On this day in history….28th January 1829

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….

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….


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….

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….

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….

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….

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….

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….

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….

On this day in history….22nd January 1962

On this day in history : 22nd January 1962 – The start of the trial of James Hanratty – also known as the A6 Murderer – who is accused of the murder of Michael Gregsten….

The trial was to become one of the longest and most controversial in British legal history….

James Hanratty – Fair use

It was the 22nd of August 1961 ~ lovers Michael Gregsten and Valerie Storie were sat in a parked car in a quiet spot near to Slough….when a gunman climbed into the back seat and ordered Gregsten to drive…. At around 1.30am he told Gregsten to pull in to a lay-by….

Saying he needed to sleep the gunman told the pair that he would have to tie them up…. Using Gregsten’s necktie he secured Valerie Storie’s hands behind her back…. Gregsten was then shot twice in the head. Valerie Storie was raped and shot five times in the shoulder and neck….leaving her paralysed. She was then left for dead, lying in the road next to Gregsten while the murderer made off in their car…. The car, a grey Morris Minor, was found abandoned in Ilford, Essex the following evening….

Gregsten and Storie were discovered at 6.45am on the morning of August 23rd by farm labourer Sydney Burton and John Kerr, an Oxford undergraduate, who was conducting a traffic census…. The police and an ambulance were called to the lay-by on the A6, at Deadman’s Hill, near to Luton, Bedfordshire…. A search of the area by police using sniffer dogs revealed two .38 cartridges….

Deadman’s Hill on the A6 – close to the lay-by and the murder scene….

During the following investigation a hotel room in Maida Vale was searched – that had been occupied the night prior to the murder by a Mr J. Ryan (who later turned out to be James Hanratty) and .38 cartridge cases were found. The murder weapon, a .38 revolver, had been found under a seat on a 36A London bus…. However, the hotel room had also been previously occupied by a Peter Louis Alphon – and he was publicly named as a murder suspect…. Alphon turned himself in to the police – but four days later was released as Valerie Storie failed to pick him out in an identity parade….

Hanratty was known to the police – he was a petty thief and car thief and was already facing a jail sentence for robbery…. On the 11th of October he was arrested in Blackpool on suspicion of Gregsten’s murder – and this time Valerie Storie identified him as the murderer….

At the trial the prosecution focused mainly on identification as there was no forensic evidence to connect Hanratty with the murder scene or the car…. Valerie Storie had said that the murderer had driven badly when leaving with the car – whereas Hanratty was an accomplished car thief…. He did not have a violent history and had never owned a gun…. He did not know either of the victims and had little motive to kill them…. He also claimed he was in Rhyl, North Wales at the time – some 200 miles away from the scene of the murder….

Despite there being no firm evidence and over nine hours of deliberation by the Jury, Hanratty was found guilty of the murder of Gregsten and the death sentence was passed…. He was hanged on the 4th of April 1962, confessing his innocence to the end, at Bedford Prison and was one of the last eight to face the hangman’s noose before the death penalty was abolished in Britain….

However, too many questions remained unanswered…. Hanratty’s family, lawyers and journalists began to dig deeper in to the case….and things just did not add up…. Then to add to the discrepancies Peter Louis Alphon confessed to the murder but later retracted his confession….

Hanratty’s family tried for over thirty years to gain a posthumous pardon and eventually in March 1999 the case was referred back to the Court of Criminal Appeal….and Hanratty’s remains were exhumed in order to obtain a DNA sample…. In March 2001 forensic experts matched two samples from the crime scene to that taken from Hanratty’s exhumed body….

On the 10th of May 2002 it was ruled by the Court that the conviction was sound – Hanratty’s guilt was established beyond doubt….

Valerie Storie survived the shooting – but spent the rest of her life in a wheelchair. She died in 2016….

On this day in history….18th December 1985

On this day in history : 18th December 1985 – British born Kevin Barlow and Australian Brian Chambers face the death penalty in Malaysia after their appeal against conviction for drug smuggling is rejected….

The pair, who were both 28 years old and residents of Australia, were arrested in the November of 1983 at Penang International Airport with 180 grams of heroin in their possession…. Each blamed the other and pleaded innocence – however, at their trial in the following July both were found guilty….

The two men appealed the decision…. Barlow’s aunt, back in Britain, appealed directly to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and to the Foreign Office to intervene and seek clemency on their behalf…. But it was the Australian authorities who took the lead – headed by Bill Hayden, the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs and who was firmly against the death penalty…. However, the Supreme Court of Malaysia refused any leniency and upheld the ruling that they should be executed….

The Honourable Bill Hayden – Image credit : Ali Kazak 9 – CC BY-SA 3.0

Despite a last minute plea for a stay of execution from Australian Prime Minster Robert Hawke both men were hanged in Pudu Prison on the 7th of July 1986…. A law had been introduced in Malaysia in 1983 that if anyone was caught with more than 15g of heroin it carried a mandatory death penalty…. Barlow, a welder from Perth and Chambers, a building contractor from Sydney, were the first non-Malaysians to be hanged under the country’s strict drug laws…. In Australia a similar offence would have received a sentence of three years imprisonment…. After the executions relations between Australia and Malaysia soured….

