Burke and Hare 

Edinburgh’s notorious serial killers

The Players

William Burke
Burke was born in County Cork in 1792. His parents, though poor, struggled to give their children a good education. After schooling he 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 leave home to work on the Union Canal construction in Edinburgh.

William Hare
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 did not know Burke at the time.

Dr Robert Knox
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.

The Law

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 anyone. As 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 few shillings.

The trade became so popular that the newly bereaved were forced to introduce new security measures in order to protect their relatives. 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.

The Deadly Duo

It was in to this atmosphere that the deadly duo Burke and Hare introduced their own brand of resurrection. They decided that, rather 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 Mr Log died his grieving widow Margaret found she was turning to one of her tenants, William Hare, for comfort and soon they were married. It 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 up the 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 come 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 disappearance.

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 turned 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.
Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief,
Knox, the man who buys the beef.
– Scottish children’s rhyme

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.