In Scottish history we have a lot of dark tales and grisly myths but one crime spree stands above them all in our capitals history. That of Burke and Hare.
In 1817, County Tyrone, Ireland, Brendan ‘Dynes’ Burke decided he’d had enough of married life and abandoned his wife and two children. Emigrating to Scotland, Burke changed his name to William.
Around the same time in Edinburgh, William Hare, also of Irish origin was working as a Navvy or Navigator/ labourer on The Union Canal. Hare had married Margaret Laird, an ambitious shrewd woman and together they lived at Log’s lodgings in Tanner’s Close after Margaret’s husband, the previous owner, died. The pair had a child in December of 1928, meaning Laird was pregnant during the events which follow.
After a number of odd jobs Burke finally took on the role of Navvy at the Union Canal too and here he met Hare. Burke was struggling to find secure accommodation for himself and his second wife Helen McDougal so Hare offered for them to come and stay at the lodgings.
In 1827 an elderly lodger named Donald died of natural causes at the lodgings. Unfortunately he was in debt by £4 to Hare – the equivalent of £2400 in todays money. At a loss as to how to pay off the debt Burke came up with the idea of selling Donald’s body to Dr. Robert Knox, head surgeon at Surgeon Square as he remembered a doctor talking in his army days of bodies being exchanged for cash for medical science.
Knox was, as most anatomists of the time used to taking bodies on a don’t ask don’t tell basis. Mostly this was due to the popularity of so called Resurrectionists or body snatchers who commonly robbed fresh graves and sold these corpses on.
On the day of the funeral the two men removed Donald from his coffin, weighing it down with tanning bark and took him along to be sold. They received £7 and 10 shillings for it.
Basking in the glory of their easy earned cash the pair burned through the money and so were quickly looking for more easy cash.
When another of the lodgers residents, Joseph, fell ill, Burke and Hare decided to end his suffering – though he wasn’t even that ill in the first place. One of them covered his nose and mouth and the other sat on his chest until he was dead. A technique which went on to be known as ‘Burking’, and which ensured no marks or abrasions on the body, preferable for selling purposes.
The pair now had a solid money making scheme and so the killing spree continued.
Next to fall victim to the pair was Abigail Simpson. Visiting Edinburgh to collect her pension she was lured into the lodge with the promise of alcohol. All three got so drunk they passed out and slept through by accident. In the morning the woman tried to leave so they offered her a curer to help with the hangover and soon got her drunk enough to pass out again. They then killed her in the same method as Joseph. Knox was said to be very pleased with the freshness of the corpse and offered £10 for her.
Margret Laird, Hare’s wife, was supposedly responsible to act as a lure often times and this was the plan which brought about the demise of the third victim who was an older Englishman who sold matches. He fell ill with Jaundice and was helped along by the murderers
The fourth victim was 18 year old Mary Patterson, she and her friend Janet Brown were invited to breakfast. Burke, Hare and Laird used their usual tactics of drinking but McDougal returned to the lodgings and had an argument with Burke over sex workers being in their house. Brown, feeling uncomfortable, left the house leaving Mary to her fate. On her return Laird told Janet that Mary had gone out with Burke, which was the truth, though under very different circumstances from what Janet was led to believe. Mary was, at this point, in the hands of Dr. Knox.
When Patterson was presented for autopsy many of the students present recognised her, possibly from having used her services, but Knox denied any knowledge of the woman.
Burke and Hare carried on killing; Effie, a local beggar woman was next followed by an unnamed victim whom Burke saw arguing with the police. He claimed to know her to save her from the cells, took her to the lodge and subsequently murdered her.
Next were an unnamed old woman and her deaf grandson, In June of 1828, Burke had been attempting to lure an old man home, promising him free whisky, but while walking home with the man, an old woman with her deaf grandson asked Burke for directions. Burke then told them he’d take them where they needed to go and left the old man. Rather than take her directly where she wanted to go, he invited her to stop for a rest at the lodgings. The grandmother was plied with drink as normal and killed while the boy was entertained in another room by Helen and Margaret. Once she was dead, they argued on whether they should just let the boy go, as they didn’t think he’d drink whiskey and they didn’t want to make it obvious the boy had been murdered. In the end, though, because they were afraid the boy might go to the police to help find his gran, they decided to kill him. Rather than get him drunk and smother him, they instead broke his back. The two bodies together sold for £16.
Next followed the death of one Mrs Ostier, a washerwoman who visited to help with laundry and Ann Dougal – a relation of Helen’s. An older woman named Elizabeth Haslane had lodged at the house after her murder, her daughter Peggy Haslane came to find out her whereabouts and met the same fate.
A young boy James ‘Daft Jamie’ Wilson was next to fall victim of the killers. Jamie was well known in the area and again, the students recognised the boy when he was
presented for autopsy, but as before Knox denied it was the same person and proceeded to start the autopsy with the face to dispel any further investigation.
Of the murdered Knox purchased 17 of the cadavers. It seems unlikely that he was not complicit in some way and, after the murders became public, many caricatures where drawn up of him depicting him as a butcher who liked his meat fresh
The final known victim was to be the down fall of Burke and Hare. Marjory Campbell Doherty was invited to stay on the pretence that she and Burke were distant relations. At the time two other lodgers, James and Ann Gray were also residing. Though they were out at the time of the murder they had seen Marjory and spoken with her before they left. On returning to find her gone they asked where she was. Hare claimed she had been asked to leave because she had been flirting with Burke. The Grays accepted this story
but when Ann remembered she had left an item of clothing in her room and was keen to retrieve it Burke adamantly refused she be allowed in. Sensing something was wrong the pair waited until Burke and Hare were out and went into the room only to discover the body of Docherty under the bed. The Grays went straight to the police but, not
surprisingly, the body was gone by the time the police arrived, already on Dr. Knox table.
The police investigation soon led them to Knox and the discovery of Marjory’s body. Burke, Hare and Margaret Laird were all arrested.
James Gray identified the body as that of Marjory and after reading about the murders in the local papers Janet Brown came forward stating some clothing found at the lodge belonged to Mary Patterson. Despite this the police had only circumstantial evidence and, worried the murderers would go free, made a deal with Hare; if he testified against Burke then he would go unpunished. Hare took the deal and sure enough Burke was sentenced to hang. The police couldn’t gather enough evidence on Helen Mc Dougal and Margaret Laird and Hare refused to implicate them so Burke was the only one held accountable for the murders.
Hare it is speculated ran off to London where he was set upon by an angry mob and thrown in a lime pit. Its said he lived the rest of his days as a blind beggar. Margaret Laird escaped to Ireland and Helen to Australia.
Dr Knox was cleared of all association with the murders despite public outcry and he also left for London to try and salvage his reputation
Burke was hanged on the 28th of January 1829 in front of a crowd of 25000 people in Edinburgh. Ironically his body was donated to medical science.
In 2009 it was reported that the death mask of Burke had been located in a storage cupboard in Inverary Jail. It is now on display in the University of Edinburgh’s Anatomy Museum along with Hare’s life mask
Burkes life mask is also on display in Surgeons Hall Museum in Edinburgh though labelled his death mask it is well documented the death mask shows his shaven head for execution.
Due to Burkes ‘celebrity’ status a number of gruesome souvenirs were made, including a pocket book of his skin and a letter written in his blood.
Burkes skeleton was preserved and is still on display in the University of Edinburghs Anatomy Museum
In 2009 a student from the University of Dundee used forensic facial reconstruction techniques to recreate what Burke may have looked like in life