The Burke and Hare murders, also known as the 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 accomplices were Burke’s mistress, Helen McDougal, and Hare’s wife, Margaret Laird. From their method of killing their victims came the word “burking,” meaning to smother and compress the chest of a murder victim, and a derived meaning, to suppress something quietly.
Before 1832, there were insufficient cadavers legitimately available for the study and teaching of anatomy in Britain’s medical schools. As medical science began to flourish in the early nineteenth century, the demand for cadavers rose sharply, but at the same time the legal supply failed to keep pace. One of the main sources—the bodies of executed criminals—had begun to dry up owing to a reduction in the number of executions being carried out in the early nineteenth century. The situation of too few corpses available to doctors for demonstrating anatomical dissection to growing numbers of students attracted criminal elements willing to obtain specimens by any means. As at similar institutions, doctors teaching at the Edinburgh Medical School, which was universally renowned for medical sciences, relied increasingly on body-snatchers for a steady supply of “anatomical subjects.” The activities of these “resurrectionists” gave rise to particular public fear and revulsion, but, such were the financial inducements, the illegal trade continued to grow. It was a short step from grave-robbing to anatomy murder.
Burke and Hare
Burke (1792–1829) was born in Urney, near Strabane, in the very west of County Tyrone, part of the Province of Ulster in the north of Ireland. Urney, a small district where the village of Clady is located, lies on the eastern bank of the River Finn, just across from County Donegal. 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. There he met Helen McDougal. 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 the Province of Ulster in Ireland. He was born in 1792 or 1804. 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.
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.
Shortly after their arrival in Edinburgh in November 1827, Burke and McDougal moved into Tanner’s Close where Margaret Hare’s lodging-house was situated. Burke had met Margaret on previous trips to Edinburgh, but it is not known whether he was previously acquainted with Hare. Once Burke arrived in the close, they became good friends.
According to Hare’s later testimony, the first body they sold was that of a tenant, an old army pensioner who had died of natural causes on 29 November 1827. He had died owing Hare £4 rent, so to recoup the loss they substituted the body by filling the coffin with bark and took the cadaver to Edinburgh University, looking for a purchaser. According to Burke’s later testimony, they asked for directions to Professor Monro, but a student directed them instead to Surgeon’s Square where they sold the body for £7.10s (2010 values: £731, US$1,130) to an assistant of Dr. Robert Knox, an anatomist of considerable reputation owing to the knowledge and skill he had gained as an army surgeon at the time of Waterloo. But for this chance encounter, the public opprobrium, which later fell on Knox, would have attached to Munro.
Knox was an extra-mural lecturer who, as was customary at the time, charged fees to medical students and visitors attending his lectures on anatomy. His advertising promised “a full Demonstration on Anatomical Subjects” as part of every course of lectures he delivered, and he boasted that his lectures drew a class of above 400 pupils.
Burke and Hare’s first murder victim was a sick tenant named Joseph, a miller by trade, whom they plied with whisky and then suffocated. When there were no other sickly tenants, they decided to lure a victim from the street. In February 1828, they invited pensioner Abigail Simpson to spend the night before her return home to the village of Gilmerton. The following morning they employed the same modus operandi, serving her with alcohol to intoxicate her, and then smothering her. This time they placed the body in a tea-chest and handed it over to a porter sent to meet them “at the back of the Castle.” They were paid £10.
Two further undated murders took place that spring. One victim was invited into the house by Mrs Hare and plied with drink until Hare’s arrival; the other was dispatched in similar circumstances by Burke acting on his own. Next, Burke encountered two women, Mary Paterson and Janet Brown, in the section of Edinburgh known as the Canongate. He invited them to breakfast at his brother’s house in Gibb’s Close, but Brown left when an argument broke out between McDougal and Burke. When she returned, she was told Paterson had left with Burke; in fact, she, too, had been taken to Dr. Knox’s rooms in a tea-chest. The two women were described as prostitutes in contemporary accounts. The story later arose that one of Knox’s students had recognized the dead Paterson, whose acquaintance he had made a few days earlier.
One victim was an acquaintance of Burke, a woman called Effie who scavenged for a living and was in the habit of selling him scraps of leather she found, which he could use for his cobbling. They were paid £10 for her body. Then Burke “saved” an inebriated woman from being held by a policeman and his assisting neighbour by claiming he knew her and could take her back to her lodging. He delivered her body to the medical school just hours later. The next two victims were an old woman and her mute son or grandson, aged about 12.
While the woman died from an overdose on painkillers, Hare took the young boy and stretched him over his knee, then proceeded to break his back. He later said that this was the murder which disturbed him the most, as he was haunted by his recollection of the boy’s expression. The customary tea-chest being found inadequate, both bodies were forced into a herring barrel and conveyed to Surgeons’ Square, where they fetched £8 each.
