse would attack her.  She was driven from Edinburgh by public condemnation, heading first to England, and then to New South Wales in Australia, where rumour has it she died in a house fire in 1868.Margaret Hare was released from jail on 19 January 1829, and was similarly pilloried by her neighbours. She fled for Ireland and was never heard from again.Jamie Wilson’s mother tried to bring a separate case against William Hare for his murder, but it was decided that his immunity from prosecution prevented charges being laid. He was released from Calton Prison on 5 February 1829, using the alias Mr Black to confound the public, and he left Edinburgh immediately. He was rumoured to have ended his life a beggar in the streets of London, although the last reliable sighting of him placed him in the town of Carlisle.The hanging of William Burke was a festive occasion, and between 25,000 and 40,000 people turned out for the event, on 28 January 1829. Sensing unrest in the crowds, the police proceeded swiftly, and a huge cheer went out as Burke was taken to the gallows and blindfolded. There were calls for Hare and Dr. Knox to be hanged as well. The trapdoor was released at 8.15 am, and every twitch of Burke’s body was greeted with roars from the crowd. A half hour later, his body was cut down and taken directly to Edinburgh University, where public interest was so intense, and the mood so volatile, that authorities were forced to place his remains on display, an extremely unusual occurrence. An estimated 25,000 people filed past Burke’s body for a final look, and some students managed to hack off pieces of his skin, and preserved them for sale later. Following dissection, Burke’s skeleton was preserved, and it is now permanently held at the Anatomical Museum at the University of Edinburgh, a fitting, if ironic, epitaph.As a direct result of the Burke and Hare case, the 1832 Anatomy Act was passed, which required that all cadavers used in dissection come only from persons who had died in hospitals, and only if they remained unclaimed after 72 hours. It also enabled any individuals to choose to have their bodies donated to science. The Act prevented unscrupulous operators, like Dr. Knox, from continuing to support the cadaver supply business, and the practice of grave robbing died out as a consequence.

The Arrest

On 31 October 1828, Burke’s lodgers, Ann & James Gray, became suspicious at Docherty’s disappearance, especially when Burke warned them away from the bed where her body was hidden. Waiting for him to go out, they quickly discovered the body, confronting Helen McDougal. Realising what they had seen, she tried to bribe them into silence, recruiting Margaret Hare’s help as well, but the Grays refused payment and made off to summon the police.Helen and Margaret contacted their husbands immediately, who took Docherty’s body to Surgeon’s Square in a large trunk to secure payment. When the police arrived at Burke’s home, there was no body. An anonymous tip-off led police to the offices of Dr. Knox at 10 Surgeon’s Square on 2 November, where the body of Mary Docherty was found in a tea chest. William Burke, William Hare, Margaret Hare, and Helen McDougal were all arrested for her murder.They all produced conflicting stories under interrogation. When news of the arrests became common knowledge, prostitute Janet Brown came forward with the story of the disappearance of Mary Paterson. Neighbours provided additional stories about suspicious activities, and a further search of Hare’s lodging house revealed clothing that had belonged to Paterson, as well as items identified as belonging to Jamie Wilson and Mary Docherty.An autopsy of Mary Docherty concluded that she had died of suffocation, but could not prove whether this was intentional or accidental. The lack of direct evidence, linking Burke and Hare to the deaths, led the Lord Advocate to offer Hare the chance of immunity from prosecution, if he agreed to give evidence against Burke. Hare accepted with alacrity, and implicated Burke in all of the cases known to the police at that time. On 1 December 1828, Burke and McDougal were charged with the murder of Mary Docherty, and Burke was also charged with the murders of Mary Paterson and Jamie Wilson. Hare and his wife escaped all charges, although they continued to be held in Calton Prison until well after the trial.