"Burke's the butcher, Hare's the thief,
Knox the boy that buys the beef"
From a well-known 19th century verse.

Despite the fact that Edinburgh was a center of medical research at the time, all medical schools in Scotland in the early 19th century were restricted to just one cadaver per year for dissection purposes, with the further restriction that it had to be the body of an executed criminal. There was consequently a thriving black market in corpses.

William Burke and William Hare were Ulster men who had moved to Scotland to work as laborers on the Union Canal. Once in Edinburgh, they turned their laboring abilities to an altogether better paid venture; they began robbing graves and selling the corpses to Dr. Robert Knox, a popular anatomist at the Edinburgh Medical School.

Burke and Hare were by no means the only people offering this service to the city's many schools and anatomists, and in fact the trade in corpses was so prevalent that watchtowers, iron fences, and defensive walls were built around Edinburgh's cemeteries in an effort to protect the bodies of the recently interred. Burke and Hare's distinction was that they decided to make their unpleasant job a little less arduous by eliminating the whole messy enterprise of digging up rotting corpses; instead, they simply killed people at random and delivered them fresh to Dr. Knox, who was good enough not to ask any awkward questions. Even so, they killed their victims by carefully smothering them in order to leave no signs of violence on the bodies.

They were eventually arrested for the murder of an Irish woman named Mrs. Docherty. Although they were suspected of murdering between 13 to 30 people, there was only enough evidence to prosecute this one case, and even that must have been less than conclusive, because when the case came to trial at the end of 1828 Hare was allowed to turn evidence against Burke in return for his freedom.

William Burke was hanged on January 29th 1829 in front of 20,000 jeering spectators. In what was perhaps an attempt at poetic justice, his body was donated to the Edinburgh Medical School for "useful dissection".

William Hare was released from jail on Feb 5th 1829 and he and his wife (who was Burke’s former mistress) were allowed safe passage out of the city. He is said to have died blind and destitute in London.

Dr. Robert Knox was never prosecuted.

Of the three, only Burke has left a tangible legacy. His skeleton is still on display at the Edinburgh Medical School, the Police Museum on the Royal Mile displays a wallet made from his skin, and his name gave the verb to "burke", meaning "to smother without signs of violence", to the English language.

  • http://www.highlanderweb.co.uk/burkhare.htm
  • http://caca.essortment.com/burkeandhare_xsg.htm
  • http://edinburgh.about.com/aboutuk/edinburgh/blburke.htm
  • http://www.tartans.com/articles/graverobbers1.html
  • http://genforum.genealogy.com/scotland/messages/5127.html
  • http://www.rcpe.ac.uk/library/burke.html
  • Webster 1913

Eighteenth century Edinburgh was famed nation-wide as a centre for medical excellence. Many of Britain's most famous doctors had earned their degree's here, and it was here that much pioneering research into the mysteries of the human bodies was carried out. Therefore the medical faculty of Edinburgh University was in constant demand of human corpses for dissection. The university was given a number of bodies per year, not enough to meet their needs. Therefore doctors had to turn to other, less legitimate methods of requiring corpses. More often than not this was via exhumation of the recently deceased, or body snatching, as it was otherwise known. By night, students would enter graveyards in order to open recent graves where the corpse might still be fresh. They would take the body provided decomposition had not yet set in and give it to their professor, in exchange for a small sum of money. Additional profits could be found in robbing the corpses prior to selling them - the rich and powerful were often buried wearing their most exquisite jewelery.

There was, however, an easier and arguably safer method of acquiring corpses. As body snatching became a growing problem in Edinburgh, graves were often covered in large stone slabs. Churchyards were often surrounded by tall iron fences, and large watch-towers were constructed in the cities larger graveyards. Grave-robbers were liable to be shot by watchmen, or, if captured, face execution. A whole night could be spent digging into a grave, only for it to be discovered that the corpse was that of a peasant who had died months and was therefore partially decomposed and therefore rendering it useless. Therefore some turned to the most serious of crimes: murder.

The story of Burke and Hare begins in the mid-eighteenth century. William Burke and William Hare, both Irishmen from the county of Ulster, had come to Scotland in search of employment opportunities. Settling first in Glasow, they found work in the construction of the Falkirk Canal. On its completion, the pair moved to Edinburgh, settling in a boarding house in Tanners Lane. Hare soon took a liking to the landlady, Margaret Laird, and soon entered into a relationship with her. Burke's mistress Helen MacDougal also took up residence in the house.

Returning one night to find Laird in tears, Hare inquired as to what was wrong. It transpired that a lodger who had been staying in the boarding house had passed away the previous night, leaving several months rent unpaid. Laird had searched his room, but had found nothing. A coroner had pronounced the man dead, and his body lay in a coffin on the upper floors of the boarding house awaiting collection. That night, Burke and Hare entered the room where the coffin lay brandishing a crowbar. Together they prised off the lid of the coffin and removed the corpse. The coffin was sealed again, after being filled with bricks. The highlanders body was then carried to the house of Robert Knox (a relation of John Knox), who purchased the corpse for dissection in the medical faculty in Edinburgh for around ten pounds, three times the rent owed for the rent.

