Burke and Hare murders

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William Burke and William Hare, pictured at Burke's trial

The Burke and Hare murders, or West Port murders, were a series of murders committed in Edinburgh, Scotland, over a period of about ten months in 1828. The killings were attributed to Irish immigrants William Burke and William Hare, who sold the corpses of their 16 victims to Doctor Robert Knox as dissection material for his well-attended anatomy lectures. Burke and Hare's alleged accomplices were Burke's mistress, Helen McDougal, and Hare's wife, Margaret Hare. From their acts came the now archaic British word "burking", originally meaning to smother a victim or to commit an anatomy murder but which later passed into general use as a word for any suppression or cover-up.


Anatomy in 19th-century Edinburgh[edit]

Two techniques to deter grave robbers
Graveyard watchtower, built in Dalkeith in 1827

Several pioneering teachers of anatomy were active in Edinburgh in the early 19th century. These included Alexander Monro, his son—also called AlexanderJohn Bell, Robert Knox and John Goodsir, all of whom developed the subject into a modern science.[1] Because of their efforts, Edinburgh became one of the leading European centres of anatomical study, alongside Leiden in the Netherlands and the Italian city of Padua.[2] The teaching of anatomy—crucial in the study of surgery—required a sufficient supply of cadavers, the demand for which increased as the science developed.[3] Scottish law determined that the suitable corpses on which to undertake dissection comprised the bodies of executed criminals, those who died in prison, those who committed suicide and the bodies of foundlings and orphans.[4] With the rise in prestige and popularity of medical training in Edinburgh, the legal supply of corpses failed to keep pace with the demand; students, lecturers and grave robbers—also known as resurrection men—began an illicit trade in exhumed cadavers.[5][6]

The situation was confused by the legal position. Disturbing a grave was a criminal offence, but the theft of the body was not (as it did not legally belong to anyone), while taking the clothes or shroud was classed as theft, as these were the property of the estate of the deceased.[7][8] The cost per corpse changed depending on the season: £10 in the winter months, when the demand by anatomists was greater, and £8 during the summer months, when the warmer temperatures meant less dissections took place because the bodies could not be stored for long before decomposition set in.[9]

With grave robbing on the rise in the 1820s, the residents of Edinburgh rioted in protest on several occasions.[10] To avoid corpses being disinterred, Edinburgh families used several techniques to deter the grave robbers. Guards were hired to watch graves, and watchtowers were built in several cemeteries; some families hired a large stone slab that could be lain over a grave for a short period—until the body had begun to decay past the point of being useful for an anatomist—which would then be removed and hired to the next people who wanted it. Others used a mortsafe—an iron cage that surrounded the coffin.[11] The high levels of vigilance from the public, and the techniques used to deter the grave robbers led to what the historian Ruth Richardson describes as "a growing atmosphere of crisis" among anatomists because of the shortage of corpses.[12] The historian Tim Marshall considers the situation meant "Burke and Hare took graverobbing to its logical conclusion: instead of digging up the dead, they accepted lucrative incentives to destroy the living."[13]

Dr Robert Knox[edit]

Knox was an anatomist who had qualified as a doctor in 1814. After contracting smallpox as a child, he was blind in one eye and badly disfigured.[14] He undertook service as an army physician at the Battle of Waterloo (1815), in England and during the Cape Frontier War (1819) in southern Africa, before he settled in his home town of Edinburgh from 1820. In 1825 he became a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, where he lectured on anatomy. Knox performed his dissections twice a day, and his advertising promised "a full demonstration on fresh anatomical subjects" as part of every course of lectures he delivered;[15] he stated that his lectures drew over 400 pupils.[16] Clare Taylor, his biographer in the Dictionary of National Biography, observes that he "built up a formidable reputation as a teacher and lecturer and almost single-handedly raised the profile of the study of anatomy in Britain".[14] Another biographer, Isobel Rae, considers that without Knox, the study of anatomy in Britain "might not have progressed as it did".[17]

William Burke and William Hare[edit]

The Hares' lodging-house in the West Port before its demolition in 1902
The front courtyard of Argyle House, 3 Lady Lawson Street, Edinburgh. The corner of the house was where the largest yellow cone is.

Burke (1792–1829) was born in Urney, near Strabane, County Tyrone, in Ulster. After trying his hand at a variety of trades and serving as an officer's servant in the Donegal Militia, he left his wife and two children in Ireland and emigrated to Scotland about 1817, working as a navvy on the Union Canal.[18] There he met Helen McDougal. Burke was intending to find employment as a cobbler in the West Country, but Hare's wife, Margaret Laird, instead said Burke and his mistress Helen McDougal should stay in their spare room.[19] Burke afterwards worked as a labourer, weaver, baker and a cobbler.

Hare's birthplace is variously given as Poyntzpass near Newry, or Derry, both of which are also in Ulster.[citation needed][20] Hare was born around 1807.[21] Like Burke, he emigrated to Scotland and worked as a labourer on the Union Canal. While working at the Edinburgh terminus of the canal, he met a man named Logue, who ran a lodging-house for beggars and vagrants in the nearby West Port area of the town. When Logue died in 1826, Hare married Logue's widow, Margaret Laird. She continued to run the lodging house while Hare worked at the canal basin.[citation needed]

Something of Hare's origins and character are revealed in the following account from the Newry Telegraph of 31 March 1829.

Hare was born and bred about one half mile distant from Scarva in the opposite county of Armagh and shortly before his departure from this country he lived in the service of Mr Hall, the keeper of the eleventh lock near Poyntzpass. He was chiefly engaged in driving the horses which his master employed in hauling lighters on the Newry Canal. He was always remarkable for being of a ferocious and malignant disposition, an instance of which he gave in the killing of one of his Master’s horses, which obliged him to fly to Scotland where he perpetrated those unparalleled crimes that must always secure him a conspicuous page in the annals of murder.