According to Burke, the barrel was loaded onto a cart which Hare’s horse refused to pull uphill from the Cowgate, so Hare had to call a porter to help him drag it the rest of the way on a sled. Once back in Tanner’s Close, Hare took his anger out on the horse by shooting it dead in the yard.
Two more victims were Burke’s acquaintance, Mrs. Hostler, and one of McDougal’s relatives, Ann Dougal, a cousin from Falkirk. Burke later claimed that about this time Mrs Hare suggested converting Helen McDougal into merchandise on the grounds that “they could not trust her, as she was a Scotch woman”; but he had refused.
Another victim was Mary Haldane, a former lodger who, down on her luck, asked to sleep in Hare’s stable. Burke and Hare also murdered her daughter Peggy Haldane when she called a few days later to inquire after her mother’s whereabouts.
Burke and Hare’s next victim was a familiar figure in the streets of Edinburgh, a mentally retarded young man with a limp, named James Wilson. “Daft Jamie,” as he was known locally, was 18 at the time of his murder. The boy resisted, and the pair had to kill him together, though later each blamed the other for taking the main part in the crime. His mother began searching and asking for the boy.
When Dr. Knox uncovered the body the next morning, several students recognized Jamie. Knox denied that it was the missing boy, and was reported to have dissected the body ahead of others to render the remains unrecognizable.
While Hare was in the habit of disposing of victims’ clothing in the Union Canal, Burke passed Jamie’s clothes to his nephews, leaving behind material evidence which was recovered before the trial. 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 draught of the bottle—sometimes half a bottle at a draught—and that would make him sleep.”
The last victim was Mrs Mary Docherty. Burke lured her into the lodging house by claiming his mother was also a Docherty, but he had to wait to complete his murderous task because of the presence of lodgers, James and Ann Gray. The Grays left for the night and neighbours later reported having heard the sounds of a struggle and even a woman’s voice crying “murder!”
The next day the Grays returned, and Ann Gray 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 checked the bed and found Docherty’s body under it. 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.
Burke and Hare had removed the body from the house before the police arrived. However, under questioning, Burke claimed Docherty had left at 7 A.M., while McDougal claimed she had left in the evening. The police arrested them. An anonymous tip-off led the authorities to Knox’s dissecting-rooms, where they found Docherty’s body, which James Gray identified. William and Margaret Hare were arrested soon thereafter. The murder spree had lasted almost ten months.
When an Edinburgh paper reported the disappearances on 6 November 1828, Janet Brown went to the police and identified her friend Mary Paterson’s clothing.
Trial and execution
The evidence against the pair was far from conclusive. In the one case for which the authorities had a body (Mrs Docherty’s) the medical experts could not state the cause of death with any certainty, and the prospect seemed real that Burke and Hare would blame each other for the murders, leaving a jury uncertain as to whom to convict for a capital offence. Lord Advocate Sir William Rae, therefore, offered Hare the opportunity “to turn King’s evidence”, i.e. be granted immunity from prosecution if he confessed and agreed to testify against Burke.
Contemporary accounts suggest Burke was perceived as the more intelligent of the two, and was, therefore, presumed to have taken the lead in their crimes. After visiting both men in their cells, Christopher North described them in Blackwood’s Magazine (March 1829):– although there was “nothing repulsive” about Burke who was “certainly not deficient in intellect”, he was “steeped in hypocrisy and deceit; his collected and guarded demeanour, full of danger and guile”, a “cool, calculating, callous and unrelenting villain”; Hare, on the other hand, was “the most brutal man ever subjected to my sight, and at first look seemingly an idiot.” Comparing the two women, he observed that Mrs Hare “had more of the she-devil.”
The Lord Advocate’s decision was extremely unpopular with the press and the public, which throughout the trial expressed hostility towards the Hares. 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.
Burke and McDougal faced three charges of murder in respect of Mary Paterson, James Wilson, and Mrs Docherty (the third charge to be heard first and, on a successful capital conviction, the other two to remain unheard). The trial took place on Christmas Eve 1828 and lasted twenty-four hours. A journalist who was present described the dismal scene in the packed court-room,
By orders from the Court a large window was thrown open as far as it could be done, and a current of cold damp air beat for twenty-four hours upon the heads of the whole audience… The greater part of the audience being Advocates and Writers to the Signet in their gowns, these were wrapped round their heads, and, intermingled with various coloured handkerchiefs in every shade and form of drapery, which gave to the visages that were enshrouded under them such a grim and grisly aspect as assimilated them to a college of monks or inquisitors, or characters imagined in tales of romance, grouped and contrasted most fantastically with the costume of the bench and the crowded bar engaged in the trial.
