The Resurrectionists & Burke and Hare

The Resurrectionists & Burke and Hare

[Burke and Hare]

Most of us have heard the names of Burke and Hare and other awful grave robbing deeds. Their story is a bit different from the usual 'body snatchers' and is a loathsome tale. But the story we usually get is incorrect and often embellished legend. In this essay on the infamous pair, spurred on by the demand for fresh human corpses for dissection, we shall look at the facts of this sinister case.

The Buisness of Grave Robbing: The Resurrectionsts

Doctor's all across Europe in the early 19th century were in great need of bodies for medical school examination and dissection. Physiology and anatomy was a relatively new science, and the only way for the medical experts to clearly study the human body, and to show and teach students, was growing. Most started out using bodies of executed criminals or unknown vagrants who'd died of natural causes. Certain renowned physicians, such as Dr. Cheselden, seeking respectability for this practice, unwittingly set surgery on a darker path.

There were an excess of trainee surgeons, but only a small amount of reasonably fresh bodies to study. Public executions provided only one legitimate source of corpses, (the others being transients who died of natural causes). It therefore, was difficult for students of anatomy to get access to others. The family of the condemned man sometimes tried to get the body back as soon as possible, since in some rare cases it was possible to revive a recently hanged man.

In the public eye, there remained a strong belief that in order to stand a chance of redemption, a corpse should be left intact, undisturbed by what was seen a desecration of human bodies. Most people believed dissection was equivalent to damnation. There were simply not enough bodies supplied by the hangman's gallows or deceased vagrants to meet demand. In some places in Europe, anatomy schools were allowed to take bodies from poor hospitals. In Britain, surgeons had to take more extreme measures. A paper by medical historian, Ruth Richardson, says: "Body snatching started to happen all over the place. Anatomists [had] spawned a new profession: resurrection men." These body snatchers became the plague of the bereaved.

In many graveyards, watchtowers were built within so that people could keep an eye out for body snatchers. The affluent often buried their loved ones with great iron bands around the coffins, and some people were buried within 'mort-safes': fortress graves complete with walls and gates to keep the grave robbers out. Hordes of gang-like resurrection men competed for business as anatomists and doctors competed to find the best suppliers of fresh corpses. As for bodies demand grew, the some took a new and horrific approach to meet the demand. Grave robbing was not new phenomena and as early as 1737 there are recorded accounts of the recently departed being removed from their tombs to be used as dissection studies on the slabs of the Edinburgh Medical Schools. As the study of anatomy progressed in Edinburgh in the early 1800's, it was becoming clear that the allowed allocation of one executed criminal per year to each Anatomy School was insufficient for the growing numbers of new students. The other sources, consensual donations to the school, and dead vagrants were in short supply.

Dr Robert Knox's school of anatomy near Surgeons Hall drew, perhaps, 500 people to the anatomy classes there. So arose the sinister trade of the Body Snatcher and they so excelled at their gory trade they also earned the nickname of the 'resurrectionists'.

The Backstreets of Edinburgh[Back streets near Edinburgh medical schools]
As mentioned, so rife was the Body Snatching in Edinburgh that certain graveyards had large walls, railings and watchtowers erected, such as St. Cuthbert's at the foot of Lothian road and that of the Canon gate Kirk. Some graves had added protection against the exhumation of their occupants by having their own walls and railings, iron locks and bands. The professional credibility that the snatchers, among others, were able to help to establish for surgeons in the 18th century was destroyed in the early 19th century. Grave robbing continued apace. The trade in back street corpses thrived in Edinburgh, then the epicentre of surgical training. The horrified public of Edinburgh condemned the foul trade, but the ambition of certain physicians and Anatomists invariably led to even more hideous methods of obtaining bodies. After all, a freshly delivered corpse to some unscrupulous Anatomists paid very good money, with few questions asked.

Some devised their own sinister methods of supplying the needs of the medical students. Enter Burke and Hare, two of the most infamous of all.

The Background of Burke and Hare
[William Burke]

William Burke (pictured right) and William Hare, two Irish immigrants from Ulster, came to Edinburgh as labourers on the New Union Canal and took up lodgings with Maggie Laird and Nell Macdougal, women of questionable virtue, in the shoddy district of the West Port, near Tollcross. William Burke was 36-years old. He'd spent a lot of time in the army, leaving a wife in Ireland (she refused to come to Scotland) when he came to Scotland to as a 'jack-of-all-trades', before finally settling down into a career crime with Hare.

