In 1828 the Scottish city of Edinburgh became home to a reign of terror that sealed its place in criminal history. Two men, William Burke and William Hare, murdered 16 people in approximately ten months, selling their corpses to distinguished surgeon and anatomist Dr. Robert Knox. But why? What use is a dead body and why were fresh corpses, devoid of any signs of violence or decomposition, so highly prized?
Simple. As the medical profession began its ascendancy, medical practitioners having been often regarded with suspicion if not outright dread by those unfortunate enough to suffer their then-primitive methods, they began progressively greater efforts to educate themselves in human anatomy and medical problems, including common diseases and causes of death. In order to educate themselves and each other, senior doctors needed a constant supply of fresh, undamaged bodies to dissect for the benefit of themselves and medical students. The major problem being that there were never enough corpses to go round.
The principal source of supply came via public executions as part of the death sentence included the condemned being given to anatomists for dissection rather than simply cremated or buried. Again, there were never enough to go round and with the decline in numbers of inmates executed, the supply of anatomists’ subjects was being steadily reduced. Doctors couldn’t afford to be particular about where they obtained bodies, preferably as fresh and undamaged as possible. Distinguished Edinburgh surgeon and veteran of the Napoleonic Wars Doctor Robert Knox was especially unfussy, hence his regular transactions with Burke and Hare.
The ‘resurrection men’ as bodysnatchers became known, were regarded particular fear and revulsion by the population, especially in more religious times when grave robbery was regarded as being especially offensive. The fear of the bodysnatchers was nothing, however, to that caused by serial killers Burke and Hare. They started out as ordinary ‘resurrection men,’ their first sale to Dr. Knox being, according to William Hare, was that of a tenant in his wife’s Edinburgh lodging house who had died of natural causes in November, 1827. Finding that corpses were a lucrative commodity, but having no others to legitimately provide, they soon set about creating sixteen of their own over the next ten months.
Dr. Robert Knox was a distinguished medical practitioner, the last kind of person you might expect to want to have dealings with the likes of Burke and Hare. But, corpses being in increasingly short supply and demand remaining constant, he had little choice. Knox would later deny any knowledge of their having murdered the people they supplied for his dissection classes, but it’s always been open to speculation whether a qualified physician could really have not noticed the frequency of Burke and Hare’s arrivals with fresh, undamaged dead bodies or the fact that they often were in good health and seemed to have died for no particular reason. Perhaps he really was that naïve or maybe he feared the consequences of inquiring too closely into his vendors sales practises, we’ll probably never know.
Burke and Hare had a fairly simple modus operandi. They knew that for Knox to pay his best prices their bodies had to be both fresh and undamaged, which ruled out the more obviously violent methods of murder such as stabbing, shooting, clubbing, manual strangulation and suchlike. They also wanted, naturally, to avoid raising too much suspicion as to the causes of death of their many victims. In the end, one of the more gruesome coincidences in criminal history would do exactly that, but more of that later.
Instead, they selected their victims mainly from the serried ranks of Edinburgh’s many down-and-outs and poor, unskilled workers. They deliberately chose the kind of people that they thought society wouldn’t miss enough to cause problems with the police. Their reasoning was simple: Few people care much for beggars and drop-outs so they’re seldom noticed and, should they happen to disappear, not much missed. They plied their victims with whisky until they were almost insensible before smothering them. One would restrain their victim, pinning them to a bed, while the other would suffocate them by simply holding their mouth and nose shut until they passed out and then died. Once they were dead, it was time to take them Dr. Knox who paid promptly and in untraceable cash.
Their first victim was known only as Joseph and was a miller until he had the misfortune to seek lodging at Mrs Hare’s boarding house. With Joseph safely killed and sold on, they began looking for more victims and in February, 1828 pensioner Abigail Simpson was victim number two. Having run out of sickly or elderly people to murder they waited until the Spring of 1828 when they added victims three and four, two women they lured in off the street, plied with whisky, suffocated and sold on the always-willing Dr. Knox.
