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.