[Helen Burke]

While lodging at Maddiston during his work on the Canal, Burke met Helen MacDougal, a native Scot who was then, after separating from her legal husband, living with a man with whom she had two children. Burke and MacDougal left Maddiston together after the Canal work was done, apparently leaving the two children behind, and the couple journeyed to Peebles and Leith and then Edinburgh, scraping out a living by working on farms, selling old clothes, and mending shoes.

Sketch of William Hare[William Hare]
William Hare had also journeyed from Ireland to Scotland to work on the Union Canal, although it is not belieed he ever encountered Burke there. After the completion of the Canal, Hare went to Edinburgh and found cheap lodgings in the area known as West Port at the boarding house of a man named Logue and his wife Margaret, who was also an Irish native. When Logue died in 1826, Hare provided enough comfort to the widowed Margaret that they were soon living as common-law husband and wife and running the lodging house as a married couple. Hare never provided a biography as Burke had, but Hare was described in an 1829 issue of Blackwood’s Magazine as:

“the most brutal man ever subjected to my sight, and at first look seemingly an idiot. (His face) when he laughed – which he did often – collapsed into a hollow, shooting up ghastlily from chin to cheek bone – all steeped in a sullenness and squalor…native to the almost deformed face of the leering miscreant…so utterly loathsome was the whole look of the reptile.”

[Margaret Hare]
A hideous looking man, with a cruel smile, Hare lived with his common-law wife, Margaret (Maggie, shown right). When Burke and McDougal moved to Edinburgh, they took up residence in West Port and by chance encountered Margaret Hare one day, who invited them back to the boarding house and introduced them to her husband. Soon after, Burke and McDougal became paying lodgers of the Hares. The four of them would quarrel often and might not accurately be described as friends, but they bonded by a shared fondness for whisky and the desire to make easy money – no matter the method. Burke eventually became a permanent boarder.

Burke and Hare Ply their Deadly Trade

In November of 1827, one of Hare’s lodgers, an old army pensioner named Donald, fell ill and died. Hare was annoyed, as he owed rent from the deceased. So they concocted a nefarious plan to pinch the man's body and substitute weighted wood in his coffin. After the authorities had been called to fetch the man’s body, Hare came up with a plan to get the money Donald owed him. With Burke’s assistance, they took Donald’s body out of the coffin and replaced it with an equal weight of tree bark and hid the corpse until the coffin had been taken away. The two then went off to find the offices of anatomy instructor Professor Munro, but, in asking directions, were redirected to the classrooms of Professor Robert Knox. Knox’s assistants said that they were interested in the body, and to bring it after nightfall. That night, they covertly contacted the medical school and arranged a meeting, knowing the school's need of a body for students to dissect in school classes. Three of Knox’s assistants examined the body and offered to pay a little over £7 for it. The two men quickly agreed, and left the doctor’s rooms discussing the obvious advantages of this method of making easy amounts of money with so little effort.

Although giving the appearance of two hard workingmen by day, at night they had taken up their more sinister and profitable trade of providing fresh corpses to Anatomists, who were bereft of the need of asking too many questions. The murderers supplied fresh corpses to, among others, Robert Knox, a celebrated anatomist and the most popular lecturer at the city's Medical School, who did, it is said, attracted as many as 500 students per class.

Hare and Burke did not spend their money for the body wisely, and soon were looking for new victims. To their luck, or by ill misfortune, another of Hare's boarders became sick days later. In their warped justification, they decided the man must be suffering and they must put him out of his misery. They even felt they were kind to him, giving him whiskey and food. One supposes that they justified this first killing as an act of mercy for a dying man. After consuming the offerings, he was soon drunk and passed out. The two suffocated him, pinning him down and covering his nose and mouth. The poor man was immediately sold off to the medical school, saying he died of illness or of drunkenness. Soon after he was cashed in, another victim, this time a lady that Hare's wife brought home, became the next corpse for sale. Although no one is quite certain whether or not she knew what was going on, she did fill the woman with whisky and called for her husband. Within hours, the woman was on the medical school's doorstep. No marks were on either to indicate foul play, murder or otherwise. This ritual of Burke and Hares continued many times for 11 months.

