Although human healers have undoubtedly existed for thousands of years and have held a pre-eminent position in most societies, for the most part, such medics would have been unaware of the internal mechanics of the human body, limiting themselves instead to the treatment of the external symptoms that were exhibited by individual members of the specific communities. During the periods of the early great human civilisations, such as those centred around Egypt, Greece and Rome, the role and knowledge of doctors and surgeons were thought to have increased substantially, as did those of the anatomists, undertakers and embalmers, who regularly dissected bodies and prepared them for the various religion’s version of the afterlife.
However, it was only in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries that the human body and its internal structures began to be studied more carefully, reflecting an age of learning that was said to have had its foundation with the advent of the printing press, the basis for the world’s first form of mass communication. Despite being written in Latin, the language of the well educated and therefore outside of the common man’s understanding, the fact that such books and illustrations were commonly available to most medical communities throughout Europe helped to ensure that the scientific understanding of human anatomy grew, as did the need to know more about how people’s bodies actually functioned.
Unfortunately, as interest in the subject grew and many more surgeons, healers and doctors began to actively participate in the dissection and exploration of the human form, most countries in Western Europe began to experience a shortage of human cadavers that were necessary to meet the demand. The most obvious sources of human bodies came from executed criminals, or in some cases, from homeless itinerants who were unfortunate enough to die from disease, hunger or through injury and who happened to be found quickly enough for their bodies to be used. The obvious lack of refrigeration, travelling distances involved and the vagaries of the local weather were all said to have played a part in ensuring that many corpses quickly became unusable for dissection, as putrefaction and predation by insects, or other animals, could often make the body largely unsuitable for educational purposes. According to some sources, such was the shortage of cadavers that it was not uncommon for students, doctors and surgeons to be rushing from one town or city to another, in order to reserve a place at a planned medical dissection, many of which were significantly overbooked, such was the demand to understand the anatomy of mankind by the growing ranks of medical men and the more morbid spectator.
By the middle of the 19th century, much of the human body, both male and female, had been examined, mapped and explained by the leading anatomists and surgeons of the age, although these discoveries simply encouraged further investigations into the microscopic study of human cells and tissue, all to help medics to understand the processes by which human organs grew and developed. These in turn led to an even greater demand for fresh bodies, which eventually had to be rationed, such was their increasing rarity, with national governments being persuaded to find new methods of providing them, either through executed criminals, itinerant travellers, or those who died in the poor house and whose families were unable or unwilling to bury them properly. Even the provision of these corpses though was said to have been problematic, as sometimes the friends and family of executed prisoners, those hung for their crimes, would try to retrieve the body quickly, so that they could try and revive them, which did occasionally happen. Additionally, religious teachings at the time often took the view that a Christian body had to be buried intact, in order for the person to be resurrected on Judgement Day, so were quite clearly opposed to the prospect of their loved one being dissected by the local anatomist, who in their view was depriving the dead person of being redeemed.
Initially, anatomists and surgeons in Britain found a plentiful supply of criminals bodies to use in their studies, as between 1688 and 1776, the number of Capital Offences, those offences punishable by death, was said to have risen from around fifty, to well over two hundred, essentially quadrupling the number of people who would go on to face the gallows, very often for property theft, rather than having committed any sort of violent crime. However, as society became increasingly uneasy about hanging people for stealing personal property, which was seen as a wholly disproportionate penalty for the offence in question, so a growing number of British juries were thought to have favoured transportation to Britain’s overseas colonies as a more suitable punishment, leading to a dramatic fall in the numbers of people being executed each year.
Up until 1776, the vast majority of convicted felons sentenced to transportation were thought to have been shipped to the Americas, although in later years and following the successful American Revolution, most British criminals were said to have been transported to Australia and Van Diemen’s Land, now modern day Tasmania. Unfortunately, with the ready supply of legally executed criminals no longer available to them, Britain’s large numbers of anatomists and surgeons quickly found themselves facing a catastrophic shortfall in cadavers, which not only threatened to put them out of business, but also posed a real problem to those surgeons and lecturers charged with training the future generations of British medics. Although it would be wrong to conclude that condemned prisoner’s bodies disappeared entirely from the medical scene, as people were still executed for all sorts of crimes, depending on the particular jurymen who were responsible for their fate, the increasing reluctance of jurors to pass a death sentence on those convicted of a relatively minor offence, found their repugnance of the death penalty being supported by Parliamentarians, who were anxious to rationalise the nation’s judicial system.