Events of November 1827 to November 1828[edit]

The sites of all but one of the murders
View of Burke's house from the rear
Hare's lodging-house in Tanner's Close

On 29 November 1827 Donald, one of the lodgers in Hare's house, died of dropsy, owing £4 of back rent. He was an army pensioner who died shortly before his quarterly pension was paid.[22] After Hare bemoaned his financial loss to Burke, the pair decided to sell the body to one of the local anatomists. A carpenter was arranged to provide a coffin for a burial which was to be paid for by the local parish. After he left, the pair opened the coffin, removed the body—which they hid under the bed—filled it with bark from a local tanners and resealed it.[23] After dark on the day the coffin was removed for burial, they took the corpse to Edinburgh University, looking for a purchaser. According to Burke's later testimony, they asked for directions to Professor Monro, but a student sent them instead to Surgeon's Square and the premises of Knox.[24][a] Although the men dealt with juniors while they discussed the possibility of selling the body, it was Knox who arrived to give the price of £7 10s.[b] Hare received £4 5s while Burke took the balance of £3 5s; Hare's larger share was to cover his loss from Donald's unpaid rent.[27] According to Burke's confession, as he and Hare left the university, one of Knox's assistant told them that the anatomists "would be glad to see them again when they had another to dispose of".[28]

There is no agreement as to the order in which the subsequent murders took place.[29] Burke made two confessions—an official one on 3 January 1829 and an unofficial interview with the Edinburgh Courant that was published on 7 February 1829—and he changed the order between his two statements.[30] The order on both of these differed from that on Hare's statement, although the pair agree on many of the points of the murders that followed.[31][c] Contemporary sources also differed from the confessions of the two men. More recent sources, including the histories of the events written by Brian Bailey, Lisa Rosner and Owen Dudley Edwards, either follow one of the previous versions, or have argued their own order.[d]

Most of the sources agree that the first murder, which took place in January or February 1828, was either that of a miller named Joseph, or Abigail Simpson, a salt seller.[31] The historian Lisa Rosner considers Joseph is the more likely to be correct; a pillow had been used to smother the victim, which was not the case for the subsequent victims, when a hand was used to clap the nose and mouth shut.[34] The novelist Sir Walter Scott, who took a keen interest in the case, also thought the miller was the more likely victim, and highlighted that "there was an additional motive to reconcile them to the deed",[31] as Joseph was suffering from a fever and had become delirious. Hare and his wife were concerned that having a potentially infectious lodger would be bad for business, as cholera and typhus were prevalent in Georgian Edinburgh. Hare again turned to Burke and, after providing their victim with whisky, Hare suffocated Joseph while Burke lay across the body to restrict movement.[35] They again took the corpse to Knox, who this time paid £10.[36][e] Rosner considers the method of murder to be ingenious: Burke's weight on the victim stifled movement—and thus the ability to make noise—while it also prevented the chest from expanding should any air get past Hare's suffocating grip. In Rosner's opinion, the method would have been "practically undetectable until the era of modern forensics".[37]

The order of the next two victims after Joseph are also unclear; Rosner puts the order of murders as Abigail Simpson and then an English male lodger from Cheshire,[38] while Bailey and Dudley Edwards separately have the order as the English male lodger followed by Simpson.[39][40] The unnamed Englishman was a travelling seller of matches and tinder who fell ill with jaundice at Hare's lodging house. As with Joseph, Hare was concerned of the effect the illness may have caused to his business, and he and Burke employed the same modus operandi they had with the miller: Hare suffocating their victim while Burke lay over the body to stop movement and noise.[41] Simpson was a pensioner who lived in the nearby village of Gilmerton and visited Edinburgh to supplement her pension by selling salt. On 12 February 1828—the only exact date Burke quoted in his confession—she was invited into the Hare's house and plied with enough alcohol to ensure she was too drunk to return home. Although she vomited from alcohol intoxication in the early hours, she continued to drink. After murdering her, Burke and Hare placed the body in a tea-chest and sold it to Knox.[42] They received £10 for each body, and Burke's confession records that of Simpson's body, "Dr Knox approved of its being so fresh ... but [he] did not ask any questions".[43] In either February or March that year an old woman was invited into the house by Margaret Hare. She gave the unnamed woman enough whisky to fall asleep, and when Hare returned that afternoon, he covered the sleeping woman's mouth and nose with the bed tick (a stiff mattress cover) and left her. She was dead by nightfall and Burke joined his companion to transport the corpse to Knox, who paid another £10.[44]

Mary Paterson, killed by Burke while she was intoxicated

One morning in early April, Burke was drinking in a tavern in the Canongate area of Edinburgh when he met two women, Mary Paterson (also known as Mary Mitchell) and Janet Brown;[f] he plied the two women with drink before inviting them back to his lodging for breakfast. The three left the tavern with two bottles of whisky and went to his brother's house. After his brother left for work, Burke and the women finished the whisky and Paterson fell asleep at the table; Burke and Brown continued talking but were interrupted by McDougal, who accused them of having an affair. Brown stated that she did not know Burke was married and left, as did McDougal, who went to fetch Hare. He arrived shortly afterwards and, with Burke, murdered the still sleeping Paterson.[46] That afternoon the pair took the body to Knox in a tea-chest, while McDougal kept Paterson's skirt and petticoats; they were paid £8 for the corpse, which was still warm when they delivered it. Fergusson—one of Knox's assistants—asked where they had obtained the body, as he thought he recognised her. Burke explained that the girl had drunk herself to death, and they had purchased it "from an old woman in the Canongate". Knox was delighted with the corpse, and kept it in whisky for three months before dissecting it.[47][48] When Brown later searched for her friend, she was told that Paterson had gone to Glasgow with a packman (a travelling salesman).[47]