They Expand Their Nefarious Activities

The remaining boarders were all healthy and the duo of death began plotting where else they might go to get bodies? In February of 1828, elderly Abigail Simpson traveled into Edinburgh to collect her pension money. She started back home with a few shillings in her pocket when she met up with William Hare, who invited her to his lodging house to have a dram and rest up before her long journey home. She agreed and soon Burke and Helen joined her and the Hares and they all drank until the evening. Being dark and cold, Abigail was easily persuaded to stay the night and then continue home the following morning. Burke and Hare had other ideas for her, but they were also so inebriated that they both fell asleep. They supplied her with her ample alcohol, conversation and finally she passed out. They next moring the plied her with more whisky, and when she was too drunk too resist, they smothered her quickly and delivered her to Dr. Knox that evening. They took her body down and received almost double their previous payment, due to the freshness of her body. This is when the first of the suspicious disappearances occurred.

[Getting paid for a corpse, right]

[Selling the corpses to anatomists] Burke and Hare were delighted at how easy it was to make good money, and this was the beginning of a roller coaster of murder, inhumanity and greed.

Now, their victims were the waifs, strays and prostitutes on the streets of Edinburgh's Old Town, very few people, if any, would miss. They took to hanging out in Inns, such as the White Hart in the Grassmarket, where they would try to spot their potential victims and lure them away. Once done, they would use their own form of strangulation and suffocation. The victims of the gruesome crime were said to have been sold to anatomist Dr. Knox 'no questions asked' to be dissected on the tables within the school.

On the morning of April 9, 1828, 18-year-old West Port prostitutes Mary Paterson and Janet Brown began their day by heading to a local tavern. While drinking their first whiskies of the day, they encountered William Burke, who invited them back to his house for breakfast. Mary readily agreed, but Janet took more convincing. Yet soon all three went off to Burke’s brother’s home, where the drinking continued and they had breakfast. Mary fell asleep at the table, and so Burke asked Janet to accompany him to another tavern, where Janet drank more but did not become inebriated. Burke took her back to his brother’s house and offered her more drink, but was surprised by a sudden appearance of Helen, who screamed at Burke and Janet. A fight ensued as Burke shouted back and eventually threw Helen out -- Mary apparently continued to sleep through the violence. Janet, upset by the incident, prepared to leave, although Burke tried several times to convince her to stay. Janet refused, but said she would return after Helen, who was still screaming and cursing from outside the door, had left. Instead of going home, Janet stopped by the lodging house of a Mrs. Lawrie, with whom she and Mary had once lodged. Janet told Lawrie of the day’s events, and the landlady became concerned for Mary’s safety and told Janet and one of her servants to return to Hare’s and fetch Mary back immediately. When she returned she was told that her friend went out with Burke and would return later, so she sat and waited. By good fortune her landlady sent a servant to fetch Janet, comcerned for her safety. Eventaully, heeding the advice, Janet gave up and left. She had been spared the fate of her friend. Her friend had been killed and sold to the medical school. Again, they were paid, with little heed payed to these new aquisitions.

Weeks later, Burke murdered a woman he knew, and the body was again sold to the university, and he profited once more. Later, in a brazen move, Burke saw the police taking a woman into custody. She was very drunk and Burke insisted he knew her (although it was a lie) and that he would take her home. She never arrived home but, rather, ended up being another educational experiment for university students. Now the greed was gaining hold on the two and soon they searched again and found an old woman and a young deaf boy with her. Burke took them back to the inn for drinks. They suffocated the old woman but were uncertain what to do with the grandson. With cold and deliberate logic, they wrestled with the young man, Hare holding him over Burke's knee, breaking his back. The terrible duo then handed them both in for cash.

When Burke learned that Hare was starting to kill and selling the victims without Burke, arguments broke out and Burke soon moved out. However, this did not stop their horrific alliance. Despite now living apart, they still needed more and more money, and continued nocturnal deliveries to the school to sell the bodies. An old friend came to visit Burke and ended up on the operating slab.

Hare and Burke Get Careless

Another woman soon followed. Mary Paterson, high-class prostitute (she's been suggested as having serviced the gentry -- even some of the university staff) was lured and murdered, and her daughter, possibly knowing too much about her mother's disappearance, soon followed her mother to the medical schools lab. This particular lady was rather well known, and people started to talk in open tones about her strange absence. Burke and Hare had become cocky and careless in their zeal for more bodies and money. When they brought the body to Dr. Knox’s, several of his students recognized her, probably from having hired her services previously. Burke and Hare chose not to elaborate on how they came into possession of the body, and Dr. Knox (some say his doorman) stated that her body was so good a specimen that “many of the students took sketches of it, one of which is in my possession. She was a fine specimen of a woman.”