It was said to be as a result of this more Christian-like and rational attitude towards miscreants that in 1823 the British Government of the day passed the Judgement of Death Act, which removed the vast majority of capital offences from the statute book. Instead of the hundreds of offences that could in theory carry a death penalty, this new Act reduced the number of Capital Offences to five, including Homicide, Piracy, Arson in a Naval Dockyard, Espionage and High Treason, all of which have subsequently been removed from the statute book during the 20th century, ensuring that Capital Punishment no longer exists in modern day Britain.
Although the changes in the law introduced by the Judgement of Death Act 1823 was no doubt welcomed by most of Britain’s population, for the medical profession and especially those charged with training the next generation of surgeons and doctors, the changes were not so positive, as it simply reduced their supply of medical cadavers even further. It was said to be as a direct result of these changes in society and the law that anatomists and surgeons began to look elsewhere for the dead bodies that they required, often turning a deliberately blind eye to where the corpses came from and how they had been acquired in the first place. Even though most teaching hospitals were still allocated dead prisoner’s bodies as and when they became available, because there were so few, due to the previously noted changes in the law, often the one or two bodies provided by the local authorities were insufficient to meet the needs of the different medical establishments. It was thought to be as a result of such shortages that a whole new trade in cadavers sprang up throughout the country, one that often attracted the very worst criminal elements, who were prepared to go to any lengths in order to benefit financially from the need for fresh human corpses.
For many of the less reputable suppliers, the most obvious source of fresh human remains was the graveyard, where virtually all the members of local communities ended their days, including the young and old, the weak and the infirm, all of whom were buried in the belief that their grave would be their final resting place until Judgement Day arrived. However, for the Godless and the more desperate of society, those unfortunates who had recently been interred, were often simply regarded as a product to be supplied to an increasingly desperate medical community; the fear of eternal damnation proving little deterrence to the small minority of criminal grave-robbers, who were more concerned about having a few pounds in their pocket than the threat to their immortal soul. Occasionally referred to as resurrectionists, or body snatchers, these grave robbers often made it their business to know who had died within the local community and where their grave was located, so that once the services had been completed and the departed buried, they could then visit the graveyard in the dead of night and disinter the body, which would then be sold to the local anatomist with few questions asked. In some parts of the country, the practice of grave robbing was said to have become so widespread that the authorities began to erect watch towers in the larger churchyards, with wardens being appointed to guard the dead during the hours of darkness, whilst wealthier citizens became so concerned that they began to build well defended mausoleums for themselves and their relatives, which were often surrounded by high metal fences and secured with strong bolts and locks.
One of the major medical training centres in Britain was reported to have been the Scottish city of Edinburgh, where surgeons and doctors from throughout the country would come to learn their trade from some of the brightest and best medical experts in the world. Unlike today however, where doctors are trained and paid for by Britain’s centralised National Health Service, at the time, potential doctors and surgeons were privately funded, either through their own efforts, or through the finances of their wealthy families. Having to pay for their own medical education and training, meant that most students also had to pay to attend the regular anatomy lectures provided by the likes of Dr Robert Knox and Professor Alexander Munro, who would regularly dissect a human cadaver to large audiences, many of whom intended to pursue a career in medicine. It was also the case that the likes of Knox and Munro relied on such lectures to earn their own livings and so therefore regularly vied with one another to attract the greatest number of students on an almost daily basis. As such men relied on the availability of dead bodies in order to undertake their medical lectures, so increasing their student numbers and likewise their fees, it was imperative that they were able to rely on a regular source of cadavers, something that Knox was reported to be very adept at, although not always legally. It was said to be as a result of his continual need for fresh bodied that Knox inadvertently found himself embroiled in what became as the West Port Murders, sixteen illegal killings undertaken by William Burke and William Hare during 1828, which not only resulted in Burke being hanged, but also saw Knox lose his reputation, his livelihood, as well as being forced to leave Edinburgh forever.