At some point in early-to-mid 1828 Mrs Haldane, who Burke described in his confession as "a stout old woman" with only one tooth in her mouth, became a lodger at Hare's premises. After she became heavily inebriated, she fell asleep in the stable; she was smothered and sold to Knox.[49] Several months later Haldane's daughter (either called Margaret or Peggy) also lodged at Hare's house. She and Burke drank together heavily and he killed her—without Hare's assistance; her body was put into a tea chest and taken to Knox where Burke was paid £8.[50] The murder following that of Mrs Haldane was in May 1828, when an old woman joined the house as a lodger. One evening she became heavily drunk and Burke smothered her—Hare was not present in the house at the time; she was sold to Knox for £10.[51] Then came the murder of Effy (sometimes spelt Effie), a "cinder gatherer" who scavenged through bins and rubbish tips and sold what she could find. Effy was known to Burke, and had previously sold him scraps of leather for his cobbling business. Burke tempted her into the stable with whisky, and when she was drunk enough, he and Hare killed her; her body was sold to Knox for £10.[52][53] Another victim was found by Burke too drunk to stand. She was being helped by a local constable back to her lodgings when Burke offered to take her there himself; the policeman obliged, and Burke took her back to Hare's house where she was killed. Her corpse raised a further £10 from Knox.[52]

In June, Burke and Hare murdered two lodgers, "an old woman and a dumb boy, her grandson", as Burke later recalled in his confession.[54] While the boy sat by the fire in the kitchen, his grandmother was murdered in the bedroom in the usual method. Burke and Hare then picked up the boy and carried him to the same room where he was also killed.[53][g] Burke later said that this was the murder that disturbed him the most, as he was haunted by his recollection of the boy's expression.[56] The tea-chest that was usually used by the couple to transport the bodies was found to be too small, so both bodies were forced into a herring barrel and taken to Surgeons' Square, where they fetched £8 each.[57][58] According to Burke's confession, the barrel was loaded onto a cart which Hare's horse refused to pull further than the Grassmarket. Hare called a porter with a handcart to help him transport the container. Once back in Tanner's Close, Hare took his anger out on the horse by shooting it dead in the yard.[59]

On 24 June Burke and McDougal departed for Falkirk to visit her father. Burke knew that when they left Hare was short of cash and had even pawned some of his clothes. When the couple returned, they found that Hare was wearing new clothes and had surplus money. After he was asked, Hare denied that he had sold another body. Burke checked with Knox, who confirmed Hare had sold a woman's body for £8. It led to an argument between the two men and they came to blows. Burke and his wife moved into the home of his cousin, John Broggan (or Brogan), two streets away from Tanner's Close.[60][61]

The final two victims
James Wilson, known locally as Daft Jamie
Margaret Docherty

The breach between the two men did not last long. In late September or early October Hare was visiting Burke when Mrs Ostler (also given as Hostler), a washerwoman, came to the property to do the laundry. The men got her drunk and killed her; the corpse was with Dr Knox that afternoon, for which the men received £8.[62][63] A week or two later one of McDougal's relatives, Ann Dougal (also given as McDougal) was visiting from Falkirk; after a few days the men killed her by their usual technique and received £10 for the body.[64] Burke later claimed that about this time Margaret Hare suggested killing Helen McDougal on the grounds that "they could not trust her, as she was a Scotch woman", but he refused.[65]

Burke and Hare's next victim was a familiar figure in the streets of Edinburgh, James Wilson, an 18-year-old man with a limp caused by deformed feet. He was mentally disabled and, according to Alanna Knight in her history of the murders, he had an "inoffensive nature"; his condition led to the bestowing of the nickname Daft Jamie.[66] Wilson lived on the streets and supported himself by begging. In November Hare lured Wilson in to his lodgings with the promise of whisky; Hare sent his wife to fetch Burke, who came straight away. The two murderers led Wilson into a bedroom, the door of which Margaret Hare locked, before pushing the key back under the door. As Wilson did not like whisky—he preferred snuff—he was not as drunk as most of the duo's victims; he was also strong, and fought back against the two attackers, but was overpowered and killed in the normal way. His body was stripped and his few possessions stolen: Burke kept a snuff box and Hare a snuff spoon.[67] When the body was examined the following day by Knox and his students, several of them stated that they recognised it as Wilson; Knox denied it could be anyone the students knew. When word started circulating that Wilson was missing from his usual locations, Knox ordered his body would be the next to dissected, ahead of other bodies held in storage; the head and feet were removed before the main dissection.[68][69]

Idealised etching of Burke murdering Margaret Docherty (also known as Margery Campbell)

The final victim, killed on 31 October, was Margaret Docherty,[h] a middle-aged Irish woman.[72] Burke lured her into the Broggan lodging house by claiming that his mother was also a Docherty from the same area of Ireland, and the pair began drinking. At one point Burke left Docherty in the company of Helen McDougal while he went out, ostensibly to buy more whisky, but actually to get Hare. Two other lodgers—Ann and James Gray—were an inconvenience to the men, so they paid them to stay at Hare's lodging for the night, claiming Docherty was a relative. The drinking continued into the evening, by which time Margaret Hare had joined in. At around 9:00 pm the Grays returned briefly to collect some clothing for their children, and saw Burke, Hare, their wives and Docherty all drunk, singing and dancing. Although Burke and Hare came to blows at some point in the evening, they subsequently murdered Docherty, and put her body in a pile of straw at the end of the bed.[73][74]

