Relatives were known to guard the recently dug graves of their dearly departed and watch-towers were installed in cemeteries. The fresher the body, the more money it was worth, thus it didn’t take long before grave-robbing graduated to anatomy murder, done for monetary reward. The most infamous were in Edinburgh in 1827–8 whose university was noted for top quality medical sciences.
Irishmen William Burke (1792-1829) and William Hare (1804-?) both came from Ulster and moved to Edinburgh to work on the Union Canal. The pair met and became close friends when Burke moved with his mistress Helen McDougal to lodgings in Tanner’s Close in Edinburgh. Hare lived on the same street and was running a boarding house there with Margaret Laird-Hare, his “wife”.
Hare and Burke,
They liked the money that they made on Old Donald; alas the money didn’t last. Burke and Hare could have become true grave robbers but digging up corpses would have involved too much effort. When Joseph, another of Hare's lodgers, became a bit ill, Burke and Hare decided to end Joseph’s suffering. They plied him with whisky and smothered him. This became their favoured method of execution as it left the body undamaged for the students who would later dissect the cadavers.
Without any other ill tenants, the pair decided to entice poor victims to the lodging house, selectively at first and then they regarded almost anyone who breathed as a potential victim. If desperate, the men would have even contemplated killing and selling their own partners, Helen and Margaret.
A prostitute, Janet Brown, was lucky to survive when she and a teenage prostitute friend, Mary Paterson, were invited to stay with Burke. Janet returned one evening to find her friend missing and was told Mary and Burke had stepped out. Actually Mary was lying dead in the next room, her body ready to be taken to Prof Knox!
The two men murdered a disabled young man
Elizabeth Halden made the terrible mistake of calling at Hare’s lodging-house. After hearing she was last seen with Hare, Halden’s daughter Peggy called at the lodgings looking for her. Both women ended up dead and were delivered to Prof Knox for £10 each.
Burke and Hare reached a new low when they brought in a well loved, handicapped children’s entertainer called Daft James Wilson. How careless of them! James had a deformed foot and was instantly recognised by paying students at Prof Knox's anatomy class.
On Halloween 1828 Burke and Hare’s 16th and last victim, an old Irish woman called Marjory Docherty, was invited to stay with Burke and Helen. Burke’s other lodgers, a couple called James and Ann Gray, were invited to stay a night at Hare’s boarding house that evening so the murder could take place. On their return to Burke’s lodgings the following day, the Grays were told that Marjory had been asked to leave because she had been flirtatious with Burke. But they later discovered Marjory’s dead body hidden under the bed, in straw. The Grays challenged Helen over their discovery and she offered them a bribe of £10 a week to stay silence. The Grays reported the murder to the Police anyhow and the game was up.
In total, Burke and Hare are said to have murdered at least 16 people for £7-10 each, although the real total was possibly higher. The murders had all taken place within one year, Nov 1827-Oct 1828. The criminals were all arrested, interviewed separately and gave conflicting accounts. However after a month of interviewing, the Police had little hard evidence. Eventually the Lord Advocate, Sir William Rae, offered Hare immunity in return for testifying against Burke and Helen. Done deal!
The trial began on Christmas Eve 1828 when Burke and Helen were both charged with Marjory Docherty’s murder. Burke was also charged with the murder of Mary Paterson and James Wilson. While Helen’s complicity in Marjory’s murder was not proven under Scottish Law and she was set free, Burke was sentenced to death by hanging.
Hare was released in Feb 1829 and spent his days as a beggar in London. Helen and Margaret also fled Edinburgh, with Helen then leaving for Australia and Margaret to Ireland. Prof Knox was never called to court, thus escaping prosecution altogether (good grief!!!). But Knox did have to move to London, to resurrect his medical career.
The Burke and Hare murders led to the Anatomy Act 1832 which allowed doctors, anatomy lecturers and medical students greater access to cadavers and allowed for the legal donation of bodies to medical science. The illegal body-snatcher trade could end.
Thanks to Nell Darby in All About History, Issue 57.