The Sinister Tale of Burke & Hare – Real English

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Welcome to this month’s Real English video where I tell you about Edinburgh and Scotland’s history and culture, and you get a great English lesson looking at language in context! This month we are picking up where we left off in our last vlog and talking about Scotland’s most famous serial killers – Burke and Hare.

19th Century Edinburgh – a Tale of Two Cities

19th century Edinburgh was a city of contrasts​. You had the rich versus the poor, the elegant Georgian New Town versus the medieval Old Town, and Enlightenment philosophy versus poverty. This philosophy had gone some way to changing the law to make it fairer​, but this had a negative knock-on effect for the anatomists​. There were less people being sentenced to death and consequently having their body dissected. As we saw last week, the need for bodies would have devastating consequences. Anatomists were in desperate need of more corpses and they wouldn’t ask any questions about where they came from. And this market demand is what Burke and Hare took advantage of. 

Burke and Hare came from pretty grim beginnings​

Both Irish, they met working on the Union Canal​. Burke had abandoned his wife and two children​, Hare was a fugitive​. He’d fled Ireland after killing his employer’s horses in a fit of rage​. Nice guys, eh?​ Hare managed to get married though​. His wife, Margaret, ran a boarding house in the West Port on Tanners close.

It was not 5 star accommodation and served the dregs of society​. Being a stand up guy, Burke moved into the spare room with his mistress Helen McDougal​. The scene was now set for the key players in our story to start their slaughter.

Drawings of Burke and Hare
The infamous Burke & Hare – Hare is on the left and Burke on the right

November 29th 1827

The unremarkable death of an OAP was to set the ball rolling​. Donald died of natural causes at the boarding house​. He left a debt of £4 for his accommodation​. This was actually quite a lot​, equivalent to arounf £270 today​. However, the Hares weren’t about to let a debt slide just because of a little thing like death​. Donald would prove the means to the end of how to get their cash.

On the eve of the funeral,  Burke and Hare swapped out his body. They weighted down the coffin and put the corpse in a barrel​ and then headed to Surgeon’s Square​. They soon found a buyer, Dr Robert Knox, the leading anatomist of his day​ and used to dealing with body snatchers​. He paid £7 and 8 shillings for Donald​. That’s around £500 in today’s money (according to this website)​, and nearly £1000 by other people’s calculations​. Burke and Hare couldn’t believe their luck. They were soon convinced this was a goldmine.

Only problem was old lodgers didn’t pop their clogs everyday​.

There was one tenant called Joseph who suffered from a long term illness​. Problem was, he wouldn’t die​. So they decided to help him along​. He became their first victim​. There would be 15 more.

They even developed their own style – Burking​. They would restrain the victim on the ground then cover their mouth and nose​ (it was even on CSI once!)​. Most certainly a terrifying death​, but it left no marks on the merchandise​. They got a further £10 for Joseph.

As Burke himself said. “We might as well be hanged for a sheep as for a lamb” . Once they had taken that first step, what was there to stop them doing it again​. And again?​

Margaret and Helen would also play their role​. Victim number 3 was an unknown woman​. Margaret plied her with alcohol and brought her back to the lodging house​. Hare came later to suffocate her.

Victim number 4 was another unknown woman murdered by Burke this time. Initially they targeted those with no friends or connections​, often people new to the city​. But their success emboldened them​. They even went so far as to murder Helen’s own cousin​. They must have felt untouchable​ and this made them sloppy​. They began to target more well-known locals.

Mary Patterson

Burke and Hare picked up Mary Patterson and her friend Janet Brown, two teenage prostitutes who made a living around the West Port​. Burke and Hare used their usual approach of copious amounts of whisky​ which worked on Mary, but Janet stayed sober​. While Hare and Margaret had a fight, she excused herself​. When she came the next day to pick up Mary, she was told she had left​. But she never had​. She was stuffed in a tea chest in the boarding house. ​

Drawing of the Hare's boarding house i Tanner's Close
A drawing of what the Hare’s boarding house might have looked like

Daft Jamie – James Wilson

A well known local boy​ and minor celebrity, Jamie earned his crust as a street clown​. He suffered from a learning disability and had a club foot​. Burke and Hare allegedly got him into the boarding house by telling him his mother was waiting for him inside. When he turned up on Knox’s dissecting table, people were suspicious​. This wasn’t the first time​. Mary Patterson had been a popular lady, known to be in good health​. Jamie’s face and club foot were instantly recognisable​.

Knox always claimed ignorance about the bodies

But the first thing he did during Jamie’s dissection was to remove his head and club foot​. We still don’t know how involved Knox was​. Even if he hadn’t colluded with Burke and Hare, his actions don’t speak well to his character​ or how he viewed the bodies on his table​. He siimply denied it was Jamie​ and never contacted the authorities or made enquiries. And he continued to take bodies from the Irishmen.

Drawing of the famous anatomist Dr Robert Knox.
The famous anatomist Dr Robert Knox

Last victim – Mary Docherty

May Docherty was an old Irishwoman Burke and Helen met on the street​. They convinced her they were distantly related​. To make it even more ghoulish, it happened on Halloween 1828​. An upside to a boarding house meant there was a big turnover of faces​. The downside was there was no privacy​. So, Burke and Hare had to wait and make polite conversation with Mary while they waited for other lodgers James and Ann Gray to head out for the evening.