The two men responsible for the West Port Murders, William Burke and William Hare, were both natives of Ireland, who for differing reasons and entirely separately had migrated to Scotland, found work on the country’s new canal network, made their ways to the city of Edinburgh, where they eventually met up with one another, to forge a criminal partnership that even today remains notorious. Born sometime around 1792, William Burke was said to have originated from Strabane in County Tyrone, the son of honest hardworking Roman Catholic parents, who were thought to have cared for their son until he was 18-years-old, when he was thought to have joined the Donegal Militia. Reportedly a servant of an officer in the force, it was during his period of service that Burke met and married a young woman, from a good family, who bore him a number of children, all but two of which failed to survive through to the time of Burke’s trial in 1828. Although no reason is given, in around 1817 the former militiaman was said to have left Ireland, leaving his wife and children behind and made his way to Scotland, ostensibly to find himself work and to make a fresh start, something he managed to do after finding work as a navvy on the new Union Canal project that was being constructed there. Settling himself in the town of Maddiston, Burke was reported to have begun a relationship with a local woman, Helen McDougal, who was already living with another man, by whom she had had two children, all three of which she quickly abandoned having thrown in her lot with William Burke. Having left Maddiston together, the couple were then thought to have travelled the countryside, going from town to town and supporting themselves by buying and selling everyday wares, collecting old clothing and shoes, which they subsequently repaired and resold; as well as collecting animal skins and human hair that could be put to various purposes. Eventually though, the pair were said to have arrived in the city of Edinburgh and having become sick of wandering were thought to have taken lodgings at Tanners Close in the West Port district of the city, not far away from where William Hare and his common law wife, Margaret Laird, were running their own lodgings house, known as Logs Lodgings.
Although no specific date for his birth year is known, it is generally thought that William Hare was born sometime between 1792 and 1804 at Poyntzpass, near Newry, in the region of Ireland generally referred to as Ulster. In common with his criminal confederate, William Burke, Hare was said to have spent most of his early adult life in Ireland, before migrating to Scotland, where he subsequently found employment as a labourer on the new Union Canal system, during which time he was said to have struck up a friendship with a man called Logue, who owned a lodgings house in the West Port area of Edinburgh, which he ran with his common law wife, Margaret Laird. Fortunately for Hare, when Logue died in around 1826, he was on hand to console Margaret and very quickly replaced Logue in the woman’s affections, to the extent that most visitors to the lodging house simply regarded them as being husband and wife. A contemporary description of William Hare, written by a reporter at the time, was said to have described him as a brutal looking man, who had a cruel smile and an even more vicious demeanour, especially when he had been drinking, which was a great deal of the time. It was with both of the couples settled in the West Port area of the city towards the end of 1827, or the beginning of 1828 that Burke and Hare were first thought to have encountered one another and having both been born in Ulster and then worked on the Union Canal they were said to have shared a great deal in common, resulting in the two couples spending an increasing amount of time in one another’s company.
Both couples were thought to have struggled to make a living in the city and even though Hare and Laird had a modest income from the Logs lodging house, many of their tenants were thought to have been the very poorest people, who often failed to pay their rent on time and who occasionally had to be forcibly evicted by William Hare. Whilst Burke and McDougal were thought to have continued with their tinkering business, which brought them a modest income, the two couple’s habitual drinking and carousing ensured that they all remained broke for most of the time and were therefore always on the look-out for new ways to make money, even if the practice or business happened to be illegal. The two couples were thought to be in such circumstances at the beginning of 1828, when Hare’s finances suddenly became much more severe, after one of his elderly lodgers, a former soldier called Donald, who owed him more than £4 in rent, died unexpectedly in his bed, leaving Hare and Laird with no real prospect of recovering the money. As he contemplated his misfortune with William Burke, Hare was said to have informed the authorities about the death, who then informed him that they would send someone to collect the body, so that it could be given a Christian burial. However, as they waited for the coffin and its contents to be collected, it was thought that the two men suddenly realised that there was a way in which William Hare could recover his rent money, if he were to sell the dead man’s body to one of the surgeons at Edinburgh University, who they both knew were in dire need of cadavers for their anatomy lectures. Quickly unloading Donald’s corpse from the coffin and replacing its missing weight with bark, Burke and Hare, subsequently hid the corpse in a sack, before securing the coffin once again, just in time for the unsuspecting undertakers to carry it away to the church. Waiting until evening, the two men were then reported to have taken turns to carry the old soldier’s body, in the sack, to Surgeon’s Square at Edinburgh University, where after some discreet enquiries they were directed to the rooms of Dr Robert Knox, the famous anatomists, whose assistants offered to buy the body for the princely sum of £7 10s, which Burke and Hare gratefully accepted.
Despite being pleased with the money and the ease with which it was earned, both men quickly realised that such opportunities would not come so easily, or so often, although they wished that they could. Even though the lodging house often played host to some of the city’s oldest and poorest residents and travellers, the prospect of any of them dying on a regular enough basis to supply the university seemed highly unlikely; and it was perhaps in recognising that fact the two men reached an inevitable conclusion; that the only way for them to guarantee a regular supply of bodies was to provide them in the first place through murder.