The next day the Grays returned, and Ann became suspicious when Burke would not let her approach a bed where she had left her stockings. When they were left alone in the house in the early evening, the Grays searched the straw and found Docherty's body, showing blood and saliva on the face. On their way to alert the police, they ran into McDougal who tried to bribe them with an offer of £10 a week; they refused.[75] While the Grays reported the murder to the police, Burke and Hare removed the body and took it Knox's surgery.[i] The police search located Docherty's blood stained clothing hidden under the bed.[77] Burke and his wife gave different times for Docherty's departure from the house, which raised enough suspicion for the police to taken them in for questioning. At 7:00 am the following morning the police went to Knox's dissecting-rooms where they found Docherty's body; James Gray identified her as the woman he had seen with Burke and Hare. Hare and his wife were arrested that day, as was Broggan; all denied any knowledge in the events.[78]

Nine were killed in Hare's House and two in his stables in the courtyard; four were killed in Burke's House, and one at the house of Burke's brother, Constantine, in the Canongate.[79] Burke stated later that he and Hare were "generally in a state of intoxication" when the murders were carried out, and that he "could not sleep at night without a bottle of whisky by his bedside, and a twopenny candle to burn all night beside him; when he awoke he would take a drink from the bottle—sometimes half a bottle at a draught—and that would make him sleep".[80] He also took opium to ease his conscience.[81]

Developments: investigation and the path to court[edit]

Robert Christison, who undertook the forensic examination on Margaret Docherty

On 3 November a warrant was sworn out to enable the police to detain Burke, Hare and their wives; Broggan was released without any further action.[82][83] The four suspects were kept separate from one another and statements taken; these conflicted with the initial answers given on the day of their arrests.[82] After Dr Alexander Black, a police surgeon, examined Doherty's body, two forensic specialists were appointed, Robert Christison and William Newbigging;[84][j] they reported that it was probable the victim had been murdered by suffocation, but this could not be medically proven.[87] On the basis of the report from the two doctors, the Burkes and Hares were charged with murder.[88] As part of his investigation Christison interviewed Knox, who claimed that Burke and Hare had watched poor lodging houses in Edinburgh and purchased bodies before anyone claimed them for burial. Christison thought Knox was "deficient in principle and heart", but did not think he had broken the law.[89]

Although the police were sure murder had taken place, and that one of the four were guilty, they were uncertain of whether they would be able to secure a conviction.[90] Police also suspected there had been other murders committed, but had no proof on which to take any evidence.[91] As news of the second murder emerged, newspapers began to publish lurid and inaccurate stories of the crimes; speculative reports led to members of the public to assume that all missing people had been victims. Janet Brown went to the police and identified her friend Mary Paterson's clothing, while a local baker informed them that Jamie Wilson's trousers were being worn by Constantine Burke's son.[92] On 19 November a warrant for the murder of Jamie Wilson was made against the four suspects.[93]

Sir William Rae, the Lord Advocate, followed a regular technique: he focused on one individual to extract a confession on which the others could be convicted. Hare was chosen and, on 1 December, he was offered immunity from prosecution if he turned king's evidence and provided the full details of the murder of Docherty and any other; because he could not be bought to testify against his wife, she was also exempt from prosecution.[90][94] Hare made a full confession of all the deaths and Rae decided sufficient evidence existed to secure a prosecution. On 4 December formal charges were lain against Burke and McDougal for the murders of Mary Paterson, James Wilson and Mrs Docherty.[95][96]

Statement given by Burke in February 1829 to the Edinburgh Courant, in which he states "docter Knox never incoreged him neither taught or incoregd him to murder any person".

Knox faced no charges for the murders because Burke's statement to the police exonerating the surgeon.[97] Public awareness of the news grew as the newspapers and broadsheets began releasing further details. Opinion was against the doctor and, according to Bailey, many in Edinburgh thought he was "a sinister ringmaster who got Burke and Hare dancing to his tune".[98] Several broadsides were published editorialising that he should have been in the dock alongside the murderers, which reflected and altered public opinion.[97] A new word came from the murders: "burking", to smother a victim or to commit an anatomy murder,[99][k] and a rhyme began circulating round the streets of Edinburgh:

Up the close and doon the stair,
But and ben' wi' Burke and Hare.
Burke's the butcher, Hare's the thief,
Knox the boy that buys the beef.

— 19th century Edinburgh rhyme[92]

Trial and execution[edit]

The trial began at 10:00 am on Christmas Eve 1828 and was held before the High Court of Justiciary in Edinburgh's Parliament House. The case was heard by the Lord Justice-Clerk, David Boyle, supported by the Lords Meadowbank, Pitmilly and Mackenzie. The court was full shortly after the doors were opened at 9:00 am,[l] and a large crowd gathered outside Parliament House; 300 constables were on duty to prevent disturbances, while infantry and cavalry were on standby as a further precaution.[101][102]

The murderers and their wives during the trial
McDougal and Burke
The Hares

The case ran through the day and night to the following morning; Rosner notes that even a break for dinner could have raised questions about the validity of the trial.[103][m] When the charges were read out, the two defence counsels objected to McDougal and Burke being tried together. James Moncrieff, Burke's defence lawyer, protested that his client was charged "with three unconnected murders, committed each at a different time, and at a different place" in a trial with another defendant "who is not even alleged to have had any concern with two of the offences of which he is accused".[105] Several hours were spent on legal arguments on the objection. The judge decided that to ensure a fair trial, the indictment should be split into separate charges for the three murders. He gave Rae the choice as to which should be heard first; Rae opted for the murder of Doherty, given they had the corpse and the strongest evidence.[106][107]

