This is the story of two men who murdered almost thirty people – for a good cause.
Back in 1823, the British Parliament’s Judgement of Death Act saw capital punishment figures drop dramatically.
Good news for criminals; bad news for science.
At the time, the only bodies legally approved for dissection were criminals, suicide victims and unclaimed orphans – so the medical profession found itself facing a cadaver shortage for anatomical research.
Medical schools began offering serious money for fresh corpses. As a consequence, grave-robbing became a very lucrative criminal enterprise. So lucrative that watch towers were constructed inside cemeteries, iron cages were installed over graves and armed guards were even hired to patrol cemeteries at night.
Two notorious Irishmen solved this problem; they stole the bodies before they were dead.
William Burke and William Hare were navvies who originally came to Edinburgh in Scotland to work on the Union Canal. They met when Burke and his mistress Helen McDougal moved into lodgings in Tanner’s Close. Hare lived on the same street, where he ran a boarding house with a woman called Margaret Laird.
When one of Hare’s tenants, an elderly pensioner called ‘Old Donald’, died owing £4.00 in rent, Hare decided to recover the debt by selling the corpse to Professor Robert Knox, an anatomy lecturer at Edinburgh University. He got seven pounds and ten shillings, thus turning a handy profit.
It might have ended there, and no one would have known. But of course, it didn’t.
Instead, it gave Hare an idea …
When another tenant named Joseph took ill, but selfishly refused to die, Hare suggested to his new friend Burke that they could help Nature along and also make some easy money for themselves. One of them held Joseph down while the other suffocated him with a pillow. This method left the body unblemished for anatomical study. (The practice later became known as ‘Burking’.)
Joseph’s remains proved to be another nice earner.
Burke and Hare’s lodgers came and went quickly. Knox was offering between seven to ten pounds for a good corpse.
But soon the pair became careless.
They started to look elsewhere for prospective corpses. A poor fellow known as ‘Daft Jamie’ might have been an easy mark, but he was also a well-known character around the city. When Knox pulled back the sheet covering his latest cadaver, several of the students recognized him.
Knox said no, this can’t be Jamie, and quickly removed the young man’s head and feet. Jamie’s feet were deformed and caused him to walk with a distinctive limp. Knox thus rendered the remains unidentifiable.
But the story got around and people began to gossip.
The pair’s final victim was one of Burke’s tenants, a woman called Marjory Docherty. Two of his other lodgers became suspicious when they discovered her body stuffed under a bed. This, as they say, was a vital clue.
They called the police but by the time they arrived, Marjory’s body had already been sold to Knox. But Burke and Hare, and their mistresses, Helen McDougal and Margaret Laird, were arrested. They gave conflicting accounts of what had happened, with Burke and Hare each blaming each other.
The police finally discovered Marjory’s body in Knox’s lecture hall, and another tenant identified clothes found at Hare’s lodging house as those belonging to another missing woman, Mary Patterson. But police still did not have enough hard evidence to secure a murder conviction, so Hare was offered immunity in return for testifying against the others.
Based on his testimony, Burke was convicted of murder and sentenced to death by hanging. The complicity of the two women was deemed ‘not proven’ under Scottish Law. They fled and were never heard from again.
But the public didn’t approve of Hare’s immunity deal. He was described at the time as “evidently the greatest villain of the two”.
On his release, he had to be rescued from an angry mob. The police spirited him to safety across the border using decoy coaches and disguises. It is said that he lived out the rest of his days as a blind beggar in London, but that might just be wishful thinking.
Knox was cleared of his involvement in the murders, but his reputation was ruined, and he fled Edinburgh.
And William Burke?
He was hanged at Lawnmarket in front of a boisterous, cheering crowd of over 25,000 on 28 January 1829. After being put on public display, his body was … donated to medical science.
If you enjoyed this post, get one just like it straight to your email every week. Subscribe here.
If you like crime stories and crime fiction as much as I do, then you might like my new detective series with Di Charlie George. It’s published by Little, Brown in London. Here’s a short two minute video I produced for the Australian sales team – starring Charlie and George …