The jury retired to consider its verdict at 8.30 A.M. on Christmas Morning and returned fifty minutes later to find Burke guilty of the third charge and the charge against McDougal not proven.
Before passing the death sentence, the Lord Justice-Clerk, David Boyle, addressed Burke with the words,
You now stand convicted, by the verdict of a most respectable jury of your country, of the atrocious murder charged against you in this indictment, upon evidence which carried conviction to the mind of every man that heard it. (…) In regard to your case, the only doubt that has come across my mind, is, whether, in order to mark the sense that the Court entertains of your offence, and which the violated laws of the country entertain respecting it, your body should not be exhibited in chains, in order to deter others from the like crimes in time coming. But, taking into consideration that the public eye would be offended with so dismal an exhibition, I am disposed to agree that your sentence shall be put in execution in the usual way, but accompanied with the statutory attendant of the punishment of the crime of murder, viz.- that 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 of your atrocious crimes.
The edition of the Edinburgh Evening Courant newspaper that covered the trial sold an extra 8,000 copies, increasing its revenue by £240.
Burke was hanged at 8:15 A.M. 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. On the following day, Burke was publicly dissected in the anatomy theatre of the University’s Old College. 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.”
Burke’s skeleton is displayed at the University of Edinburgh’s Anatomy Museum. His death mask and items made from his tanned skin are exhibited at Surgeons’ Hall. Following the execution and dissection wallets supposedly made from his skin were offered for sale on the streets of Edinburgh. A calling card case made from his skin is displayed at The Police Information Centre in Edinburgh’s Royal Mile.
McDougal was released after the charge against her was found to be not proven. Knox was not prosecuted, despite public outrage at his role in providing an incentive for the 16 murders. Burke swore in his confession that Knox had known nothing of the origin of the cadavers.
Summary of victims
Burke made two confessions while awaiting execution: an official judicial confession (3 January 1829) and a statement to the Edinburgh Evening Courant (7 February 1829). While these differ to some extent in chronological sequence and detail, combining their content enables the following list of victims to be compiled (and, where known, the amounts paid for them). Burke asked in his condemned cell whether Knox could pay the £5 share of the money he was expecting to receive for Mrs Docherty so that he could buy a new set of clothes before appearing in public on the scaffold.
— Donald, the pensioner (£7.10s)
1. Abigail Simpson of Gilmerton (£10)
2. Joseph, the miller (£10)
3. Drunken female lodger (£10) – Burke acting alone
4. English male lodger from Cheshire (£10)
5. Mary Haldane, lodger (?)
6. Effie, the cinder-gatherer* (£10)
7. Glasgow woman (£8)
8. Glasgow woman’s son or grandson (£8)
9. Female lodger – Hare acting alone (?)
10. Drunken woman in the West Port (£10) `
11. Margaret Haldane* (£8)
12. Mary Paterson, the street-walker, also known as Mary Mitchell (£8)
13. Mrs Hostler, the washerwoman (£8)
14. Ann McDougal, cousin of Helen (£10)
15. James Wilson (£10)
16. Mary Docherty, the beggar-woman, also known as Margery Campbell (-)
(9 were killed in “Hare’s House” and 2* in the stables in the courtyard; 4 were killed in “Burke’s House” (two closes east from Tanner’s Close where he and McDougall had gone to lodge with a carter called Brogan); and 1 at the house of Burke’s brother, Constantine Burke, in the Canongate; 12 of the victims were women.)
The novelist Sir Walter Scott commented,
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 missd because nobody wishd to see them again.
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. After meeting with a hostile reception on returning to her home area of Stirling, she revisited Edinburgh briefly before moving on to Newcastle, where she was again recognized, 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.
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.
Hare was released in February 1829 and immediately assisted in leaving Edinburgh by the mailcoach to Dumfries. At one of its stops, he was recognized 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 wildfire 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 on the mainland.
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 to end his days as a blind beggar on the streets of London. However, none of these tales were ever confirmed by hard evidence.
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.
In 1836 five boys hunting for rabbits found a set of 17 miniature coffins containing small wooden figures in a cave on the crags of Arthur’s Seat. Contemporaries believed that they were made for the purpose of witchcraft. No-one at the time appears to have linked them to the number of bodies involved in the Burke and Hare case. Some of the coffins are now displayed in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.