In the early afternoon Burke and McDougal pleaded not guilty to the murder of Doherty. The first witnesses were then called from a list of 55 that included Hare and Knox; not all the witnesses on the list were called and Knox and three of his assistants avoided questioning in court.[108][109] One of Knox's assistants, David Paterson—who had been the main person Burke and Hare had dealt with at Knox's surgery—was called and confirmed the pair had supplied the doctor with several corpses.[110] Paterson also told the court that Knox had treated Burke and had diagnosed that the murderer was suffering from advanced testicular cancer.[111]

In the early evening Hare took the stand to give evidence. Under questioning about the murder of Doherty, Hare claimed Burke had been the sole murderer and McDougal had been involved by bringing the victim back to the house both times when she had run out; Hare stated that he had assisted Burke in the delivery of the body to Knox.[112] Although he was asked about other murders, he was not obliged to answer the questions, as the charge related only to the death of Doherty.[113] After Hare's questioning, his wife entered the witness box, carrying their baby daughter, who was suffering from whooping cough. Margaret Hare used the child's spasms of coughing as a way to give to give herself thinking time for some of the questions, and told the court that she had a very poor memory and could not remember many of the events discussed.[114][115]

The final prosecution witnesses were the two doctors, Black and Christison; both said they suspected foul play, but that there was no forensic evidence to support the suggestion.[114] There were no witnesses called for the defence, although the pre-trial declarations by Burke and McDougal were read out in their place. The prosecution summed up their case, after which, at 3:00 am, Burke's defence lawyer began his final statement, which lasted for two hours; McDougal's defence lawyer began his address to the jury on his client's behalf at 5:00 am.[116] Boyle then gave his summing up, directing the jury to accept the arguments of the prosecution.[117] The jury retired to consider its verdict at 8:30 am on Christmas Day and returned fifty minutes later. It delivered a guilty verdict against Burke for the murder of Doherty; on the same charge against McDougal, they found not proven.[n] As he passed the death sentence against Burke, Boyle told him:

your body should be publicly dissected and anatomized. And I trust, that if it is ever customary to preserve skeletons, yours will be preserved, in order that posterity may keep in remembrance your atrocious crimes.[118]

Subsequent events and execution[edit]

McDougal returned to her house but on venturing out the following evening to buy liquor was attacked by an angry mob and had to be taken into police custody for her own safety. She was taken to the police station in the West Port, but after the mob laid siege to it, she was dressed in men's clothes and escaped through a back window to the police lock-up off the town's High Street.[119]

Margaret Hare was released from the Calton Gaol and almost immediately spotted making her way to the Old Town and surrounded by a hostile crowd, from which she was rescued by police intervention. After a few days in the High Street lock-up, she moved to Glasgow where, according to newspaper reports, she and her child had to be rescued on two occasions from hostile mobs. She was moved secretly from the Calton Police Office to Greenock where the police put her on board a ship bound for Belfast on the way to her family home near Derry.[120]

On 16 January 1829 a petition on behalf of James Wilson's mother and sister, protesting against Hare's immunity and intended release from prison, was given lengthy consideration by the High Court and rejected by a vote of 4 to 2 against.[121]

The execution, as depicted on a contemporary broadsheet.

Burke was hanged at 8.15 am on 28 January 1829, a day of torrential rain, in front of a crowd estimated at between 20,000 and 25,000. Window-seats in tenements overlooking the scaffold were hired at prices ranging from 5 shillings to £1.[122] On the following day Burke was publicly dissected in the anatomy theatre of the University's Old College.[123] Police had to be called when large numbers of students gathered demanding access to the lecture for which a limited number of tickets had been issued. A minor riot ensued and calm was restored only after one of the university professors decided to allow the would-be gatecrashers to pass through the theatre in batches of fifty at a time. During the dissection, which lasted for two hours, Professor Alexander Monro dipped his quill pen into Burke's blood and wrote "This is written with the blood of Wm Burke, who was hanged at Edinburgh. This blood was taken from his head."[124] Following the dissection, the Edinburgh phrenologists were permitted to examine Burke's skull.

Burke's preserved skeleton

Burke's skeleton is now displayed in the Anatomical Museum of the Edinburgh Medical School.[125] His death mask and a book said to be made from his tanned skin can be seen at Surgeons' Hall Museum. As Robert Knox was the first conservator of the museum there are also specimens, instruments and other artefacts relating to him and the period (the museum is open daily to the public).[126] Following the execution and dissection wallets supposedly made from Burke's skin were offered for sale on the streets of Edinburgh.[127] A calling card case made from skin taken from the back of his left hand fetched £1050 at auction in 1988. It was sold by the family of Piercy Hughes, a descendant of one of the surgeons involved in the dissection, and bought by Robin Mitchell and Colin MacPhail of Edinburgh's Cadies & Witchery Tours company. Until 2013 the case was displayed at the Police Information Centre in Edinburgh's Royal Mile. It is now displayed in The Cadies & Witchery Tours shop in Edinburgh's West Bow.[128][129]


McDougal returned to her home area of Stirling but met with a hostile reception; she revisited Edinburgh briefly before moving on to Newcastle, where she was again recognised, attacked and taken into police custody. The authorities took her to the county border with Durham, after which her trail went cold. She was rumoured to have died in Australia in 1868.[119] but that theory has been discredited by later historians.