Shortly after this incident, another resident of the boarding house lay on his deathbed. Burke and Hare waited, but his decline was taking weeks, and shortly the pair grew impatient and, entering his room by night, proceeded to smother him with his pillow. Again the body was taken to Dr. Knox, where it was sold for the sum of ten pounds.

It was at this point that Burke and Hare realised just how much money they stood to make out of their new-found trade, however neither of them wished to spend their nights freezing in a graveyard exhuming the corpses of the recently deceased. Instead, they formulated a faster, more efficient plan for acquiring corpses.

Their plan was first put into effect in February 1828. First they selected their victim, this time an elderly woman named Abigail Simpson. They befriended her, took her back to their house in Tanners Close, where they plied her with drink. The next morning, they gave her yet more alcohol, until she was barely conscious. At this point, Hare held her down, while Burke, using his middle and index finger to pinch her nostrils closed and his thumb on her chin to hold close her mouth, suffocated her. Her body was taken to Knox, who, after commenting on how fresh it was, accepted the corpse. As usual, the pair had made themselves ten pounds, minus the price of the gin used to intoxicate Abigail.

For months Burke and Hare carried out their gruesome plan, first selecting their victim, a person new to Edinburgh without any family to miss them, before plying them with drink at Tanners Close before suffocation. The two were indiscriminate about who they killed; as long as they fitted into the two categories listed above, they would suffice. They are known to have killed men, women and children.

At one point, Burke and Hare came close to capture after becoming careless. In an attempt to double their earnings, they picked up two local prostitutes, Janet Brown and Mary Paterson, both of whom were plied with drink. While Patterson obligingly drank herself senseless, Janet Brown was more suspicious and, became so uneasy with the attention given to her by Burke decided to leave, therefore saving herself. Her friend, however, was less fortunate. Like the others, Mary Patterson was murdered in her drunken state. Unlike the previous victims, however, Patterson was a well-known figure in Edinburgh, having been in her trade for a number of years. When one of Dr. Knox's students was called to dissect the corpse, he immediately recognised her, having recently 'made use' of her services. Too embarrassed to mention this on front of his professors, he proceeded to dissect her, rendering her beyond recognition. Despite their crucial mistake, Burke and Hare remained undiscovered.

After this incident, they continued in their trade, at one point killing the daughter of their second victim. At one point Burke brought back an old woman and her grand-child. After dispatching the old woman, Burke took the boy, a deaf-mute, and murdered him, breaking the boy's spine over his knee.

Difficulties between the two began to arise. After Hare carried out a transaction with Knox in Burke's absence, the pair had a ferocious argument, resulting in Burke and MacDougal leaving the house in Tanners Close, moving to a house near the west-port. Their separate accommodation helped to repair their friendship however, and soon they were back to killing.

The next victim was Helen's cousin Anne MacDougal, who lived in Falkirk. Burke and Hare invited her over to stay with them, before killing her in their usual way. Both Helen MacDougal and Margaret Laird were aware that the killing was taking place and are known to have encouraged it.

One of their final victims was known locally as 'Daft Jamie', a friendly and well-known man thought of as 'simple' and as a result often the butt of jokes by local children. He was dispatched in the usual manner, but was recognised on the operating table, and people noticed his absence on the streets. He was reported to the police as missing.

One night Burke brought home a woman called Mrs. Docherty. She was plied with drinks as was their usual procedure, however this time there were others in the boarding house. When they left to get more alcohol, Burke and Hare seized their chance and killed Mrs. Docherty. When the others returned, they inquired as to the whereabouts of Docherty. He apparently came across as paranoid and insisted that nobody went near the bed. Needless to say, at the first opportunity, somebody looked under the bed, where they found the body of Mrs. Docherty, covered in straw. Despite the bribes offered by Burke to keep the body a secret, the police were summoned, and Burke, Hare, Laird and MacDougal were all swiftly arrested.

Hare and Laird turned Kings Witness, meaning that they were allowed to go free provided that they appear as witnesses at the trial of both Burke and MacDougal. This they did, before leaving to go to London, where it is said that Hare died a blind beggar after being pushed into a lime pit by a gang of Scots who recognised him. Laird was never heard of again. MacDougal was released after the jury returned a verdict of 'not guilty'. William Burke was found guilty of sixteen charges of murder and sentenced to [hang. This done, his body was stripped of its flesh, which was sold to the spectators. His skeleton is still on display in the Black Museum in the medical libraries in Edinburgh, along with a diary made from his flesh. A wallet made from his skin was reputably sold in England for over £2000 to a private collector. It should be noted that John Knox was never brought to trial.

Burke and Hare, although the most famous of Scotland's serial killers, were by no means the first to do what they did. In 1752, two women, Jean Waldie and Helen Torrance, were hanged in the Edinburgh Grassmarket for the abduction and murder of a seven year old boy in order to sell his body for dissection for the princely sum of three shillings. Though this was the only charge brought against them, we can assume they killed others for the same reasons.

Scottish Murders - Judy Hamilton

Practically every ghost or historical walk I've ever been on

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