Burke and Hare – the notorious murderers

Burke and Hare were Scotland’s most notorious murderers, but their crimes fed the demand for corpses at Edinburgh’s medical schools.

At just after eight o’clock in the morning, the door of the small holding cell was thrown open and William Burke, one of Scotland’s most notorious murderers, was led out into the Lawnmarket on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile to meet his fate on the scaffold.

A crowd of over 20,000 people had been waiting in silence for hours in the wet but, as soon as they caught sight of the criminal, a cacophony of cheers, groans and hisses rose up from the throng.

A newspaper report dated Wednesday 29 January 1829 – the day of the hanging – described Burke’s calmness in the hours leading up to his execution, but also reveals the ‘expression of wildness and anxiety’ that spread across his face as he approached the gallows.

After he had been attended to by a Roman Catholic priest and a Church of Scotland minister, Burke was positioned on the scaffold and said his final prayer, dropping a handkerchief to signal to the executioner that he was ready to die.

The trap door beneath his feet fell open and the crowd thundered out shouts of ‘Huzza!’ as his body convulsed at the end of the hangman’s rope. Burke’s body was cut down at around nine o’clock and the crowd began to disperse, with the newspaper reporter noting that the ‘laughter and merriment’ made the whole affair feel like a ‘gala day’.

And so ended the life of the infamous killer who, along with his partner in crime William Hare, had murdered 16 people during 1827 and 1828. But what shocked the people of Edinburgh – and what created an international fascination with the crimes at the time – was the fact that Burke and Hare sold the bodies of their victims to Dr Robert Knox, one of Edinburgh’s foremost medical lecturers of the day.

The Enlightenment had turned the city into one of the top centres in the world for the study of anatomy and its medical schools were struggling to keep up with the demand from the next generation of doctors for bodies to dissect. Medical schools were restricted in the number of cadavers at their disposal and were only allowed to use the corpses of executed criminals on their dissection tables.

Such strict laws led to the old rules of supply and demand coming into play – if someone was prepared to pay for a body then someone else would be prepared to supply it. Grave-robbing was rife in Edinburgh during the early years of the 19th century, with fresh corpses being stolen from their resting places by ‘resurrectionists’ to supply the medical schools.

Into this scene stepped Burke and Hare, a pair of Irishmen who had both worked as navvies on the Union Canal. Burke had also worked as a cobbler, while Hare’s partner, Margaret Laird, ran a boarding house in Tanner’s Close, one of the narrow passages in the West Port, in Edinburgh’s Old Town. The pair met when Burke and his partner, Helen McDougal, moved into the house.

When Donald, an old man also living in the lodging house, died in his sleep, Hare saw an opportunity. Donald owed four pounds for his rent and so Burke and Hare took his body to Dr Knox’s anatomy school at Surgeons’ Square. When they received seven pounds and ten shillings for the corpse, their course was set.

Rather than wait for another lodger to die of natural causes, Burke and Hare enticed Abigail Simpson, an elderly woman from Gilmerton, just outside Edinburgh, into the boarding house. Simpson was already ‘tipsy’ and, when plied with more drink, she fell into a deep sleep. In the morning, Burke and Hare suffocated her and sold her body to Knox’s medical school for ten pounds.

Simpson’s murder saw the debut of the technique for which the killers are best known – ‘burking’. While Hare covered the victim’s mouth and nose, Burke would throw his weight across their chest, restricting their diaphragm and stopping them from struggling.

Burking their victims allowed the pair to avoid inflicting more obvious injuries – such as large cuts or broken bones – which could have aroused suspicions at the medical school or allowed their victims to scream.

As the months passed, Burke and Hare’s killing spree continued – but the murderers were becoming lax. The disappearance of Mary Haldane, a prostitute, didn’t go unnoticed by her daughter, Margaret, who came looking for her at Laird’s lodging house and met with the same fate as her mother.

‘Daft Jamie’, another well-known character in the Grassmarket, was murdered by the pair, but his corpse was recognised by some of the students at the medical school when it was unveiled for dissection. Knox is said to have denied the body was that of Daft Jamie, but began his lesson that day by dissecting the cadaver’s face.

Burke and Hare even resorted to killing one of Helen McDougal’s cousins, who had come to stay with them. This reckless thirst for victims was to be the pair’s undoing. Burke and McDougal had moved out of Laird’s boarding house and had begun taking in their own lodgers only a couple of closes away in the West Port.

Mary Docherty, an old Irishwoman, had been enticed back to Burke’s house with promises of drink. But the following day, Ann and James Gray, another two lodgers, discovered her body.

McDougal tried to bribe the Grays with ten pounds a week to keep quiet about the corpse. But Ann went to the police, prompting Burke and Hare to move Docherty’s body. When the police arrived, the house was empty. Then Docherty’s remains were found during a search of Knox’s medical school and identified by James Gray.

Although Burke and Hare and their spouses were arrested, there wasn’t enough evidence to convict both men. So Sir William Raeburn, the Lord Advocate, Scotland’s chief prosecutor, cut a deal with Hare to turn king’s evidence against Burke, appearing as a witness against his accomplice in return for his own freedom.

The deal worked; Burke was found guilty of three murders and later confessed to 16. But the Lord Advocate’s deal went down badly with the public, who bayed for Hare’s blood at Burke’s hanging.

After being taken down from the scaffold, Burke’s body was dissected by Professor Alexander Monro, primus of the University of Edinburgh, and put on show, with more than 30,000 people turning up to see his corpse. His skeleton is still on show at the Edinburgh University Anatomical Museum, along with his death mask and Hare’s life mask.

Although he was never convicted, public anger against Dr Knox was rife. His role in the case had drawn global attention and led to the passing of the 1832 Anatomy Act, which freed up the supply of cadavers for medical schools.

Knox was even immortalised in a children’s rhyme: ‘Up the close and down the stair, In the house with Burke and Hare. Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief, Knox, the boy who buys the beef.’

What happened to the other perpetrators is less clear – McDougal is rumoured to have emigrated to Australia, while Laird is said to have fled back to Ireland.

Hare, meanwhile, was released in February 1829 and was bundled out of Edinburgh on a mail coach, before being mobbed when the coach stopped in first Dumfries and later Carlisle. Legend tells that he was blinded in a lime pit and ended his days as a beggar on the streets of London, though history doesn’t record his fate.