- Edinburgh's notorious
Burke was born in County Cork in
1792. His parents, though poor,
struggled to give their children a good education. After
joined the local militia but his regiment was disbanded after seven
years and so he returned home to work as a servant for a local
landowner in his home town. It is not known why he decided to
home to work on the Union Canal construction in Edinburgh.
Very little is known about Hare’s
life before he moved to Edinburgh. It
is known that he was born in Ireland, although the exact location is
uncertain. He was poorly educated and reputedly a vicious man. One
theory says that he was a farm labourer and another than he was a
soldier. It is known that he worked as a navvy on the canal but
not know Burke at the time.
Born in Edinburgh in 1791 Robert
Knox was destined to become an
important man from his early years. He studied at a local high school
before enrolling in medical classes at the University in 1810, aged
just 19. On his graduation four years later he became an assistant
surgeon in a military hospital in Brussels and worked on casualties
from the Battle of Waterloo. By the time he returned to Scotland he was
a renowned surgeon and soon had many students of his work.
In the 1820s, when Burke and Hare
first made acquaintance, the laws
concerning human dissection were extremely strict. Only executed
murderers could be used for medical research because it was believed
that a dissected person could not go to heaven. Hospitals and
researchers were limited over how many bodies they could dissect each
year so doctors were willing to pay for cadavers and not ask too many
questions. While dissection was illegal, corpse stealing was not
against the law because they were not deemed to be owned by
a result a new trade of graverobber grew up in many cities and it could
be a lucrative business. The robbers – or resurrectionists as they were
called because of their ability to “raise the dead” – were paid as much
as £10 a corpse, at a time when most people were lucky to earn a
The trade became so popular that the
newly bereaved were forced to
introduce new security measures in order to protect their
Graveyards in cities raised their boundary walls, some built watch
towers, others employed night watchmen. Some relatives paid guards to
watch over their own dearly departed, put locks on coffins and even
built cages over graves. Graverobbing became a less popular pastime as
it became more difficult.
It was in to this atmosphere that
the deadly duo Burke and Hare
introduced their own brand of resurrection. They decided that,
than go to the trouble of digging up the deceased, they would kill
victims themselves and save the hassle.
After moving to Scotland Burke had
taken rooms with his mistress, Helen
McDougal, at a lodging house once owned by a Mr and Mrs Log. When
Log died his grieving widow Margaret found she was turning to one of
her tenants, William Hare, for comfort and soon they were
was shortly after, in1827, that Burke and his lady moved in.
Later that year another lodger, an
old man known only as Donald, died
owing £4 in back rent to the Hares. William Hare decided to make
deficit by selling Donald’s body to the medics. He persuaded Burke to
help and, on the day of the funeral, they replaced the body with a sack
of wood and took the corpse to anatomist Robert Knox. Who paid them
seven pounds ten shillings for it.
The apparent ease with which their
plan worked made them greedy and
soon after, when another lodger fell ill, they decided to hurry his
demise. While one held him down the other put his hand over the
victim’s nose and mouth, effectively smothering him and creating their
own method of murder.
In all the pair put paid to 16
people in slightly less than a year,
beginning with ill lodgers then turning to street beggars and
prostitutes. Their greed, however got the better of them and they
started taking more risks when choosing their victims. In April 1828
they made the mistake of murdering prostitute Mary Paterson who worked
closely with another street girl Janet Brown. When Mary failed to
home after an evening visit to Burke and Hare’s lodging house Janet was
suspicious and spoke to her landlady, who raised questions about the
They chose other well-known street
characters including “Daft” Jamie
Wilson. The man had a deformed foot and earned his living as a street
entertainer so he was easily recognised by some of the audience when he
up on Dr Knox’s table. Questions were again asked but Knox denied that
it was the same man.
Other easily recognised characters
were also dissected and the police
became suspicious about the number of mysterious disappearances around
the West Port area of the city.
About the same time the pair began
to disagree over their actions and
Burke accused Hare of working on his own and pocketing all the money.
So when both men and their partners were arrested Burke accused Hare of
everything and claimed he was not involved. In retaliation Hare agreed
to testify against Burke if he was granted immunity.
The trial opened on the morning of
Christmas Eve 1828 and the following
morning it took the jury just 50 minutes to find Burke guilty. He was
sentenced to hang. Before the execution was carried out, on January 29
1829, he made a full confession of all the 16 crimes but denied that
the pair ever robbed a grave.
Up the close
and down the stair,
In the house
with Burke and Hare.
butcher, Hare's the thief,
Knox, the man
who buys the beef.
Three years later the Anatomy Act
legalised the use of human corpses
for dissection if the body was unclaimed and the demand for illegally
obtained bodies decreased. Graverobbing was no longer a lucrative
business and it all but died out from Victorian society.
One of the last hanged murderers to
be donated for dissection was Burke
himself. His skeleton is still on display at Edinburgh University
Medical School. A pocket book was made from his skin and that is on
display at the city’s Police Museum.
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