William Burke and William Hare, also sometimes referred to as The West Port Murderers, were notorious 19th century killers who supplied their victims’ bodies to surgeons for dissection and anatomy lectures in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Eschewing the traditional method of waiting for people to die to steal their bodies, the duo – both Irish immigrants – murdered no fewer than sixteen individuals in the Edinburgh area, over a period of about ten months in 1828. The beneficiary of these killings was one Doctor Robert Knox who purchased the corpses as dissection material for his well-attended anatomy lectures. Burke and Hare’s alleged accomplices were Burke’s mistress, Helen McDougal, and Hare’s wife, Margaret Laird. From their acts came the British word “burking”, originally meaning to smother a victim, or to commit an anatomy murder but which has since passed into general use as a word for any suppression or cover-up.
Like many places, the Edinburgh Medical School, which was universally renowned for medical sciences, relied increasingly on body-snatchers for a steady supply of “anatomical subjects”. Burke and Hare both met each other through happen chance and their sinister capitalism was first witnessed in 1827 when they took possession of a pensioner, dead from natural causes, who lived in the same lodging house. After filling his coffin with ballast, they took his cadaver to Surgeon’s Square where they sold the body for £7.10s (2010 values: £731, US$1,130) to an assistant of Doctor Robert Knox, an anatomist of considerable reputation owing to his knowledge and skill gained as an army surgeon at the time of Waterloo.
Burke and Hare’s first murder victim was a sick tenant named Joseph, a miller by trade, whom they plied with whisky and then suffocated. When there were no other sickly tenants, they decided to lure a victim from the street. In February 1828, they invited pensioner Abigail Simpson to spend the night before her return home to the village of Gilmerton. The following morning they employed the same modus operandi, serving her with alcohol to intoxicate her, and then smothering her. This time they placed 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, a princely sum.
Two further undated murders took place that Spring. One victim was invited into the house by Mrs Hare and plied with drink until Hare’s arrival; the other was despatched 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. 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 fact, she, too, had been taken to Doctor Knox’s rooms in a tea-chest. The two women were described as prostitutes in contemporary accounts, but there is no evidence that this was true. The story later arose that one of Knox’s students had recognised the dead Paterson, whose acquaintance he had made a few days earlier.
A further victim was an acquaintance of Burke, a woman called Effie who scavenged for a living and was in the habit of selling him found scraps of leather he could use for his cobbling. They were paid £10 for her body. Then Burke “saved” an inebriated woman from being held by a policeman and his assisting neighbour by claiming that he knew her and could take her back to her lodging. He delivered her body to the medical school just hours later. The next two victims were an old woman and her mute son or grandson, aged about 12. 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. He later said that this was the murder that disturbed him the most, as he was haunted by his recollection of the boy’s deathly expression. The customary tea-chest being found inadequate, both bodies were forced into a herring barrel and conveyed to Surgeons’ Square, where they fetched £8 each. According to Burke, the barrel was loaded onto a cart which Hare’s horse refused to pull uphill from the Cowgate, so that Hare had to call a porter to help him drag it the rest of the way on a sled. Once back in Tanner’s Close, Hare took his anger out on the horse by shooting it dead in the yard.
Two more victims were of Burke’s acquaintance; Mrs. Hostler, and one of McDougal’s relatives, Ann Dougal, a cousin from Falkirk. 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. The following 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’s whereabouts.
Burke and Hare’s next victim was a familiar figure in the streets of Edinburgh, a mentally disabled young man with a limp, named James Wilson. “Daft Jamie”, as he was known locally, 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. When Doctor Knox uncovered the body the next morning, several students recognised Jamie. Knox denied that it was the missing boy, and was reported to have dissected the body ahead of others to render the remains unrecognisable. 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.
The final 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. The Grays left for the night and neighbours later reported having heard the sounds of a struggle and even a woman’s voice crying “murder!”