On this day in history….14th November 1864

On this day in history : 14th November 1864 – German tailor Franz Muller is publicly hanged at Newgate Prison, for the murder of Thomas Briggs – the first killing on a British train….

Franz Muller – Public domain

On the 9th of July 1864 city banker Thomas Briggs had been travelling on the 9.50pm London Railway train between Fenchurch Street and Hackney Wick…. Train travel at the time was not without its risks – robberies were commonplace but as of yet nobody had been killed…. However, this was about to change…. Briggs was beaten, robbed of his gold spectacles, watch and chain…. He was then thrown from the train, to be later found by the driver of another train travelling in the opposite direction…. He was taken to a nearby public house but died of his injuries….

A pool of blood was found in the compartment of the train where Briggs had been sitting – along with a black beaver hat assumed belonging to the murderer…. Then John Death, a jeweller from Cheapside, gave a description of a German man who had exchanged a gold chain two days after the attack – this chain was identified as having belonged to Briggs….

Nine days after, by which time a substantial £300 reward had been offered, a cab driver by the name of Matthews came forward with information…. He claimed he had not heard about the murder (even though it had been widely publicised) – but said he had become suspicious about a jeweller’s box with Death’s name on it, in the possession of his future son-in-law…. The cab driver’s daughter was engaged to 24-year-old Franz Muller – and Matthews was able to provide a photograph of the German…. This was then identified by the jeweller as being the man who had exchanged the chain; a warrant was issued for Muller’s arrest….

However, Muller was now onboard a passenger liner heading for New York…. Fortunately two detectives from Scotland Yard managed to get passage on a much faster ship and were in New York three weeks before Muller – who was arrested upon his arrival….

Extradition was to prove a little tricky as diplomatic relations were not good between America and Britain at the time, due to the American Civil War…. But eventually Muller was brought back to face trial….

The trial caught the attention of the British public, who were becoming increasingly wary about the safety of travelling by train…. Many believed Matthews had only shopped his future son-in-law to get the reward money and speculated that he might even have been involved in the crime himself…. Much of the evidence against Muller was circumstantial and he pleaded not guilty, protesting his innocence throughout…. Nevertheless he was found guilty and sentenced to hang…. His was one of the last public executions and a large, unruly, drunken crowd of some 50,000 gathered to watch…. Muller’s last words were “Ich habe es getan” ~ “I did it”….

Engraving of Newgate Prison, early 1800s – Public domain

The case was to lead to the establishment of the communication cord onboard trains, giving passengers a way of contacting train staff…. Briggs had been murdered in a closed compartment with no way of exiting between stops…. As a result railway carriages were created with corridors….

On this day in history….28th October 1986

On this day in history : 28th October 1986 – Jeremy Bamber is jailed for life for the White House Farm murders – where he killed five members of his own family….

Bamber shortly after his arrest – Fair use

The Bambers were a wealthy farming family, living at White House Farm, a large Georgian property near to Tolleshunt D’Arcy in Essex…. Jeremy was legally adopted by the family as a baby…. Four years previously they had also adopted a baby girl, Sheila….

White House Farm (in 2007) – Image credit : Glyn Baker CC BY-SA 2.0

After leaving school Bamber’s adoptive father paid for him to travel to Australia and New Zealand…. Here he reputedly became involved in drug smuggling – and also broke into a jewellery shop, stealing two valuable watches….

Once he had returned to the UK and after a few casual jobs, Bamber began to work for the family farm…. However, he was resentful of the low wage – despite living rent free in one of the family’s cottages and having been given a car…. He further showed his lack of appreciation by committing a robbery at the caravan park owned by his family….

Bamber’s adoptive parents Neville and June Bamber – Fair use

Bamber’s adoptive sister, Sheila, had been treated in hospital for schizophrenia…. On the 7th of August 1985 at 3.30am 24-year-old Bamber phoned the police to say his father had phoned him and told him that Sheila had got hold of his gun and had gone berserk with it…. When the police arrived at the house they found her dead, with the gun lay on her chest – along with a Bible…. Her mother lay dead in the same room, her father was found dead in the kitchen and Sheila’s 6-year-old twin boys lay dead in their beds upstairs….

Sheila and her twin boys, Daniel and Caffell (around 1984) – Fair use

At first police believed that Sheila had killed them all before turning the gun on herself…. But when Bamber’s girlfriend came forward and said that he had talked about killing his parents forensic tests were carried out and revealed his fingerprints on the gun…. Bamber had been set to inherit £436,000….

As the guilty verdict was read out at Chelmsford Crown Court Bamber showed little reaction…. Judge Mr. Justice Drake described him as “Warped and evil beyond belief”…. He then handed down five life sentences….

Bamber has always protested his innocence…. In July 2001 an inquiry was launched into the case and it was referred back to the Court of Appeal…. In December 2002 Bamber lost his appeal….