Hare was released in February 1829 and immediately assisted in leaving Edinburgh by the mailcoach to Dumfries. At one of its stops he was recognised by a fellow-passenger who, as chance would have it, was a junior counsel who had represented James Wilson's family. On arrival in Dumfries the news of Hare's presence spread like wild-fire and a crowd estimated at 8,000 gathered at the hostelry where he was staying the night. Police arrived and arranged for a decoy coach to draw off the crowd while Hare escaped through a back window into a carriage which took him to the town's tolbooth. A crowd surrounded the building; stones were thrown at the door and windows and street lamps smashed before 100 special constables arrived to restore order. In the small hours of the morning, escorted by a sheriff officer and militia guard, Hare was taken out of town, set down on the Annan Road and instructed to make his way to the English border. Two days later the driver of the northbound mail reported having passed him within half a mile of Carlisle. Several days later he was spotted two miles south of the town; the last reported sighting of him in Britain.[130]

The eight survivors of the mysterious Arthur's Seat coffins, found in 1836 and theorised to represent proxy burials of the 16 victims of Burke & Hare.[131]

The Newry Telegraph reported on 31 March 1829.

On Friday evening last Hare the murderer called in a public house in Scarva accompanied by his wife and child and having ordered a naggin of whiskey he began to enquire for the welfare of every member of the family of the house, with well affected solicitude. However, as Hare is a native of this neighbourhood, he was very soon recognised and ordered to leave the place immediately, with which he complied after attempting to palliate his horrid crimes by describing them as having been the effects of intoxication. He took the road towards Loughbrickland followed by a number of boys yelling and threatening in such a manner as obliged him to take through the fields with such speed that he soon disappeared whilst his unfortunate wife remained on the road imploring forgiveness and denying, in the most solemn manner, any participation in the crimes of her wretched husband. They now reside at the house of an uncle of Hare’s near Loughbrickland.

Many popular tales about Hare circulated in the years after the trial. One such told of him being mobbed and thrown into a lime pit, causing him to be blinded and end his days as a blind beggar on the streets of London. However, no evidence has ever been found to confirm these folktales.

Knox kept silent about his dealings with Burke and Hare. Although a committee of inquiry cleared him of complicity, the Edinburgh mob held him accountable nonetheless (transactions had been carried out by assistants or servants; and his claim of having no reason to suspect foul play was accepted with some reservations expressed). A few days after Burke's hanging, a crowd converged on his house and began throwing stones at its windows. An effigy of Knox, which had been carried in procession from the Calton Hill was hanged from a nearby tree and set alight by a bonfire underneath. While the police dispersed the crowd, Knox, disguised in his military cloak and armed with sword, pistols and a Highland dirk, escaped through a back door. He continued to lecture on anatomy into the 1840s and eventually moved to London where, from 1856, he worked as an anatomist at the Brompton Hospital and had a medical practice in Hackney until his death in 1862.[132]



Calling-card case made of Burke's skin

The question of the supply of cadavers for scientific research had been promoted by the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham from before the crimes of Burke and Hare took place.[o] A select committee had drafted a "Bill for preventing the unlawful disinterment of human bodies, and for regulating Schools of Anatomy" in mid 1828—six months before the murders were detected. This was rejected in 1829 by the House of Lords.[135][4]

The murders committed by Burke and Hare raised public awareness of the need for bodies, and of the trade that doctors had conducted with grave robbers and murderers. The East London murder of a 14-year-old boy and the subsequent attempt to sell the corpse to medical school at King's College London led to the investigation of the London Burkers who had recently turned from grave robbing to murder to obtain corpses; two men were hanged in December 1831 for the crime. A bill was introduced into Parliament ten days later which gained royal assent nine months later to become the Anatomy Act 1832.[4][136] The Act authorised dissection on bodies from workhouses that remained unclaimed after 48 hours and ended anatomising as part of the death sentence for murder.[137][4]

In media portrayals and popular culture[edit]

The events of the West Port murders have made appearances in fictional literature. They are referred to in Robert Louis Stevenson's 1884 short story, "The Body Snatcher", and Marcel Schwob told their story in the last chapter of Imaginary Lives (1896),[138] while the Edinburgh-based author Elizabeth Byrd used the events in her novels Rest Without Peace (1974) and The Search for Maggie Hare (1976).[139] The murders have also been portrayed on screen, either as an inspiration for fiction or for heavily fictionalised accounts.[140][p]

David Paterson, Knox's assistant, contacted Walter Scott to ask the novelist if he would be interested in writing an account of the murders, but he was declined, despite Scott's long-standing interest in the events.[149] Scott later wrote:

Our Irish importation have made a great discovery of Oeconomicks, namely, that a wretch who is not worth a farthing while alive, becomes a valuable article when knockd on the head & carried to an anatomist; and acting on this principle, have cleard the streets of some of those miserable offcasts of society, whom nobody missed because nobody wishd to see them again.[150]

Notes and references[edit]


  1. ^ It has been suggested that, but for this chance encounter, the public opprobrium which later fell on Knox might have attached to Monro.[25]
  2. ^ £7 10 shillings in 1827 equates to approximately £570 in 2016, according to calculations based on Consumer Price Index measure of inflation.[26]
  3. ^ The original copy of Hare's confession—accepted as the basis of his turning king's evidence—was subsequently lost, although the details were widely reported in the press of the time.[31]
  4. ^ The modern sources that provide a chronological list of the murders are:
    • Brian Bailey, Burke and Hare: The Year of the Ghouls; Bailey also tabulates the order from the two Burke confessions, three contemporary publications and his own;[29]
    • Lisa Rosner, The Anatomy Murders;[32]
    • Owen Dudley Edwards, Burke and Hare.[33]
  5. ^ £10 in 1828 equates to approximately £875 in 2016, according to calculations based on Consumer Price Index measure of inflation.[26]
  6. ^ The two women were described in contemporary accounts as prostitutes, but there is no evidence that this was true.[45]
  7. ^ Some contemporary accounts state that Burke murdered the boy by putting the boy over his knee and breaking his back; both Rosner and Bailey consider this highly unlikely, and the latter describes it as "a piece of sensational embroidery".[52][55]
  8. ^ Margaret Docherty's name is also given as Margery, Mary or Madgy with the alternative surname Campbell.[70][71]
  9. ^ It was a Saturday and the dissecting rooms were closed, so the tea chest containing the body was left in the cellar; Knox gave the men £5, and told them he would examine it on Monday, when he would pay them the balance.[76]
  10. ^ During their careers both Newbigging and Christison were Presidents of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh; Christison also became the president of the British Medical Association and one of the personal physicians to Queen Victoria.[85][86]
  11. ^ The original meaning changed over time in general use as a word for any suppression or cover-up.[99]
  12. ^ One of the spectators present in the court was Marie Tussaud, also known as Madame Tussaud, who made several sketches during the case. She had a wax model of Burke on display in Liverpool within a fortnight of his execution.[100]
  13. ^ Burke and McDougal even had their evening meal of soup and bread at 6:00 pm, while they were still in the dock; the case continued while they ate.[104]
  14. ^ On hearing the not proven verdict Burke turned to McDougal and said "Nelly, you are out of the scrape."[117]
  15. ^ In order to change public opinion on the matter, Bentham donated his body to be publically dissected and his corpse to be preserved as an "auto-icon"; it has been on display in University College London since 1850.[133][134]
  16. ^ On stage: On film: On television:


