Edinburgh in 1800 was a grim place to be: disease was rife and life expectancy was low. The Old Town had degenerated into a horrific slum with death-trap wooden tenements stretching 14 storeys into the sky. Murderous crime and punitive punishment was a part of every day life; and all the while there was a horrid stench from the open sewer of the Nor’ Loch and the filth that fed it running down the streets from a medieval warren of over 30,000 souls. Still, one tale above all leaps from the pages of history and shocks us even today – the story of Burke and Hare.
In the second half of the 18th century Scotland, and particularly Edinburgh, went through a phase of rapid development, intellectual advancement and economic innovation, which is collectively known as the Enlightenment. These changes also went hand in hand with an actual bricks-and-mortar change to the Scottish capital and the building of the New Town: a masterpiece of Georgian design and architectural genius; elegant boulevards a world away from the miseries of the Old Town. Science and medicine were also advancing, and by the 1820s Edinburgh University had become one of the world’s top medical research centres. There was a problem though: a lack of cadavers to research on. Doctors were turning to some pretty dark solutions.
Traditionally, the anatomists were only allowed to dissect bodies of convicted criminals hanged for their crimes; but with changes in the law and greater leniency, the number of hangings had been in freefall while the number of students was growing exponentially. It was a circle that simply couldn’t be squared; well, not legally anyway.
Edinburgh wasn’t unique; doctors in Aberdeen, Glasgow and London also employed Resurrection Men, or Body Snatchers, to roam the graveyards in the wee small hours, dig up freshly buried bodies and bring them under the cloak of darkness to the labs: but it was by far the most prolific. Cemeteries across the city employed ‘watchers’ or encased coffins in special iron cages in a vain attempt to halt this ghoulish trade. The odds were against them – a grave robber could earn more money from one well preserved corpse than working as a labourer for six months: the incentive was simply too great. And, then there were those who couldn’t even be bothered to do any digging at all. Enter Burke and Hare.
William Burke and William Hare were both from Ireland, and both had come to Scotland to work building the canals across the Central Belt. It was back-breaking work, and poorly paid. Hare moved to Edinburgh and lived in a lodging house in the city’s West Port run by landlady Margaret Logue. When her husband died in suspicious circumstances, Hare married the widow Logue and continued to live with her in the house (given what would transpire, old man Logue’s demise may not be that mysterious). In 1828 William Burke and his mistress moved into the house; although it is unclear whether Burke and Hare had ever met beforehand. They fast became friends, and they were about to unleash a reign of terror, the scale of which we still find hard to fathom.
Not long after they two became friendly there was a death at the lodgings – an elderly gent with no next of kin. As such, the burden of paying for a funeral fell upon the landlady, Mrs Hare, who was none too keen. Burke had an idea: sell the body to the doctors and collect a fee. It was a brainwave. The principal anatomist at the University’s medical department was a Dr. Robert Knox, who already had a reputation in underground circles as a gentleman who would buy dead bodies (which to date had been laid to rest in coffins). Hare approached Knox who agreed to the buy the old boy; after all, no harm done – a victimless crime, right? The pair colluded to bring the body from the West Port over to the University and for their troubles they were paid £7; quite the bounty for two men used to digging canals for a living.
It didn’t take them long to squander the cash on loose drink and looser women; and as they boozed perhaps a seed was sown, an enterprise to be ventured upon born. Back at the house they scanned the lodging for anyone else that might not be feeling too great, and homed in on one Joseph the Miller. Although definitely ailing he wasn’t at death’s door, so to speed the process along Burke killed the man. The bounty was £8, and Pandora’s Box was open. The anti was upped; and this time they lured Abigail Simpson into the house from a tavern, got her paralytic and murdered her. By now both students and doctor got suspicious that these very fresh bodies were neither ‘body snatched’ or died of natural causes. However, Knox turned a blind eye, and so did his protégés. And the bodies kept coming.
Drunk on more than the gin they were consuming by the gallon, Burke and Hare went on an eleven month killing spree; which included notable locals such as Daft Jamie and Marjory Docharty, their last victim. In all, at least 17 people were murdered (I say at least, because this is all we have to go on – the count may be nearer 30); but eventually their crime caught up with them. Fellow residents at the lodging found the body of Marjory Docharty and raised the alarm. The police came and arrested both men, but for the prosecutors there was a problem.
Scots law is a unique system of justice, and very resolute in the burden of proof. There is an onus on the defendant to show his innocence, but to balance that, there is a heavy responsibility on the Crown not only to prove guilt, but to back it up. Unlike most legal systems, Scots law requires two unequivocal proofs of guilt, not one – it’s called corroboration. And in the case of Burke and Hare, such corroboration did not exist. A deal had to be struck. William Hare was promised a full pardon if he would act as ‘King’s Evidence’, that is, spill the beans on the macabre tale and pin the blame squarely on Burke. I doubt he thought about it too long; and he agreed.
The trial of William Burke and his mistress Helen McDougal for murder took place on the 24th of December 1829. There wasn’t enough evidence to convict McDougal, but Hare’s testimony destroyed his erstwhile partner; and Burke was found guilty of what would be the single worst mass murder in Scottish history. On the 28th Burke was hanged for the crime. His body was then flayed of its skin (some of that skin was leathered and made into purses and belts – nice), his anatomy dissected and his skeleton wired together and placed in a glass bell-case. It remains to this day in the anatomy museum of the university.
The case of Burke and Hare was so shocking that attitudes were changed. Overnight, the government legislated that bodies and organs could be donated to medical science; and in doing so the underground trade of the Resurrection men ended. Hare and his wife fled, both escaping several lynchings. It is believed that he made it to London, and in obscurity. The story of these two fiends is forever etched upon the psyche of the Scots and known the world over; and even today they are associated with the crime of grave robbing: something they never did, for these monsters were murderers, pure and simple.