The next day the Grays returned, and Ann Gray became suspicious when Burke would not let her approach a bed where she had left her stockings. When they were left alone in the house in the early evening, the Grays checked the bed and found Docherty’s body under it. On their way to alert the police, they ran into McDougal who tried to bribe them with an offer of £10 a week. They refused.
Burke and Hare had removed the body from the house before the police arrived. However, under questioning, Burke claimed that Docherty had left at 7 a.m., while McDougal inconsistently claimed that she had 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. The murder spree had lasted almost ten months.
The evidence against the pair was far from conclusive. In the one case for which the authorities had a body (Mrs Docherty’s) the medical experts could not state the cause of death with any certainty, and the prospect seemed real that Burke and Hare would blame each other for the murders, leaving a jury uncertain as to whom to convict for a capital offence. Lord Advocate Sir William Rae therefore offered Hare the opportunity “to turn King’s evidence” (this meant that essentially he would be granted immunity from prosecution if he confessed and agreed to testify against Burke).
Contemporary accounts suggest that Burke was perceived as the more intelligent of the two, and was therefore presumed to have taken the lead in their crimes. After visiting both men in their cells, Christopher North described them in Blackwood’s Magazine (March 1829):- although there was “nothing repulsive” about Burke who was “certainly not deficient in intellect”, he was “steeped in hypocrisy and deceit; his collected and guarded demeanour, full of danger and guile”, a “cool, calculating, callous and unrelenting villain”; Hare, on the other hand, was “the most brutal man ever subjected to my sight, and at first look seemingly an idiot.” Comparing the two women, he observed that Mrs Hare “had more of the she-devil”.
The Lord Advocate’s decision was extremely unpopular with the press and public who throughout the trial expressed hostility towards the Hares. A petition on behalf of James Wilson’s mother and sister, protesting against Hare’s immunity and intended release from prison, was given lengthy consideration by the High Court but rejected by a vote of 4 to 2 against. Burke and McDougal faced three charges of murder in respect of Mary Paterson, James Wilson and Mrs Docherty (the third charge to be heard first and, on a successful capital conviction, the other two to remain unheard). The trial took place on Christmas Eve 1828 and lasted twenty-four hours.
The jury retired to consider its verdict at 8.30am on Christmas Morning and returned just fifty minutes later to find Burke guilty of the third charge and the charge against McDougal not proven.
Before passing the death sentence, the Lord Justice-Clerk, David Boyle, addressed Burke with the words:
“You now stand convicted, by the verdict of a most respectable jury of your country, of the atrocious murder charged against you in this indictment, upon evidence which carried conviction to the mind of every man that heard it. (…) In regard to your case, the only doubt that has come across my mind, is, whether, in order to mark the sense that the Court entertains of your offence, and which the violated laws of the country entertain respecting it, your body should not be exhibited in chains, in order to deter others from the like crimes in time coming. But, taking into consideration that the public eye would be offended with so dismal an exhibition, I am disposed to agree that your sentence shall be put in execution in the usual way, but accompanied with the statutory attendant of the punishment of the crime of murder, viz.- that your body should be publicly dissected and anatomised. 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 a torrential rainstorm which did little to deter 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 and calm was restored only after one of the university professors decided to allow the would-be gate-crashers to pass through the theatre in batches of fifty at a time.
During the dissection, 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.”
Following the dissection, the Edinburgh phrenologists were permitted to examine Burke’s skull. 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. As Robert Knox was the first conservator of the museum there are also specimens, instruments and other artefacts relating to him and the period (the museum is open daily to the public). Following the execution and dissection, wallets supposedly made from Burke’s skin were offered for sale on the streets of Edinburgh. A calling card case made from skin taken from the back of his left hand fetched £1050 at auction in 1988. It was sold by the family of Piercy Hughes, a descendant of one of the surgeons involved in the dissection, and bought by Robin Mitchell and Colin MacPhail of Edinburgh’s Cadies & Witchery Tours Company. Until 2013 the case was displayed at the Police Information Centre in Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. It is now displayed in The Cadies & Witchery Tours shop in Edinburgh’s West Bow.