Anatomy Act 1832
The murders highlighted the crisis in medical education and led to the subsequent passing of the Anatomy Act 1832, which expanded the legal supply of medical cadavers to eliminate the incentive for such behaviour. The Act authorised persons who had legal custody of a dead body to send it to a medical school before burial, so that it might be used for the study of anatomy and practice of surgery. If relatives could not be found, Public Health Authorities, Parish Councils and Boards of Guardians etc. counted as legal custodians. About the law, an editorial in The Lancet stated:
Burke and Hare … it is said, are the real authors of the measure, and that which would never have been sanctioned by the deliberate wisdom of parliament, is about to be extorted from its fears … It would have been well if this fear had been manifested and acted upon before sixteen human beings had fallen victims to the supineness of the Government and the Legislature. It required no extraordinary sagacity, to foresee that the worst consequences must inevitably result from the system of traffic between resurrectionists and anatomists, which the executive government has so long suffered to exist. Government is already in a great degree, responsible for the crime which it has fostered by its negligence, and even encouraged by a system of forbearance.
The Act also ended anatomising as part of the death sentence for murder.
In media portrayals and popular culture
Marcel Schwob told their story in the last chapter of Imaginary Lives (1896.) Jorge Luis Borges, who recognizes Schwob as an influence of his own A Universal History of Infamy, wrote that this story was the most successful one in the book.
The Burke and Hare murders are referenced in Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story, “The Body Snatcher,” which portrays two doctors in Robert Knox’s employ responsible for buying the corpses from the killers.
The 1945 film The Body Snatcher, directed by Robert Wise, stars Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. The murders were adapted into a 1948 film with the working title Crimes of Burke and Hare; however, the British Board of Film Censors deemed its topic too disturbing and insisted that references to Burke and Hare be excised. The film was redubbed with alternative dialogue and characters, and was released as The Greed of William Hart.
In the Warner Brothers Merrie Melodies cartoon, “My Little Duckaroo” (1954), the villain, Nasty Canasta, reads the “Gravedigger’s Joke Book,” authored by Burke and Hare.
The 1960 film The Flesh and the Fiends starred Peter Cushing as Knox, Donald Pleasence as Hare and George Rose as Burke. The following year, The Anatomist featured Alastair Sim as Knox.
The New Exhibit, a 1963 episode of The Twilight Zone, features Burke and Hare along with several other historical murderers as exhibits in a wax museum tended by curator Martin Balsam.
The 23 November 1964 episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, “The McGregor Affair” featured Burke and Hare as characters. Andrew Duggan starred as McGregor, a man who hauls items for Burke and Hare. Burke was played by Arthur Malet, and Hare by Michael Pate.
In the 1965 TV show The Munsters, season 1, Herman Munster (Fred Gwynne) shows home movies featuring two grave robbers. Herman claims that he once knew them (Burke and Hare).
The 1971 film Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde transported Burke and Hare into the late Victorian era and portrayed them as being employed by Dr. Jekyll. Burke was played by Ivor Dean and Hare by Tony Calvin.
The 1971 film Burke & Hare starred Derren Nesbitt as Burke and Glynn Edwards as Hare.
The 1985 film The Doctor and the Devils, directed by Freddie Francis, is based on Dylan Thomas’ 1953 screenplay of the same name and is a retelling of the Burke and Hare murder story with the names of the characters altered. Timothy Dalton plays Dr. Rock (Thomas’ characterization of Dr. Knox), while Jonathan Pryce and Stephen Rea play the Burke and Hare surrogates.
In the 1989 children’s show Tugs, two scrap dealers are known as Burke and Blair, a parody of the two corpse dealers.
In 1999 a novel inspired by Burke and Hare, Grave Robbers, was written by Robin Mitchell and published by Luath Press, Edinburgh.
The 2004 Doctor Who audio drama Medicinal Purposes placed the Sixth Doctor (Colin Baker) amidst the events of the murders; the play featured Leslie Phillips as Dr. Knox and David Tennant (who would later become the Tenth Doctor) as “Daft Jamie.”
I Sell The Dead, a 2008 comedy horror film, has pub patrons claiming career grave-robbers Willie and Arthur are successful rivals to Burke and Hare’s notoriety.
Burke & Hare, a comedy film loosely based upon the historical case, starring Simon Pegg as Burke and Andy Serkis as Hare, and directed by John Landis, began filming in early 2010, and was released in the UK on 29 October 2010. It received a North American release in 2011.
In April 2012, Channel 4 TV featured on its Four Rooms show a card case made out of skin taken from William Burke’s hand.
The stage musical “Bloodless: The Trial of Burke and Hare” had its Toronto premiere in October 2012.
In 2012, the Burke and Hare murders and Dr. Knox’s use of their victims as subjects for dissection was covered in an episode of Dark Matters: Twisted But True, in a segment entitled “Cadavers for Sale.”
Very interesting, Regina. Thank you for posting. I have a Burke ancestor who I can’t trace past Dublin, Ireland 1861. I know there are a lot of Burkes in Ireland, but I still have to wonder. 🙂
Would that fact not be “cool,” Lori? Talk about the skeletons in a person’s closet…
Pingback: Burke And Hare (2010) Online Movie HD | Online Movie HD