In some ways, Burke and Hare were in a perfect position to carry out their murderous plan, as they had easy access to an unknown number of itinerant and transitory people who travelled in and out of the West Port area of the city on an almost daily basis, many of whom were unknown to the local community and would therefore be unmissed if they suddenly and mysteriously disappeared. Although few definitive records actually exist as to the order in which Burke and Hare’s victims were actually killed, most records do tend to agree on the identities of those who were murdered, but not always in the same chronological order, even though such matters are generally academic, when it comes to the nature of their deaths. Anxious to avoid any suspicion that the bodies had been acquired through nefarious means, the two men were thought to have agreed upon a method of killing their chosen victim, which involved the person being plied with drink; and then once incapacitated, they would be suffocated by the killers, a method of murder that left few obvious clues, for anyone other than the most observant medical practitioner, assuming of course that they could be bothered to look for them in the first place. For most of the anatomists and surgeons involved with purchasing bodies from private suppliers, as long as the medic in question retained the right to plausible deniability then many were prepared to buy as many cadavers as they could lay their hands on, just so long as it was not obvious that the person had been illegally killed and the body marred by unexplainable wounds or injuries.
The dead body of the former soldier named Donald aside, the first living victim of Burke and Hare’s new murder scheme was reported to be an unknown English peddler, who was thought to have been visiting the city on business and who became very much the worse for wear through drink. Encountered in the street by Burke, who then engaged him in friendly conversation, the unfortunate man was subsequently persuaded to return to the Logs Lodging House, where he was introduced to William Hare, Helen McDougal and Margaret Laird, who all welcomed him like a long lost friend. As even more drink flowed and the man was fed, so the evening drew on and the couples were thought to have suggested that the stranger stay the night, before resuming his business the following day. Unfortunately for him, with his senses dulled by drink and tiredness, he was thought to have been an easy target for Burke and Hare who very quickly subdued him and having placed his lifeless body in an available box or sack were soon on their way to Surgeon’s Square, where they once again received payment for the new specimen.
Their second murder victim was not so hard to find, as he was reported to be yet another lodger, a man known as John Packman, or Joe Miller, depending on which report one chooses to follow. According to most reports however, the man was residing at the lodging house when he became seriously ill and on the pretext of easing his ailment, Burke and Hare began supplying him with food and drink, for the murderous partners a final meal for a condemned man. Having weakened the mans defences further by plying him with drink, it was then thought to have been a relatively straightforward matter for the two partners in crime to simply subdue the their lodger, whilst either Burke or Hare suffocated the life out of him, after which his corpse was delivered to Dr Knox’s classroom at the nearby university. Even though for most people the sudden appearance of a brand new supplier of human cadavers might have been regarded as suspicious, no doubt the shortage of dead bodies and their continuing importance to Robert Knox’s own livelihood over-rode any ethical questions that might normally have been asked by the purchasers. It also seems likely that Burke and Hare would have already invented some sort of story to address any such enquiries, perhaps suggesting that many of the people had no family to speak of and no money to pay for a Christian burial; as well as implying that the remains would be wasted if they were simply buried in a paupers grave. Either way, even though Knox and his assistants may well have suspected that something was amiss, the fact that the bodies did not bear any signs of violence ensured that few if any real questions about the source of the bodies were ever asked by the university staff.
Their next victim, Elizabeth Haldane, was reported to have been a former tenant of the Logs Lodging House who may well have been evicted by Hare and Laird for failing to pay her rent and who subsequently begged permission from them to sleep in the stables, such was her impoverished state. Unfortunately for her, she was said to have almost immediately become the next target for Burke and Hare, who subsequently plied her with food and drink, before suffocating her as she slept and later delivered her body to the dissection rooms of Robert Knox. In what became a double catastrophe for the Haldane family, at least one person was thought to have noticed Elizabeth’s disappearance, her daughter Peggy, who was said to have called at the Logs Lodging House in search of her mother and rather sadly followed her parent to the lecture rooms of Edinburgh University’s anatomy room a few days later, becoming the murderous partnership’s fifth victim in quick succession.
