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Nowadays, we can boast about the fact that Edinburgh is one of the safest cities in the UK -and we’re not making up things, that is the perception of 91% of its residents, according to a recent survey (http://www.edinburghnews.scotsman.com/news/crime/edinburgh-wins-title-of-uk-s-safest-destination-1-3536909).

However, it wasn’t the same for the people who lived here 200 years ago, in a city so polluted that it was familiarly known as Auld Reekie (“The Old Chimney”). Crime ran rampant, and everybody was looking for opportunities to get money -even if they had to resort to murder to earn it.

In this grim atmosphere, two men appeared like characters taken from a penny dreadful magazine, that would shake a tough city like Edinburgh to its core.

Ladies and gentlemen, hold on to your seats, and enjoy the real story of Burke and Hare in five acts.

Act 1: A Cry in the Night

October, 1828. It is another night at the Hare’s lodging house, located in Tanner’s Close, Edinburgh. Except that this very night everything will change at the capital, who will be taken aback  by the headlines some days later.

William Burke and William Hare, tenant and owner respectively of the lodging house, are killing Marjorie Campbell Docherty, using the technique known as “burking” in their honor: one of them sits on the victim’s chest, while the other suffocates him (or her) with his hand. It leaves no signs of a violent death, and it allows them to live confortably enough to not work.


Burke and Hare in action. Unknown author.

But this night, neighbours could hear Mary Campbell’s cry for help: “Murder!”, and became suspicious. The other tenants at the lodging house, the Grays, had the chance to look under Burke’s bed the next day, where they found her corpse. Thanks to them, the police arrested these serial killers, who were terrorising the population of Edinburgh.

But who were these gentlemen, and what was the purpose of their crimes?

Act 2: A Doctor named Robert Knox

doctor knox

Dr Robert Knox, unknown author. Circa 1830.

Ten months ago.

Robert Knox, a former army surgeon at Waterloo and a local anatomist who works at the Edinburgh University, is in serious need of corpses to study. Until 1832, it was difficult to find enough cadavers to dissect. The only legal way to get them was to wait for the executions, for criminals’ bodies weren´t given the benefit of a proper burial. Unfortunately for Dr. Knox, executions have dropped drastically (pardon the pun) in the nineteenth century. This means that Dr. Knox and their students can only get 2 or 3 corpses per year.

But where there’s a problem, there’s always a solution, and Dr. Knox soon gets the help of two gently Irishmen who are able to provide him with more corpses than he could have ever imagined. He pays them £7.10 for each, and doesn’t ask questions, just in case they are stealing them from the cemeteries.

Their names are Burke and Hare.

Act 3: Two Irish Gentlemen

William Burke and William Hare have a thriving business, but they’re not famous -although they will be soon.

It all started when Joseph the Miller, a sick tenant living at Margaret and William Hare’s house, proved to be a very easy victim. All they needed to reduce him was whisky and a strong hand. Nobody suspected a thing, because Joseph’s health was delicate.

When William Burke (1792 – 28 January 1829) and William Hare (1792-?) left Ireland, neither of them would imagine their future life in Edinburgh. The Hare’s house was the place were they met and became friends and partners in crime.

burke and hare

Hare and Burke, unknown author. Circa 1850.

Joseph the Miller owed Hare £4 rent, so when they murdered him they decided to steal his corpse and sell it to the University, following the steps of the body-snatchers, also known as resurrectionists, that plagued the cemeteries of Edinburgh in search of a corpse, desecrating the tombs. The only difference was that they weren’t stealing the corpses -they were creating them.

When they saw the money they could make, there was no way back. They ended up killing three men, twelve women, and one child, without remorse. The victims were given whisky and a good conversation at the lodging house, but since it was very difficult to find sick ones, they had to be forceful on them.

Act 4: Crime and Punishment

Nobody seemed to notice the dissapereances, until they chose James Wilson, “Daft Jamie”.

Jamie, an eighteen-year-old mentally disabled man, was very well-known in Edinburgh, to the point that several students of Robert Knox recognized him at the dissection table. Knox denied that the corpse belonged to the boy, and dissected it himself, so nobody could claim it was Jamie.

daft jamie

Daft Jamie, unknown author. Circa 1828.

While Hare disposed of the victim’s clothes, Burke gave Jamie’s ones to his nephews, a fact that later would become an evidence against him.

The last victim, in October, is Mary Campbell. The lodgers, James and Ann Gray, have left that night, so Burke and Hare are sure that they can get away with murder one more time.

However, the next day, the Grays frustrate their chance to get more money, when they find Mary Campbell’s corpse under Burke’s bed and denounce the pair to the police.

What follows is a treason: Lord Advocate Sir William Rae offers Hare immunity if he confesses and agrees to testify against Burke. It is Hare´s testimony which leads Burke to the gallows, where he will be executed in January 1829.

execution of burke

The execution of Burke, as depicted on a contemporary newspaper.

Act 5: The Remains of the Day

After being hanged, in an ironic twist of events, Burke’s body served the anatomists, who used it to make a dissection at the Edinburgh Medical College, as it had happened with the corpses of his victims. Alexander Monro, the dissecting professor, dipped his quill in the blood and wrote: “This is written with the blood of Wm Burke, who was hanged at Edinburgh. This blood was taken from his head.” Burke’s skeleton was preserved and displayed at the college´s museum, where it can be seen nowadays.

burke's skeleton

Burke’s skeleton. Source: http://www.natural-history-conservation.com 

What is more interesting and disturbing, perhaps, is the wallet made from his own skin, which is displayed at The Cadies and Witchery Tours, a shop in Victoria Street, Edinburgh.

burke wallet

Wallet made with Burke’s left hand skin, at The Cadies and Witchery Tours, Edinburgh

As for Hare, he suffered a reversal of fortune: after being released in February 1829, he fled to London, where he ended his days as a blind beggar.

Hare´s wife, Margaret, and Burke’s mistress, Helen M´Dougal, couldn’t be accused, as there was no evidence against them, but they were forced to leave Edinburgh as well. Both of them were mobbed wherever they went.

As for the unscrupulous Dr Robert Knox, he continued to make deals with body-snatchers. After being rejected at the Edinburgh Medical School, he moved to the Cancer Hospital in London, where he died in 1862.


The Worlds of Burke and Hare: http://burkeandhare.com/

Edinburgh History: http://www.edinburgh-history.co.uk/burke-hare.html