  1. ^ "The Pioneers of Medical Science in Edinburgh". The British Medical Journal. 2 (761): 135–37. 31 July 1875. JSTOR 25241571. 
  2. ^ Bailey 2002, p. 14.
  3. ^ Roughead 1921, p. 3.
  4. ^ a b c d Goodman, Neville M (23 December 1944). "The Supply of Bodies for Dissection: A Historical Review". The British Medical Journal. 2 (4381): 807–11. JSTOR 20347223. 
  5. ^ Richardson 1987, p. 54.
  6. ^ Bailey 2002, p. 17.
  7. ^ Knight 2007, p. 14.
  8. ^ Barr 2016, p. 97.
  9. ^ Bailey 2002, p. 49.
  10. ^ Cunningham 2010, p. 229.
  11. ^ Bailey 2002, pp. 21–22.
  12. ^ Richardson 1987, p. 101.
  13. ^ Marshall 1995, p. 4.
  14. ^ a b Taylor 2004.
  15. ^ Bates 2010, p. 61.
  16. ^ Roughead 1921, p. 275.
  17. ^ Rae 1964, p. 126.
  18. ^  Boase, George Clement (1886). "Burke, William (1792-1829)". In Stephen, Leslie. Dictionary of National Biography. 7. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 
  19. ^ Buchanan, R. (1829). Trial of William Burke and Helen M'Dougal: before the High court of justiciary, at Edinburgh, on Wednesday, December 24, 1828, for the murder of Margery Campbell, or Docherty. Scotland: High Court of Justiciary. 
  20. ^ Original confession found in most books on the subject although the original document has disappeared.
  21. ^ Prison Records National Records of Scotland HH21/8/1 Hare was 21 years old at the time of arrest in 1828.
  22. ^ Knight 2007, p. 22.
  23. ^ Rosner 2010, pp. 25–26.
  24. ^ Dudley Edwards 2014, pp. 100–02.
  25. ^ Roughead 1921, p. 11.
  26. ^ a b UK CPI inflation numbers based on data available from Gregory Clark (2016), "The Annual RPI and Average Earnings for Britain, 1209 to Present (New Series)" MeasuringWorth.
  27. ^ Dudley Edwards 2014, pp. 102–03.
  28. ^ Rosner 2010, p. 251.
  29. ^ a b Bailey 2002, p. 70.
  30. ^ Rosner 2010, pp. 233–34.
  31. ^ a b c d Dudley Edwards 2014, p. 106.
  32. ^ Rosner 2010, pp. 271–72.
  33. ^ Dudley Edwards 2014, pp. xx–xxi.
  34. ^ Rosner 2010, pp. 53–54.
  35. ^ Bailey 2002, pp. 41–42.
  36. ^ Dudley Edwards 2014, p. 108.
  37. ^ Rosner 2010, p. 54.
  38. ^ Rosner 2010, pp. 56–57, 79.
  39. ^ Bailey 2002, pp. 41–45.
  40. ^ Dudley Edwards 2014, pp. 107–09.
  41. ^ Bailey 2002, pp. 42–43.
  42. ^ Roughead 1921, p. 17.
  43. ^ Bailey 2002, pp. 42, 44.
  44. ^ Rosner 2010, pp. 79–80.
  45. ^ Rosner 2010, pp. 116–17.
  46. ^ Knight 2007, pp. 37–39; Bailey 2002, pp. 45–47; Lonsdale 1870, pp. 101–02.
  47. ^ a b Knight 2007, p. 41.
  48. ^ Rosner 2010, pp. 104–05.
  49. ^ Dudley Edwards 2014, pp. 133–34.
  50. ^ Rosner 2010, pp. 126–27.
  51. ^ Dudley Edwards 2014, pp. 115–16.
  52. ^ a b c Bailey 2002, p. 58.
  53. ^ a b Knight 2007, p. 45.
  54. ^ Bailey 2002, p. 182.
  55. ^ Rosner 2010, p. 148.
  56. ^ Roughead 1921, p. 19.
  57. ^ Bailey 2002, p. 59.
  58. ^ Rosner 2010, pp. 148–49.
  59. ^ Roughead 1921, pp. 267–28.
  60. ^ Knight 2007, pp. 48–49.
  61. ^ Rosner 2010, p. 149.
  62. ^ Rosner 2010, p. 169.
  63. ^ Bailey 2002, pp. 64–65.
  64. ^ Dudley Edwards 2014, pp. 137–38.
  65. ^ Roughead 1921, p. 20.
  66. ^ Knight 2007, p. 51.
  67. ^ Bailey 2002, pp. 66–67.
  68. ^ Rosner 2010, pp. 189–90.
  69. ^ Bailey 2002, p. 68.
  70. ^ Rosner 2010, p. 272.
  71. ^ Dudley Edwards 2014, p. 432.
  72. ^ Knight 2007, p. 56.
  73. ^ MacGregor 1884, p. 99.
  74. ^ Bailey 2002, pp. 72–74.
  75. ^ Leighton 1861, pp. 198–200.
  76. ^ Bailey 2002, p. 76.
  77. ^ Ward 1998, p. 15.
  78. ^ Bailey 2002, pp. 77–78.
  79. ^ Wood 1829, p. 202.
  80. ^ Roughead 1921, p. 270.
  81. ^ Dudley Edwards 2014, p. 127.