As they became more confident in their venture, no-one was thought to be safe from their clutches, although the old, weak and young were said to be especially susceptible to the danger posed by the two killers. In one case the pair were reported to have befriended an old Irish woman and her young grandson who they spotted wandering the streets and having promised them a meal, a drink and a bed for the night had quickly persuaded them to accompany them to the lodging house. Once there, the elderly woman was plied with drink and subsequently became their next victim, whilst her blind and deaf grandson was said to have been despatched by having his back broken over one of the murderer’s knees. A few hours later the bodies of their victims were reported to have been delivered to Dr Knox’s lecture rooms, Burke and Hare receiving £8 for each of the corpses, a substantial amount of money for the limited effort they had had to put into their murderous activity.
It was said to be following these deaths that Burke and Hare temporarily fell out with one another, after Hare found out that Burke was killing and selling victims on his own account, thereby depriving Hare of his share of the much needed income. The two men were thought to have argued so furiously over the matter that Burke and McDougal moved out of the Logs Lodging House and back to the rented rooms that they had occupied a few months earlier. However, perhaps recognising that their partnership was both successful and profitable, within a few days the two killers were said to have reconciled their differences and even though Burke and McDougal remained in their new quarters, the two men were very quickly back to their murderous ways. It is perhaps worth pointing out that the killings reportedly committed by Burke on his own account, might well account for later claims that he was in fact involved in anything up to thirty murders, suggesting that he alone might well have been responsible for an additional fourteen killings, although there is no definitive evidence to prove that he did actually commit these crimes.
With their crime partnership restored, the two men’s next victim was said to have been an unknown and unnamed cinder-gatherer that they happened to encounter one day; and who was invited back to the lodging house, with the promise of a meal and a drink. As per their usual routine, the unsuspecting victim was thought to have been plied with drink before being suffocated by the pair, who later the same day were reported to have taken their latest anatomical specimen to Surgeon’s Square where they were handsomely rewarded for their offering.
So desperate were the pair to maintain their ill-gotten income that they would often take significant risks in order to acquire their next victim, even to the point of misleading the police. According to one report, having noticed a drunken woman being arrested by the police, Burke was said to have rushed forward to say that he recognised the woman and asking the officers to release her into his custody, so that he could walk her home. As to whether the woman realised what was going on is unclear, but once again Burke was thought to have promised the drunken woman a meal and a safe place to sleep, before taking her back to Hare’s lodging house, where she suffered the same fate as her predecessors, before being delivered to the anatomist’s lecture theatre for yet another tidy sum.
Unfortunately, such was their desire to enrich themselves at the expense of their fellow citizens that they were said to have become increasingly reckless, something that was evident in the way that they chose their next unwitting victim, a high class prostitute called Mary Patterson, who was said to be extremely well known in the local community. According to some sources, Patterson was in the company of another working girl, Janet Brown, when they were approached by William Burke, who engaged them in conversation, before inviting the two women back to Hare’s lodging house, with the promise of a something to eat. However, within a short time of arriving at the Logs Lodging House, Janet Brown was said to have become disturbed by a violent argument that erupted between William Burke and Helen McDougal; and rather than get involved in the squabble, made her excuses and left. Unfortunately, Mary Patterson decided to remain in the house with her new found acquaintances, completely unaware of their murderous intentions towards her; and having been suitably incapacitated through strong drink, was said to have subsequently suffocated by Burke and Hare, who later delivered her lifeless body to the medical school. Unsurprisingly perhaps, as a relatively well known figure in the local area; and someone who was familiar to many of the gentlemen attending the local medical schools, Patterson’s sudden and unexplained appearance on Dr Knox’s dissection table, almost inevitably led to a great deal of gossip and speculation about her death, creating a level of interest that Knox, Burke and Hare could ill-afford to receive.
Regardless of such ill-thought out homicides however, such was their increasing need for funds that rather than pause and wait for the gossip to subside, Burke and Hare continued with their killing spree, the next reported victim being a generally unknown and unaccompanied country woman, who was persuaded to accept their offer of a meal, a few drinks and a final journey to the anatomist’s table. In fact, such was their greed and the need for even more money that they were even reported to have murdered members of their own extended families, so that they could maintain the lifestyles, which they had become accustomed to. The depth of their depravity was thought to have been perfectly illustrated by the killing of Ann Dougal, a relative of Burke’s common law wife Helen McDougal, who was thought to have been murdered by the pair and her body subsequently sold to Dr Knox at the nearby medical school. She was quickly followed by a woman called Osler, who was similarly ensnared, entertained and killed by the partners, before being delivered to Knox, whose highly popular anatomy classes, were always in need of fresh cadavers to help train the next generation of surgeons and medical students.