Next up was another down-and-out known only as ‘Effie.’ She made a subsistence living by scavenging for scraps of leather and selling them to Burke who used them for shoemaking. At least until Burke and Hare sold her to Dr. Knox in the dead of night. Then, Burke ‘saved’ a lady from being arrested by a police officer, telling the officer that he knew her and could safely see her home before her drunken antics caused any further problems. ‘Home’ turned out, just hours later, to be the dissection table of Dr. Knox.
It was then that Burke, the dominant of the pair, took things even further. He plied an old lady with whisky laced with a strong painkiller from which she died. While she lay dying of the drug overdose, Burke proceeded to take her twelve-year-old grandson and snap his neck before delivering both corpses to Dr. Knox. Next up were another of Burke’s acquaintances, a Mrs. Hostler, and Ann Dougal, a relative of Helen McDougal, Burke’s mistress. Hare’s wife suggested converting Helen McDougal herself into what the gang called ‘merchandise’ on the grounds that she may prove untrustworthy, but this was refused.
Next on the Burke and Hare hit parade was Mary Haldane. She was a former lodge at the boarding house who, down on her luck, begged to be allowed to sleep in Hare’s stable. Her luck became a great deal worse when she found a more permanent home on Dr. Knox’s dissection table. After that came her daughter, Peggy Haldane, who turned up asking where her mother had disappeared to. She soon found out.
Their next victim was perhaps their most pitiful. He was a young man well-known on Edinburgh’s streets as ‘Daft Jamie’ on account of a learning disability (remember that the late 1820’s were a considerably less politically correct time than today). Burke and Hare befriended, him, murdered him and sold him to Dr. Knox. This proved to be a bad idea. Hare normally diposed of their victims’ clothing by dumping it in the Union Canal. This time he gave Jamie’s clothes to a relative, leaving material evidence that would later be used at their trial.
Their final victim was Mary Docherty. Burker lured her into the lodging house, but was unable to discreetly murder her because because fellow lodgers James and Ann Gray were also in residence. They became suspicious the next morning after noticing Docherty’s disappearance, especially when Burke would allow them near their own bed. While Burke was out of the room they looked under the bed and their suspicions were proved when they found her corpse hidden under it. Despite the offer of sizable hush money from Helen McDougal, they ran from the house and alerted the police. Burke and Hare were both immediately arrested.
At trial the evidence against was, at best, inconclusive. Burke certainly felt that he had a decent chance of acquittal and, seeing as Scottish law forbade retrying the acquitted at that time, getting off literally Scot free. Unfortunately for Burke, Hare wasn’t quite so optimistic. He feared the gallows and jumped at the chance to testify against Burke in return for avoiding the noose. He did so. Burke went on trial for murder on Christmas Eve, 1828 and lasted only 24 hours. Hare got the Christmas present of a lifetime, being given immunity in return for his testimony. Burke’s Christmas present consisted of the judge donning the dreaded ‘Black Cap’ and condemning him to death.
Hare was released from custody in February, 1829 to make his way in the world as best he could. He spent the next few weeks drifting from town to town and job to job, always moving on whenever he was recognised. His last reported sighting was in his native Ireland in March, 1829, after which he vanished into presumably welcome obscurity. Dr. Knox was never tried. He continued to practise medicine, albeit having to leave Edinburgh because of the scandal, and died in 1862 while running a medical practise in London.
And William Burke? He suffered a most ironic fate. He was hanged at 8:15am on January 28, 1829 before a celebrating crowd. And his fate after death? The day after he was hanged he was publicly dissected in the anatomy theatre of the medical school. His skelton is still on display in the Anatomy Museum of the Edinburgh Medical School. In the Surgeons’ Hall Museum you can find his death mask made after the hanging and a book said to have a cover made from Burke’s own skin.
All grimly appropriate, when you think about it.
“Up the close and down the stair, But and ben with Burke and Hare. Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief, Knox the boy that buys the beef…” – A common Scottish children’s rhyme after the Burke and Hare case.