Burke and Hare - the Bodies in the Bag
Murder as a Fine Art
Like many of us, I've always been fascinated by the idea of murder - how one human being can take the life of another, whether for money, lust or simply the psychotic pleasure of killing. The fact that murder has become a popular subject in novels and movies is hardly surprising - ever since Thomas De Quincey's 1827 satirical essay 'On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts', relating to the aesthetic appreciation of murder, the general public have enjoyed nothing better than to read about unspeakable slaughters, dreadful dismemberings and shocking strangulations.
In the last hundred years or so, murders have held a fascination for us, not only why and how the killers disposed of their victims, but how the murderers came to be caught. In the days before consistent detection methods and the skills of forensic scientists, many killers escaped justice simply because the police did not have the technology and understanding of the importance of a crime scene. Details of the series of killings attributed to Jack the Ripper, for instance, describe how police officers washed away vital clues that might have given some indication of the murderer's identity.
In 1827, one murderous duo went on a killing spree that lasted several months and if it hadn't been for a bit of bad luck on their part, they may never have been caught. Almost a year later, however, they got lazy:
On Friday 31st October 1828 William Burke went out into the streets of Edinburgh to search for his next victim. Meeting a woman by the name of Marjory Docherty, he enticed her back to his house where he and William Hare plied her with whisky before murdering her.
Unfortunately, for the killers, two other guests in the house - a Mr and Mrs Gray - became suspicious and discovered the body. Burke and Hare and their wives were subsequently arrested.
Picture the scene, if you will – Edinburgh. A city of delights and dossers, prostitutes and peasants, alleyways and archways and dark old places…
The above quote is from my stage play 'The Body in the Bag', which examines the role of William Burke and how he ended up being the only one of the pair hanged for the murders.
However, I was more interested in how he had arrived at that point in his life and if there might have been some point when he could have escaped the dreadful spiral of killing he found himself involved in.
So what was it that turned William Burke, Irishman, soldier, groom, itinerant labourer and husband into a callous, murdering killer?
Born in County Tyrone, William Burke began life with a better-than-average education, his parents no doubt hoping this would give him the opportunity to escape the lowly life they had endured themselves. The young Burke did well at school and on leaving he was taken on by a Presbyterian clergyman, helping out with running the church hall.
Following this, Burke tried to learn a trade and found employment first with a baker, then a linen weaver. Neither of these jobs interested him enough to keep him occupied for long, though, and he soon joined up with the Donegal Militia. It was during this time that he met and married a young woman in County Mayo. After the Militia disbanded, Burke went back to his wife and found employment working as a groom to a gentleman.
If he'd stayed where he was, no doubt we might never have heard of him, but Burke, for whatever reason, left his wife in Ireland and went to Scotland to find work building the new Union Canal. In Scotland, Burke met another woman - Helen MacDougal - and in due course took her away with him as his wife. With Helen in tow, he went around the country trying many different jobs, including sheep shearing, shoe-mending and general labouring work.
A Fateful Meeting...
One day, while on route to Glasgow in the hope of more work, Burke and MacDougal stopped off for some refreshment in West Port, Edinburgh. Here they met a certain Mrs Margaret Hare and were persuaded to go with her back to her lodging house.
The Doctor and the Devils
At that time in Edinburgh there was a great shortage of cadavers for medical students to practice on. In fact only two or three were made available each year, so some doctors began to look elsewhere for possible sources.
One of these was Robert Knox, MD, Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, and when messrs Burke and Hare approached him with the corpse of a man who had died in their care, he was quick to seize the opportunity.
Burke and MacDougal had moved into the Hare's lodging house in Tanner's Close. It wasn't long before Messrs Burke and Hare became friends, but when one of the Hare's other lodgers died, the pair spotted an opportunity for financial reward. No-one knows who came up with the bright idea of taking the body up to the University, but anatomist Dr Knox paid the villainous duo £7.10s for the cadaver - a lot of money for very little effort.
It must have seemed like easy money for two men who had been used to hard work in order to pay their way (Hare had also worked on the Union Canal, though it's doubtful if he knew Burke at that time). It was also an easy way to fund their drinking habits and enjoy - in their eyes - a better life. The problem, however, was that the lodger had died of natural causes and it wasn't likely that another such lodger - very ill and on his last legs - would happen along quite so readily.
There are many different versions of what happened next - Burke himself made two different testimonies - so the number of people they killed will never be known for sure. Given the lack of concrete evidence at that time, it's hardly surprising that so many stories emerged.
Essentially, Burke and Hare killed somewhere between 16 and 30 people. Of those we know about, these included Joseph the Miller, Abigail Simpson, Mary Patterson, Effie the Beggar-woman, an old woman and her grandson, Mrs Ostler, Ann Dougal, Elizabeth and Peggy Haldane, James Wilson (known as Daft Jamie) and Marjory Campbell Docherty.
Burke and Hare's method for dispatching these unfortunate souls was simple: plying the unsuspecting victim with drink, one of the pair would hold down the body while the other would cover their mouth and nose, making it only a matter of time before they died of asphyxiation.
In the case of James Wilson, Knox must have had to do some quick thinking, for when the body appeared ready for dissection; one of the medical students recognised the young man, as he had been a familiar figure in the city. Knox apparently denied this and began the dissection procedure, starting with the victim's face.
It was the body of Marjory Docherty, however, that landed Burke and Hare in trouble. The Hare's had other guests at the time - a Mr and Mrs Gray. Getting rid of the body had proved difficult due to the presence of the guests so the murderous duo hid the corpse under a bed. Later, when they found themselves alone in the house, the Gray's discovered the body and immediately went to the police.
19th-Century 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.
Perhaps Burke and Hare had been a little too confident in the dispatching of so many bodies, or maybe it was simply that they thought they could talk their way out of it. Either way, they were arrested along with their partners and soon found themselves in court.
William Hare was not one to let the grass grow under his feet. Being the more forceful of the two, he saw a way out - he confessed to the police in return for immunity against prosecution, leaving Burke to suffer the full measure of the pair's guilt. Nevertheless, there was not really much evidence in relation to the other murders and much of the case rested on Hare's confession, which, it has to be said, must by necessity have been considerably biased against Burke. In effect, William Burke was tried and found guilty only for the murder of Marjory Docherty.
William Burke is said to have spoken about being haunted by the torment and anguish of his actions. For this reason, he may well have looked forward to ending his life. It was reported that he behaved quite calmly in his last days and gave confession to several denominations. Burke was hanged on January 28, 1829, in Edinburgh's Lawnmarket in front of several thousand spectators. The hangman, one Thomas Young, was an experienced executioner, but for whatever reason (possibly malicious), Burke's neck did not break when he dropped through the trap, and somewhat ironically, he died of strangulation, much like his victims.
Dr Knox escaped prosecution, though his house was damaged during rioting. Hare and the two women were set free and were never seen again, though rumours abound: Hare may have ended his life as a beggar, or been blinded in a lime kiln, while Helen MacDougal is variously said to have been beaten up and/or hanged.
William Burke's body was used in anatomy lectures and his skeleton can still be seen in at the Edinburgh University Museum.