With Halloween fast approaching, I decided it would be prudent of me to blog about a criminal case reminiscent of the brilliant fiction Mary Shelley wrote, entitled Frankenstein (who was the doctor, btw, not the Monster). Shelley wrote it for a fiction-writing competition she and some friends held to pass the time during a thunderstorm. I guess they hadn’t heard of spin-the-bottle. Shelley’s Monster (who was nameless, except for Monster) was a metaphor. Shelley lived during the late era of the Industrial Revolution in America (1760 – 1840). The monster was meant as a criticism of the glut of factories, pollution, inventions and the near-slave labour (a lot of it on the backs of children) that were the foundation of the revolution.
Many people missed the real implication of the Monster. They were too enthralled with the gore of digging up cadavers, cutting up bodies and sewing them together to resurrect and release a non-dead creature from death, yet in so doing, creating one that was not entirely alive. Here’s an even creepier non-fiction Frankenstein tale that happened in 1827 during what was to be the last fifteen years of the Industrial Revolution. Unlike Frankenstein, every word of it is true and it involved two small-time crooks and a respected doctor, in their macabre search for fresh human corpses, all in the name of medical science.
The Burke and Hare murders or West Port murders are a reference to two serial killers who operated in Edinburgh, Scotland during a ten month period in 1827. The killings were attributed to Irish immigrants William Burke and William Hare, who sold the corpses of 16 victims to Doctor Robert Knox as dissection material for his anatomy lectures. Burke and Hare’s accomplices were Burke’s mistress, Helen McDougal, and Hare’s wife, Margaret Laird. And you thought women were fragile creatures. The British word “burking”, meaning to smother a victim or to commit an anatomy murder, was coined from this criminal case.
Before 1832, there was a dwindling number of cadavers for teaching anatomy in Britain’s medical schools. As medical science was flourishing in the early Victorian Era and the need for stiffs – oops – cadavers, increased. This posed a problem since the legal supply had begun to wane due to a lack of criminal executions. The lack of corpses that were necessary to demonstrate anatomical dissection to medical students attracted criminal types willing to obtain specimens by any means.Doctors teaching at the Edinburgh Medical School, renowned for medical sciences, helped to generate the invasion of the body-snatchers for a steady supply of “anatomical subjects“. The murderers, politely termed by the doctors as,”resurrectionists”, caused significant public fear and revulsion. I doubt any of the killers or the doctors who procured them were evil. This was the time of the Industrial Revolution and medical technology was proceeding in leaps and bounds alongside industry. The doctors were desperate for fresh meat – oops – I mean, fresh material. The macabre movement from grave-robbing to what was termed as anatomy murder wasn’t a very big one. Elementary, Watson.
Burke (1792–1829) was born in the north of Ireland. 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 on the Union Canal. Really, he did his wife a favour. There he met Helen McDougal who became his mistress and bore him a child. Burke couldn’t seem to hold down a job. He also worked as a labourer, weaver, baker and a cobbler. Jack-of-all trades, master of none. At least, for now.
Hare’s birthplace was in Ulster. He was born in 1792 or 1804. He had a ferocious and malignant disposition. Once, in a fit of rage he actually killed of one of his Master’s horses, which was why he migrated to Scotland, where he also 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. 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. A rather prudent professional move on Hare’s part.
The Criminal Partnership
Shortly after their arrival in Edinburgh, Burke and McDougal moved into Tanner’s Close where Margaret Hare’s lodging-house was situated. Burke and Hare met and became good friends. Hare swore in court testimony that the first body they sold was that of a tenant who 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 in the coffin by filling it with bark and took it to Edinburgh University. They sold the body for what would now amount to roughly $1,000.00 U.S. to an assistant of Dr. Robert Knox. It isn’t known whether the good doctor was aware of how his assistant came into possession of the mortal remains at that time.
Burke and Hare’s first murder victim was a sick tenant named Joseph, a miller by trade. They plied the old man with whisky and then suffocated him. Nasty. I mean just bash him over the head or something. Suffocation takes about 90 minutes. That’s just cruel. When there were no other sickly tenants, they decided to lure a victim from the street. They invited pensioner Abigail Simpson to spend the night before her return home to her village of Gilmerton. The following morning they got her good and trunk, then they also smothered this poor woman. laced 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.