Given the fact that few questions had been asked about the source of their cadavers; and that apart from the case of Mary Patterson, few suspicions had been raised about the regular disappearances and deaths of the various individuals, who then turned up on the anatomist’s table, it seems that both Burke and Hare began to become increasingly reckless in their choice of victims. This was particularly true in their targeting of a local man, Jamie Wilson, who was commonly referred to as “Daft Jamie”; and who was well known and generally well liked by most of the community, many of whom were sympathetic to his mental infirmities. According to some reports, Jamie was thought to have been wandering the streets looking for his mother, when he was spotted by Hare, who invited the young man back to his lodging house, possibly by informing Jamie that his mother was there waiting for him. At the same time that Hare was leading Jamie away to the Logs Lodging House, William Burke was thought to have been nearby and seeing his partner in crime lure their next potential victim away from the area, was said to have followed closely behind, remaining at a distance for fear of alarming the young man in a busy public street. Having returned to the lodging house with the unsuspecting young man, Hare was thought to have tried to persuade Jamie to have a drink with him, so that he was easier to overcome when the final assault began, but quickly found that the young man was more than a match for him physically. As Hare struggled to subdue Jamie, he was thought to have been in danger of losing the fight, as the young man’s strength began to tell and it was only with the timely arrival of William Burke that prevented Jamie from escaping the scene and informing the authorities. Unfortunately, with both Burke and Hare subduing him, eventually Jamie was said to have been brought under control and was subsequently suffocated by the two killers, who later transported the young man’s corpse to Dr Knox’s rooms at the university.
However, almost as soon as “Daft Jamie’s” corpse was presented to the waiting assembly the following morning, a murmur of discontent began to ripple around the lecture theatre, as the expectant student body quickly identified the cadaver that lay on the dissecting table before them. Reportedly concerned that the unrest within the room might lead to unnecessary questions about his own part in the young man’s demise, Knox was said to have begun his lecture with a quick and expert dissection of the body’s face, possibly in a vain attempt to disguise the victim’s true identity, which he would later claim was not Jamie Wilson, but some similar looking individual. However, despite his claims, rumours very quickly began to spread around parts of the medical community, which almost inevitably lead to people beginning to question where Knox was sourcing his cadavers from and under what specific circumstances. Unfortunately, in the time that it took for such rumours and innuendoes to reach the ears of the proper authorities, two more people were thought to have lost their lives at the hands of Burke and Hare, who were said to have remained completely unaware of the mounting suspicions that their nefarious activities were causing in the city’s medical and law enforcement communities.
Their penultimate victim was reported to have been an unknown young girl who was murdered by Hare and later delivered to the Dr Knox and his associates for the following day’s medical lecture, seemingly with no concerns being raised about her cause of death, the existence of immediate family members, or her right to a decent Christian burial, etc. However, hers was to be the final such unreported death at the hands of the murderous pair, as almost inevitably their carelessness and indifference to the innate secrecy of their deadly trade, finally came back to punish them, exposing their wrongdoing to the wider world, in all of its naked brutality. Their downfall and exposure was thought to have been eventually brought about by the murder of their sixteenth and final victim, Marjory Docherty, who was otherwise known as Marjory Campbell and who was said to have been lured to the lodging house by Burke, after he told the unfortunate woman that his mother was also a Docherty; leading her to believe that he was a friend, rather than a potential risk. As in most of the other cases, Marjory Docherty was persuaded to accept Burke’s hospitality, not realising that every morsel of food she ate and every sip of liquor she drank was not only bringing her closer to her own imminent death, but also to the anatomist’s knife. As it turned out, Burke and Hare’s plans for the unsuspecting Marjory Docherty were very nearly thwarted by the presence of two law abiding lodgers, James and Ann James, who were staying at the residence, but who were eventually persuaded to go out for the evening with William Burke, thereby allowing Hare to carry out the murder of Docherty. Unfortunately, without Burke to aid him, Hare had been unable to remove the body straight away and so he was forced to conceal the corpse underneath the bed that had previously been occupied by James and Ann James, which ultimately proved to be a grave mistake.
When the James’ returned to the Logs Lodging House the following morning, they were immediately struck by Hare’s reluctance to allow them anywhere near their former accommodations, where Ann James was reported to have mislaid a stocking. Curious at their landlord’s apparent irritation the James’ were said to have waited until later in the day when Hare was out of the building before investigating further; and it was said to be whilst they were searching for the mislaid stocking that they accidentally discovered the dead body of Marjory Docherty, which had been hidden beneath the bed. Aghast at the discovery, the James’ were thought to have gathered their belongings together before fleeing the property, with the expressed intention of reporting their horrifying discovery to the local police. However, as they fled the building, the couple were said to have encountered Helen McDougal, who having learned of their shocking find, tried to buy the James’ silence by offering them a sum of money to keep quiet. Outraged by the offer, James and Ann subsequently made their way to the local police station, where they described the day’s events to the astonished officers, who immediately despatched men to the Logs Lodging House, in order to verify the James’ claims.
