On this day in history : 28th January 1829 – William Burke is publicly hanged in Edinburgh…. Burke and his accomplice William Hare had sold the corpses of their 16 victims to Dr Robert Knox for dissection….

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Hare and Burke

Edinburgh was a leading centre for anatomical study and Dr Robert Knox was one of several pioneering anatomy teachers of the time…. The law in Scotland stated that only bodies of executed criminals could be used for dissection…. the Judgement of Death Act 1823 meant there were fewer crimes punishable by death – and at a time when medical science was on the rise there became a shortage of cadavers…. This in turn led to an epidemic of ‘body snatching’….

Disturbing a grave was deemed a criminal offence – as was stealing property from a deceased person. However, actually stealing a body was not illegal – as it did not legally belong to anyone…. The price of a corpse depended on the time of year….during the warmer summer months bodies were quicker to decompose…. A corpse could fetch up to £10 in the winter, as it could be stored for a longer period and be used for more dissections….

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Body snatching became so rife that measures had to be taken in graveyards for its prevention; watchtowers were built, guards hired – and sometimes families would rent huge slabs of stone to place over a new grave – just long enough for a body to decompose sufficiently enough to be of no use….

Burke and Hare both originated from the Province of Ulster, in the north of Ireland – and had moved to Scotland to work on the Union Canal. Burke had deserted a wife and two children in Ireland and was living in lodgings in Tanner’s Close, in the West Port area of Edinburgh, with his mistress Helen McDougal…. Also living in the same street was Hare, with his common-law wife Margaret Laird – with whom he ran a boarding house…. The two men became firm friends….

Burke and Hare were to embark on a killing spree that lasted for a period of about 10 months. It all started on the 29th of November 1827; a tenant of Hare’s, named Donald, died of natural causes…. He owed back rent of £4 to Hare, who complained of this to Burke….and the pair cooked up a plan…. Donald’s burial was to be arranged and paid for by the Parish; a carpenter was employed and a coffin made…. Once the carpenter had left Burke and Hare removed the body and hid it and refilled the coffin with bark from the local tanners…. Once the coffin had been collected for burial Burke and Hare took the body to Edinburgh University to find a buyer – and were directed to Dr Robert Knox….

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Dr. Robert Knox – Public domain

Burke and Hare received £7 10S for Donald’s body, which was a considerable amount of money to them…. A couple of months later another opportunity arose, when another of Hare’s tenants, a miller named Old Joseph, fell ill…. He was delirious with fever and Hare worried that other lodgers would be put off from staying there…. Rather than wait for natural causes to happen Burke and Hare decided to help him on his way….after being plied with whisky Joseph was suffocated and his body sold to Knox….

Having run out of conveniently sick tenants Burke and Hare began to entice victims back to the lodging house – preying on those least likely to be missed in society. They murdered at least 16, possibly even more….and it is highly likely that their partners McDougal and Laird were in on it….

Their downfall came with the murder of their last victim, Marjory Docherty…. Burke and Hare had argued; Burke suspected Hare and Laird had been doing deals with Knox, cutting himself and McDougal out…. So Burke and McDougal started taking in lodgers themselves….

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Image: Wellcome Collection CC BY

Marjory Campbell Docherty was invited to stay at Burke’s and the couple lodging there already, a James and Ann Gray, were told she was a distant relative – and they were asked to stay at Hare’s lodging house for the duration of her visit…. It was when the Grays returned to Burke’s to retrieve some belongings that suspicions were aroused…. They were told that Marjory had been asked to leave as she had made amorous advances on Burke – but they thought it strange when they were denied access to the room where their possessions were…. Seizing an opportunity when they found themselves alone in the house the couple gained access to the room and discovered Marjory’s body concealed beneath the bed…. They went to the police – but Burke must have got wind – because when the police arrived to search the body had gone….Burke had already delivered it to Knox….

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William Burke murdering Margery Campbell – Robert Seymour (1798-1836) Public domain

Burke, McDougal, Hare and Laird were all arrested….and all blamed each other when questioned…. The investigation quickly led to Knox and James Gray identified the body of Marjory Docherty there…. However, the police had no real evidence of murder to bring charges…. It was at this point that an offer was made to Hare, granting him immunity from prosecution if he admitted guilt and acted as a witness for the State against Burke…. Hare confessed to all 16 deaths and gave details of Marjory Docherty’s murder….Burke and McDougal were arrested and charged with a total of three murders….

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William Hare and Margaret Laird

The trial began on Christmas Eve 1828 at 10am and was heard by Lord Justice-Clerk David Boyle. The court was full and a large crowd gathered outside….the hearing lasted all day, through the night and well into the following day…. Burke was eventually found guilty of one murder and sentenced to death….McDougal was acquitted as there was no proof against her – this did not however prove her innocence….

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William Burke and Helen McDougal at their trial

Burke was hanged on the morning of the 28th of January; a crowd of some 25,000 came to watch….views from windows overlooking the gallows were charged at up to 20 shillings per person….

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Execution of Burke in the Lawnmarket, Edinburgh – Public domain

On February the 1st Burke was publicly dissected by Professor Munro in th anatomy theatre of Edinburgh University’s Old College. A minor riot broke out when students without tickets tried to get in to the theatre…. Burke’s skeleton was given to the Anatomical Museum of the Edinburgh Medical School and can still be seen there today…. His death mask and a book said to be made from his tanned skin can be seen at Surgeon’s Hall Museum….

 

Hare was released in 1829 and fled across the border to England; although there are rumours nobody really knows what became of him…. McDougal and Laird both fled Edinburgh…. The murders raised awareness of the need for bodies for medical research and prompted the Anatomy Act 1832….

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