The boys were on a roll. Two further murders took place that spring. One victim was invited into the house by Mrs Hare who got her drunk until her husband arrived home to finish her off. 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 part of Edinburgh known as the Canongate. The two women were described as prostitutes but there is no evidence that this was true. 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 that Paterson had left with Burke. In reality, Paterson’s corpse had been taken to Dr. Knox’s rooms in a tea-chest. One of Knox’s students recognized the dead Paterson. They had just met a few days earlier. Uh-oh. That didn’t bode well for Hare and Burke.
One victim was an acquaintance of Burke, a woman called Effie who scavenged for a living. She often sold Burke scraps of leather she found which he used for his cobbling. The murderous men were paid £10 for her body. Then Burke “saved” an inebriated woman from being held by a policeman by claiming he could take her back to her lodging. He was only half-lying. He delivered her body to the medical school just hours later. The next two victims were an old woman and her mute 12-year-old son or grandson. 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. Ouch. Burke stated in court that this was the murder that disturbed him the most, as he was haunted by his recollection of the boy’s expression. He couldn’t have been too upset. He kept killing.
The tea-chest was inadequate for a double murder, so both bodies were forced into a herring barrel. The bodies were worth £8 each. The barrel was loaded onto a cart which Hare’s horse refused to pull uphill from the Cowgate; maybe it sensed this was no ordinary delivery. Hare took his anger out on the horse by shooting it dead in the yard. You really can’t teach an old dog new tricks, can you? Two more victims were Burke’s acquaintance, Mrs. Hostler, and one of McDougal’s cousins, Ann Dougal. 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 refused. It would seem the women’s friendship didn’t run too deep.
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. Burke and Hare’s next victim was a familiar figure in the streets. He was a mentally disabled young man with a limp, named James Wilson. “Daft Jamie“, as he was known, 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 him. 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. So much for professional integrity. We know for certain now that old Knox was as culpable for the killings as his criminal cohorts. 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. They say criminals aren’t too intelligent and there’s your proof.
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, also known by her maiden name as Margery Campbell. Burke lured her into the lodging house by claiming that 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. Finally the Grays left for the night and neighbours later reported having heard the sounds of a struggle and a woman crying “murder!”
The next day the Grays returned, and Ann Gray became suspicious when Burke would not let her approach a bed where she left her stockings. When they were alone in the house in the early evening, the Grays checked the bed and found Docherty’s body under it. That must have been a pleasant sight. On their way to alert the police, they ran into McDougal who tried to bribe them with an offer of £10 a week. Not as concerned with the cadaver shortage as Dr. Knox, they refused. Burke and Hare removed the body from the house before the police arrived but Burke claimed Docherty left at 7 a.m., while McDougal claimed that she left in the evening. The police arrested them. An anonymous tip-off led them to Knox’s dissecting-rooms where they found Docherty’s body, which James Gray identified. William and Margaret Hare were arrested soon thereafter. While incarcerated, Burke confessed to a number of other killings. The murder spree had lasted almost ten months and resulted in at least 16 murders. That’s slightly more than one killing a month. Income generated from the sale of cadavers must have been sweet by 1827 standards.
Naturally the two men were tried and convicted. The judge stated, 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. Burke was hanged at 8.15 am on 28 January 1829, 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 until one of the professors (Dr. Knox?) decided to allow the gatecrashers into the theatre in groups of fifty at a time.
Burke’s skeleton is now displayed in the Anatomy Museum of the Edinburgh Medical School. His death mask and a book said to be made from his tanned skin can be seen at Surgeons’ Hall Museum. McDougal was released after the charge against her was found to be not proven. Dr. Knox was not prosecuted, despite public outrage at his role in providing an incentive for the murders. Burke swore in his confession that Knox had known nothing of the origin of the cadavers. Millions wouldn’t believe him but I do.
There are tours of the skeletons and local areas where the crimes were committed, included the Hares’ boarding house the murders were committed. There is a collection of “Burke and Hare Mystery Dolls” that were supposedly recovered from a cave by a boy after the murders. There are currently 8 of the original 17 murder dolls left. They are kept at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.