William Burke, murderer, was hanged in Edinburgh on the 28th of January, 1829.
The names of Burke and Hare are synonymous with 19th Century Edinburgh, but are also current in tales of ghastly and ghoulish goings-on, which fuel the tourist industry in the 21st Century in Scotland’s capital city. From underground vault tours and ghosts and gore tours to witchery tours and ‘jumper ooter’ scare ’em tours, the Old Town of Edinburgh is full of restless spirits – or so we’re led to believe. As one tour operator states, “The closes and courtyards of the Royal Mile are home to an eclectic collection of departed souls.” So, whether it’s the ghosts of Burke and Hare or the ghosts of their victims you might expect to come across on one of Edinburgh’s after dark tours, the city isn’t in the slightest bit concerned about being associated with such loathsome rogues. In fact, it’s rather proud of its ghastly heritage – or more to the point, it cannae ignore a decent source of tourist income. And tourists are still incoming, as the price of a hotel bed will testify.
You may remember Burke and Hare as grave robbers or as yon bodysnatchers, but although infamous as wicked exponents of such ‘trades’ they were never proven to have robbed a single grave. Their ‘modus operandi’ meant they didn’t need to resort to such hard work as digging up a coffin and, in fact, their main customer, the famous anatomist, Dr. Robert Knox, didn’t want ‘foostie’, auld, decaying corpses. No, indeed, Dr. Knox was after fresh specimens and he didnae ask awkward questions. Burke and Hare have been rather interestingly labelled as ‘resurrectionists’ or ‘resurrection men’, but let’s just say that’s a posh term for grave robbers, and equally misguided in their particular case.
One interesting fact is that neither Burke nor Hare was from Edinburgh, nor were they Scottish. They were Irish navvies who came to work on the Union Canal, but had never met whilst working there. William (Brendan) Burke had ta’en up with a Scots woman, Helen (Nell) MacDougal, and eventually, he and Nell made their way to Edinburgh’s West Port district. After the completion of the Canal, William Hare went his own way to Edinburgh where he also found cheap lodgings in West Port. When Hare’s landlord died in 1826, he took up with the widow, Margaret Logue, and they ran the boarding house together, in Tanner’s Close. By chance, Burke and MacDougal became paying lodgers of the Hare’s and the foursome ended up with a sinister purpose.
Burke and Hare’s first venture into selling corpses for cash occurred quite by accident. In November of 1827, one of Hare’s lodgers, who owed him rent, an army pensioner called Donald, fell ill and died. Hare was mad at losing the rent and concocted the plan that he and Burke were to repeat with more nefarious intent, many more times. They hid the body, filled the coffin with wood and after it had been all unsuspectingly removed, headed off to the nearest anatomist. The two Irishmen ended up knocking at Dr. Knox’s door and selling their first body. Their booty was the tidy sum of £7 10/-. Soon, they were seeking new victims and the next was another boarder who became sick, Joseph the Miller. In Joe’s case, Burke and Hare hastened his demise, by putting him out of his misery. That ‘mercy killing’ was the first in which they employed what became their specialty, which in turn became known as ‘burking’ – they pinned him down and suffocated him by covering his nose and mouth.
Suffocation whilst drunk and helpless had two benefits; the victim was easy to dispatch and the body had no marks to indicate foul play. The fourth victim was elderly Abigail Simpson, who met Hare before being ‘entertained’ by the gruesome foursome and persuaded to stay the night. She never made it through the night. Burke and Hare soon took to hanging out in the Inns in the Grassmarket, from where lured their victims. Those were the sort that wouldn’t be missed; waifs, strays and prostitutes from the streets of the Old Town. Two of those prostitutes were Mary Paterson from West Port and her pal, Janet Brown, both picked up by Burke. Thankfully for Janet, she remained fairly sober and was able to leave. Mary was ‘burked’ and delivered to the anatomists slab. However, suspicions were roused as Janet had told her landlady about Burke’s invitation and, of course, Mary Paterson had mysteriously disappeared. In addition, some of Dr. Knox’s students recognised her – you may speculate as to how or why. Indeed, she was missed.
Yet, more bodies followed, including a woman called Effie and one whom Burke told the Police he knew and persuaded he’d take home and look after. He looked after her all right; in the usual manner. Next up and down the anatomists were an old woman and her deaf grandson, but the boy was ‘damaged goods’ as he had to be killed by Hare breaking his back. A Mrs. Ostler, an Ann Dougal, and Elizabeth Haldane and her daughter Peggy, soon followed, but Burke and Hare had become careless. Their downfall began when they disposed of young James Wilson, a weel kent character known as ‘Daft Jamie’. In October of 1828, when the two men had been at their macabre craft for almost two years, Hare invited Jamie back to his house. Jamie put up a fight, but Burke arrived to assist and the lad was promptly ‘burked’. Jamie’s widowed mum went looking for him and some students recognised the body of the boy, and folks began to put two and two together.
Their last murder occurred, rather appropriately, at Halloween and made rather more than five – it made sixteen. Madge Docherty was an Irish woman, glad to meet fellow countrymen and up for a bit of a shindig; she was persuaded to stay the night. When the Hare’s new lodgers, James and Ann Gray, arrived next morning for breakfast, they found no sign of Madge, but later on in the day, Ann Gray found her body under the bed, so the Grays called the Cops in blue and the game was up. The gruesome foursome was arrested and charged with the so-called ‘West Port Murders’, an event that was covered in the newspapers of Monday, the 3rd of November, 1828. William Hare and Margaret turned King’s witnesses and were given immunity for their evidence; not being brought to trial. Nell MacDougall was acquitted with the Scots verdict of ‘Not Proven’. William Burke was tried for murder on the 24th of December, 1828 and sentenced to hang. He was ‘turned off’ in front of a huge crowd, who gathered in front of St. Giles’ Cathedral on the 28th of January, 1829. In a bizarre twist, Burke’s body was given over to the medical Professor, Alexander Monro, for public dissection. Even more bizarrely, a pocket book (wallet), which you can still see in the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh, was made from his tanned skin.