  82. ^ a b Rosner 2010, p. 215.
  83. ^ Bailey 2002, p. 80.
  84. ^ Bailey 2002, p. 78.
  85. ^ White 2004.
  86. ^ Kaufman, Matthew H (2004). "Peter David Handyside's Diploma as Senior President of the Royal Medical Society". Res Medica. 268 (1). 
  87. ^ Knight 2007, p. 69.
  88. ^ Bailey 2002, pp. 78–79.
  89. ^ Ward 1998, p. 17.
  90. ^ a b Rosner 2010, pp. 218–19.
  91. ^ Knight 2007, p. 73.
  92. ^ a b Bailey 2002, p. 81.
  93. ^ Rosner 2010, p. 219.
  94. ^ Bailey 2002, pp. 80–81.
  95. ^ Rosner 2010, p. 221.
  96. ^ Sharpe 1829, pp. 1–3.
  97. ^ a b Knight 2007, p. 87.
  98. ^ Bailey 2002, p. 135.
  99. ^ a b "burking, n.". Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 18 May 2016.  (subscription required)
  100. ^ Bailey 2002, p. 105.
  101. ^ Knight 2007, p. 75.
  102. ^ Bailey 2002, p. 83.
  103. ^ Rosner 2010, pp. 212, 225.
  104. ^ Bailey 2002, p. 94.
  105. ^ Sharpe 1829, p. 10.
  106. ^ Rosner 2010, p. 225.
  107. ^ Dudley Edwards 2014, pp. 175–76.
  108. ^ Sharpe 1829, pp. 4–6.
  109. ^ Knight 2007, pp. 77–78.
  110. ^ Bailey 2002, p. 90.
  111. ^ Knight 2007, p. 80.
  112. ^ Bailey 2002, p. 95.
  113. ^ Rosner 2010, pp. 226–27.
  114. ^ a b Knight 2007, p. 82.
  115. ^ Bailey 2002, pp. 100–01.
  116. ^ Bailey 2002, pp. 102–03.
  117. ^ a b Rosner 2010, p. 230.
  118. ^ Roughead 1921, pp. 257–58.
  119. ^ a b Roughead 1921, pp. 60–61.
  120. ^ Roughead 1921, pp. 61–62.
  121. ^ Rosner 2010, pp. 237–38.
  122. ^ Roughead 1921, p. 64.
  123. ^ Howard & Smith 2004, p. 54.
  124. ^ Rosner 2010, p. 244.
  125. ^ "Collections – Burke and Hare". Anatomical Museum – Edinburgh University. Retrieved 20 September 2014. 
  126. ^ "Surgeons Hall Museum Museum". 
  127. ^ David H. Freedman, "20 Things you didn't know about autopsies", Discover September 2012.
  128. ^ "Burke's skin pocket book". Scotland Medicine. Archived from the original on 11 October 2008. Retrieved 11 October 2008. 
  129. ^ "William Burke". Gazetteer for Scotland. Archived from the original on 11 October 2008. Retrieved 11 October 2008. 
  130. ^ Roughead 1921, pp. 75–76.
  131. ^ http://www.nms.ac.uk/explore/collections-stories/scottish-history-and-archaeology/mystery-of-the-miniature-coffins/
  132. ^ Robert Knox MD, FRCSEd, FRSEd 1791–1862: The first Conservator of Surgeons Hall Museum http://www.rcsed.ac.uk/RCSEDBackIssues/journal/vol45_6/4560011.htm
  133. ^ "Jeremy Bentham auto-icon". University College London. Retrieved 1 July 2016. 
  134. ^ "A History of Human Dissection". Royal College of Surgeons of England. Retrieved 1 July 2016. 
  135. ^ Evans, Alun (2010). "Irish Resurrectionism: 'This Execrable Trade'". Ulster Journal of Archaeology. 69: 155–70. JSTOR 41940979. 
  136. ^ Richardson 1987, pp. 196–97.
  137. ^ Hutton 2015, p. 4.
  138. ^ McCracken-Flesher 2012, pp. 106, 139.
  139. ^ Knight 2007, p. 107.
  140. ^ McCracken-Flesher 2012, pp. 18–19.
  141. ^ a b c McCracken-Flesher 2012, p. 18.
  142. ^ Knight 2007, p. 106.
  143. ^ McCracken-Flesher 2012, p. 145.
  144. ^ "Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971)". Screenonline. British Film Institute. Retrieved 27 June 2016. 
  145. ^ "Burke & Hare (1971)". British Film Institute. Retrieved 1 July 2016. 
  146. ^ "Burke & Hare (2010)". British Film Institute. Retrieved 1 July 2016. 
  147. ^ "'The Anatomist'". BBC Genome. BBC. Retrieved 1 July 2016. 
  148. ^ "Towers, Harry Alan (1920-2009)". Screenonline. British Film Institute. Retrieved 27 June 2016. 
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  150. ^ Rosner 2010, p. 74.


External links[edit]