Unfortunately, having tried to buy the couples silence and failed, Helen McDougal had not been slow to implement a second plan of action, by summoning both Burke and Hare back to the lodging house, to remove the body as quickly as possible. Consequently, by the time officers arrived at the lodgings to try and substantiate the James’ claims, the body was gone and there appeared to be little to suggest that a murder had taken place. However, not being easily discouraged by their failure to find a corpse, the investigators were said to have interviewed Burke and McDougal separately regarding the disappearance of Marjory Docherty, a tactic that ultimately gave grounds to their earlier suspicions. With Burke and McDougal having had little time to agree a common story about the missing woman, when they were interviewed by officers, both gave differing explanations of when Docherty had actually left the building, giving the police sufficient grounds to arrest them both on suspicion of murder. With Burke and McDougal in custody, it was then reported that the police subsequently received an anonymous tip-off as to the location of the missing woman’s body, information which ultimately led them to the anatomy rooms of Doctor Alexander Knox, where officers found Marjory Docherty’s corpse, all ready for dissection.
It was reportedly as a direct result of this discovery that police later arrested William Hare and his wife Margaret at their lodging house, an event that finally brought an end to the year long campaign of murder that had been perpetrated by the two couples. However, the main problem for the authorities was that much of the case against Burke, Hare and McDougal was circumstantial; and even the press coverage of the case, which had resulted in Janet Brown coming forward to identify items belonging to Mary Patterson, had not provided any sort of concrete evidence that might guarantee a murder conviction against any of the accused. It was said to be as a result of lack of damning evidence that the Lord Advocate, Sir William Rae, was thought to have eventually struck a deal with William Hare, which would see him turn King’s Evidence against William Burke, in return for immunity from prosecution, a deal that was thought to have caused outrage throughout the country. Although in the ensuing court case, little real evidence was brought against Burke’s common law wife, Helen McDougal, who was subsequently released, after the court found the case “not proven”, after a fifty minute deliberation on Christmas Day 1828, William Burke was found guilty of the single specimen charge of murdering Marjory Docherty and was sentenced to hang.
According to several newspaper reports of the time, despite being sentenced to die on the gallows, Burke was thought to have accepted his impending fate with generally good grace, agreeing that he probably deserved his fate, for the crimes that he had committed. His execution on the 28th January 1829 was said to have been extremely well attended, with a huge crowd thronging to watch as the infamous murderer was finally brought to account for his many heinous acts, although the crowd were thought to have been incensed by the fact that his partner in crime, William Hare, was not standing alongside him on the scaffold and sharing his journey into eternal damnation. Having been launched into oblivion, Burke’s lifeless body was reported to have remained hanging from the gallows for some hours, before the authorities ordered it removed to a classroom at the nearby Edinburgh University, where a dissection of the former murderer was to be the highlight of the day’s lecture. Handed over to the possession of Professor Alexander Munro, one of Dr Knox’s leading contemporaries of the day, the professor was said to have used Burke’s cadaver to investigate the subject of the criminal brain, a topic that required the dead man’s head to be cut open and his brain matter exposed to the enthralled ranks of students, doctors, surgeons and the fascinated well-to-do, who had crammed themselves into the small lecture theatre.
Dramatically, as Munro cut through Burke’s flesh, allowing his blood to drain away onto the dissecting table, the professor was said to have taken a pen, dipped it into Burke’s pooling blood and wrote “this is written with the blood of Wm Burke, who was hanged at Edinburgh. This blood is taken from his head.” Outside, the lecture theatre, the thousands of outraged citizens who had watched Burke’s execution were reported to have pushed towards the buildings where the murderer’s body was being exhibited, most of them anxious to witness the fate of the infamous killer, despite the obvious lack of room and the presence of the police officers deployed to keep them at bay. As scuffles broke out and a near riot was threatened outside the lecture room, Munro and the authorities were both keen to avoid any sort of violent confrontation and eventually agreed to open the doors, so that those wishing to do so, could witness the mortal remains of William Burke, as they lay exposed to the watching crowds. Several thousand fascinated and sombre citizens were said to have paraded past the naked figure, as if to satisfy themselves that the monster was indeed dead and perhaps to identify some characteristic or sign that could have or should have marked him out from his fellow citizens, to identify him as a killer, rather than just an ordinary man who turned to murder as a method of employment. Although not specifically reported, some sources tend to imply that Burke’s head had already been skinned and the top of his skull removed in readiness for his brain to be exhibited by Munro, raising the question as to how these thousands of passing witnesses felt as they came face to face with the spectacle that was unfolding before them. Even today, items made from Burke’s skin are thought to exist, whilst his complete skeleton and death mask are still reportedly held at Edinburgh Medical School, as a grim reminder of the man and his grisly crimes.