Mary wasn’t spared, but there were now witnesses​. The Grays had met and spoken to Mary​. When they came back, they found Hare acting suspiciously​. He didn’t want anyone to go near his room​. So Gray snuck in and checked it out, finding the suffocated corpse of Mary under the bed​. The Grays ran out of the boarding house as fast as their legs could carry them.

Helen ran after them and offered them £10 a week for their silence​. Remember, that is thousands of pounds​. These guys weren’t well off, they were staying at the Tanner’s Close boarding house!​ But they didn’t take the bribe​ and went to the authorities instead.

When they arrived, the body had already been taken to Knox​. But Burke and Helen were arrested anyway​ thanks to an anonymous tip off (probably from a student), the police headed to Surgeon’s Square​. There the found Mary’s body ready for dissection​. Hare and Margaret were also arrested​. Their killing spree was over​. It had included children, women, men, the elderly and the infirm.

With witnesses and a body, it should have been an open and shut case.

However, thanks to the burking technique, it was difficult to prove foul play​. It was starting to look like they might get off scot-free​. Burke had been identified as the most intelligent and leader of the group​. If only one could hang, it should be him​. They offered Hare immunity if he turned King’s evidence​. That meant testifying against Burke​. He jumped at the chance.

Newspaper illusration of the execution of  William Burke.
The newspapers went mad for the story, and so did the public

With another bizarre date, the trial started on Christmas Eve 1828.

The trial was wrapped up quickly, as was the custom in the 19th century. ​The public interest was crazy, with people hanging outside in the streets by the court waiting for updates. The edition of the Edinburgh Evening Courant newspaper that covered the trial sold an extra 8,000 copies, increasing its revenue by £240. ​Sir Walter Scott, also a lawyer, followed it closely. Burke and McDougall pleaded not guilty, and Hare and his wife testified against Burke with no witnesses for the defence.

Burke’s lawyer argued that he should be found not guilty, but McDougal’s went with the very particular Scot’s law plea of “not proven” .​ The jury took less than an hour to return with a verdict on Christmas Day: McDougal got not proven, but Burke was found guilty. The judge passed a sentence of death by hanging on Burke, after which, ironically, his body was to be given for dissection.

The execution was a major public event​

An estimated 20,000 – 25,000 people came to see it on the Lawnmarket in torrential rain​. Window-seats in tenements overlooking the scaffold were hired at prices ranging from 5 shillings to £1​. According to newspaper reports of the time, when they brought him out, “the crowd set up an appalling shout, which continued for several ­minutes.”​ They called out to have him burked instead of hung and wanted to know where Hare was as well​. And once he was hung, they cheered at every spasm.

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 groups of fifty at a time.

I think Walter Scott summed it up best.

“The corpse of the Murderer Burke is now lying in state at the College, in the anatomical class, and all the world flock to see him. Who is he that says that we are not ill to please in our objects of curiosity? The strange means by which the wretch made money are scarce more disgusting than the eager curiosity with which the public have licked up all carrion details of this business.”​

And you can still see it​

Edinburgh’s Anatomy Museum holds the complete skeleton of the William Burke along with life and death masks of Burke and a life mask of Hare.​ At Surgeon’s Hall you can find a wallet made of Burke’s tanned skin, and a death cast taken of the murderer’s head after his execution​.

A photo of Burke's skull
Burke’s skeleton is stilll on display at Edinburgh University

But what about the others?

Margaret Hare and Helen McDougall both got sentences of not proven​. They were released and had to be taken into police custody to stop the mob from getting them​. The mob later attacked the police station​. McDougal was run out of Stirling and Newcastle, and the last record is of her being handed over to Durhamn by the Newcastle authorities​

Margaret Hare was reunited with her husband . The pair were hounded out of Dumfries, Carlisle and finally Scarva in Northern Ireland​. Popular myth had Hare thrown into a lime pit and blinded, living his days out as a beggar in London​. They both probably changed their names and lay low. ​

Knox got away with it thanks to his connections.

Keep in mind he was charging people to come to his lectures and dissections and was profitting from these bodies​. He wasn’t involved in Burke’s dissection​. This was done by Professor Monro​, ironically, the doctor Burke and Hare had initially been looking to take the first body to. ​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.”

But as we saw last week, the fallout of these murders was a positive one.

It brought about the Anatomy Act​ which eventually stopped the trade in corpses. And it’s left a legacy​. No ghost tour in Edinburgh is complete without their story​. They made a COMEDY out of it a few years ago (I’ll let you decide how appropriate that was)​. It’s suspected they inspired the Miniature Coffins found on Arthur’s Seat, which in turn inspired one of Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels. And there’s a 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 man who buys the beef.​

Burke and Hare they were a pair, Killed a wife and didnae care.​

Then they put her in a box, and sent her off to Doctor Knox.​

Burkes the Butcher, Hares the thief, Knox’s the yin that buys the beef!”

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