McDougal was released after the charge against her was found to be not proven. Knox was not prosecuted, despite public outrage at his role in providing an incentive for the sixteen murders. Burke swore in his confession that Knox had known nothing of the origin of the cadavers. Both McDougal and Mrs Hare were relentlessly pursued by angry mobs baying for justice but they lived out their lives in relative anonymity, away from the public gaze.
Hare himself was released in February 1829 and immediately assisted in leaving Edinburgh by the mail-coach to Dumfries. At one of its stops he was recognised by a fellow-passenger who, as chance would have it, was a junior counsel who had represented James Wilson’s family. On arrival in Dumfries the news of Hare’s presence spread like wild-fire and a crowd estimated at 8,000 gathered at the hostelry where he was staying the night. Police arrived and arranged for a decoy coach to draw off the crowd while Hare escaped through a back window into a carriage which took him to the town’s tollbooth. A crowd surrounded the building; stones were thrown at the door and windows and street lamps smashed before 100 special constables arrived to restore order.
In the small hours of the morning, escorted by a sheriff officer and militia guard, Hare was taken out of town, set down on the Annan Road and instructed to make his way to the English border. Two days later the driver of the northbound mail reported having passed him within half a mile of Carlisle. Several days later he was spotted two miles south of the town; the last reported sighting of him on the mainland. Though many folk tales still survive with lurid details of avenging mobs, lime pits and revenge murder, details of Hare’s final years remain unknown.
• The Burke and Hare murders are referenced in Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story, The Body Snatcher from 1884, which portrays two doctors in Robert Knox’s employ responsible for buying the corpses from the killers. The story was the basis of the 1945 film adaptation The Body Snatcher, directed by Robert Wise and starring Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff.
• The 1939 film The Anatomist was directed by the playwright James Bridie, and was based on his own 1930 play of the same name. In 1956, legendary producer Harry Alan Towers debuted with The Anatomist, based on the aforementioned play. Dennis Vance directed the movie, which starred Alastair Sim as Doctor Knox and Michael Ripper as William Hare. It was based on an episode of “ITV Play of the Week” earlier the same year by the same name and trio.
• The murders were adapted into a 1948 film starring Tod Slaughter with the working title Crimes of Burke and Hare; however, the British Board of Film Censors deemed its topic too disturbing and insisted that references to Burke and Hare be excised. The film was re-dubbed with alternative dialogue and characters, and released as The Greed of William Hart.
• The 1960 film The Flesh and the Fiends aka The Fiendish Ghouls starred Peter Cushing as Knox, Donald Pleasence as Hare and George Rose as Burke.
• The 1971 film Doctor Jekyll and Sister Hyde transported Burke and Hare into the late Victorian era and portrayed them as being employed by Doctor Jekyll. Burke was played by Ivor Dean and Hare by Tony Calvin.
• The 1971 sexed-up film Burke & Hare starred Derren Nesbitt as Burke and Glynn Edwards as Hare.
• The 1985 film The Doctor and the Devils, directed by Freddie Francis, is based on Dylan Thomas’ 1953 screenplay of the same name and is a retelling of the Burke and Hare murder story with the names of the characters altered. Timothy Dalton plays Doctor Rock (Thomas’ characterisation of Doctor Knox), while Jonathan Pryce and Stephen Rea play the Burke and Hare surrogates.
• The 2004 Doctor Who audio drama ‘Medicinal Purposes’ placed the Sixth Doctor (Colin Baker) amidst the events of the murders; the play featured Leslie Phillips as Doctor Knox and David Tennant (who would later become the Tenth Doctor) as “Daft Jamie”.
• I Sell The Dead, a 2008 comedy horror film, has pub patrons claiming career grave-robbers Willie and Arthur are successful rivals to Burke and Hare’s notoriety.
• Burke and Hare, a comedy film loosely based upon the historical case, starring Simon Pegg as Burke and Andy Serkis as Hare, and directed by John Landis (An American Werewolf in London).
Daz Lawrence, moviesandmania