Despite escaping the King’s justice through offering testimony, or through lack of any real evidence against them, the three remaining members of murder syndicate did not escape the justice of Edinburgh’s native community, many of whom believed that William Hare, Margaret Hare and Helen McDougal should have all shared a similar fate to William Burke. Even Dr Knox was said to have become a target for the angry citizens of Edinburgh, who were reported to have gathered at the university and ripped apart an effigy of the doctor, who many of the demonstrators believed had actively encouraged the serial killers by operating a “no questions asked” policy, when purchasing cadavers from Burke and Hare. Even though Knox and his assistants managed to avoid criminal charges, ostensibly by using a defence of plausible deniability, claiming that they were unaware of how the bodies had been obtained, the scandal was thought to have caused such outrage that eventually the great anatomist’s position in the city became increasingly untenable.
The most significant change though, was the passing of the Anatomy Act in 1832, which allowed the bodies of convicted criminals, paupers and itinerants to be used for medical training and research, providing a much needed increase in the numbers of legitimately sourced cadavers for the country’s thriving medical community. By passing this one Parliamentary Act, the practice of selling illegally obtained corpses was thought to have disappeared quite quickly; at the same time effectively undermining the position of lecturer’s such as Knox, who had built their classes and reputations on a regular availability of fresh corpses, with which to educate and train their student bodies. With their obvious advantage gone and with the legally available cadavers being fairly distributed amongst the various anatomy schools, in the years following the murders, Knox was thought to have found his classes growing smaller and his reputation less celebrated. For the university authorities, the fact that Knox had been involved in the scandal, either knowingly or unknowingly, ensured that he would never again be trusted by the governor’s, who repeatedly refused to entertain any applications from Knox for tenure within the university, effectively forcing the doctor to look elsewhere for full-time employment. Eventually he was reported to have taken up a position at a national cancer hospital in London, where he continued to practice until a short time before his death in 1862.
William Hare was reported to have been held in safe custody by the Scottish authorities until February 1829, when he was then released to build a new life outside of Edinburgh, assuming of course that he could escape his own personal infamy. Although numerous rumours abounded about Hare being seen in various parts of the country, sightings that often resulted in a near riot, there is no definitive explanation of where he travelled, settled, or indeed ended his days. One legend has it that William Hare ended his days as a blind beggar in London, who when he was identified, was thrown into a lime pit, whereas another rumour had him rebuilding his life as a weaver, who settled down into domestic isolation and ended his days as a reputable member of a local community. Similarly, the two women who shared Burke and Hare’s criminal secrets were thought to have been lost in history, with both Helen McDougal and Margaret Hare being hounded out of their Edinburgh homes by violent mobs, to end up who knows where.
Margaret Hare, who was thought to have faced no formal criminal charges, but was purely guilty by association, was said to have returned to her business at the Logs Lodging House, only to be driven out of her home by an angry lynch mob, which was intent on exacting their own revenge on her. According to some accounts, Margaret was thought to have made good her escape and returned to her native homeland of Ireland, but as with everything in the Burke and Hare case, her ultimate fate is entirely a matter of speculation. The fourth and final member of the group, Helen McDougal, was also the victim of the mob mentality and having been driven from her lodging’s, was reported to have returned to her hometown of Stirling, although she was later rumoured to have emigrated to Australia, where she died in obscurity some years later.
Even today, some 183 years after the series of murders took place, the names of Burke and Hare continue to be associated with the crimes of bodysnatching and grave-robbing, even though the two men were not thought to have stolen dead bodies, preferring instead to murder living victims for the anatomist’s table. Quite whether, either Burke or Hare would have killed for motives, other than financial reward is unclear, but most sources seem to suggest that for both men, their prime motivation was for the money they would receive from the likes of Dr Knox, rather than for any other purpose.