There has always been speculation, (possibly well founded) that both Margaret and Helen knew of the killings. Although Hare and Burke would later swear that neither Margaret nor Helen knew anything about the murders, the next "aquisition” brings their assertion into doubt. One day Margaret Hare encountered an old woman out in the streets of Edinburgh and brought her back to her house where she began giving the woman whisky. Margaret told the woman she should lie down, but the old woman declined and kept drinking. After several attempts, Margaret finally got the woman to rest in the bed, then quickly sent for her husband and Burke, who later appeared at Dr. Knox’s doorstep that evening with a fresh delivery: an old woman.

Daft Jamie

Unwisely for them, they chose another noted character for their next victim, which got people talking even more. Eighteen year old James Wilson, known as “Daft Jamie” in the West Port neighborhood, was a well-known local character. He entertained local children with riddles and jokes and he lived on the streets or with kind souls who would offer him shelter -- although he frequently visited his widowed mother. Many called him a simpleton, but his heart was great. His only prize possessions were a snuffbox and snuff spoon that had seven holes in it that Jamie used as a calendar to tell the day of the week.

Sketch of Daft Jamie[Daft Jamie] In early October of 1828, Hare came across Jamie wandering the streets, looking for his mother (although some versions say Margaret was the one who found him). Hare told him that he knew where his mother was and invited him back to his house to wait for her. Burke was in a local tavern and watched the two go by and observed Hare “lead poor Jamie in as a dumb lamb to the slaughter and as a sheep to the shearers.” Hare, rashly not seeming to care that Daft Jamie might be missed, picked him up, took him to his home where he was met by Burke. They tried to force Jamie to drink but he resisted. After a stubborn fight, Daft Jamie even pinned Burke to the floor when Burke cried out for Hare to help him. After a surprising tough resistance, the two managed to kill the poor lad. Concerned and having been looking for her son, she soon found his corpse at the medical school. Now the connection was becoming clear. Although though Burke and Hare vehemently denied it was Jamie, other students identified the body and thus verified that they were lying. There was public outrage, as poor Jamie was seen as a defenseless boy.

The Final Murder

The last murder was committed on Halloween morning. Burke was taking his usual morning whisky in his local tavern when an old woman entered and began talking with the patrons. Noticing that she had an Irish accent, Burke bought her a dram and she sat down and said that she was Mary Docherty from Innisowen. Burke said that his own mother was a Docherty from Innisowen, and that they must be related. Having established this bond, he easily persuaded the old woman to come to his house. The visitor was warmly received by Helen and by a couple, James and Ann Gray, who were lodging with Burke and Helen. Burke convinced Docherty to stay overnight with them, and arranged for the Grays to spend that night at the Hares’ lodging house. The arrangements being settled, everyone drank in celebration of Halloween, and the whisky flowed long past nightfall. The Grays eventually left, but were told to return for breakfast the next morning.

The festivities continued and neighbours later claimed to have heard dancing and drinking and arguments coming from Burke and Helen’s rooms. Around midnight, an upstairs neighbor was passing by Burke and Helen’s door and heard two men arguing and a woman’s voice calling out “Murder!” and “Get the police, there is murder here!” The man ran back into the street but could not find a policeman. Passing by the door again, the man stopped but heard nothing, so he assumed the crisis was over and went up to his own rooms.

The following morning, the Grays returned and found Mary Docherty was gone. They asked after her and Helen told them that she threw the old lady out for being “overly friendly” with Burke. Ann Gray later went near the spare bed to get some socks she had left behind, but Burke shouted at her to stay away from the bed. Burke yelled at her a second time when she went near the bed in order to fetch some potatoes. In the early evening, the Grays found themselves momentarily alone in the house, so Ann Gray took a peek and saw the body of an old woman lying beneath the bed. Both Grays bolted from the house, running into the returning Helen, who asked where they were going. James Gray was outraged and asked Helen what she knew about the body. Helen panicked and begged them not to say anything, claiming that their silence would be worth £10 a week. This further incensed the Grays, and James chastised Helen for “bringing disgrace upon her family” and the couple set out to fetch a policeman.

The Law Closes In on the Infamous Duo

Sketch of the Trial[Trial of William Burke]
Helen and Margaret quickly went off to warn their spouses, and were fast enough that when the police arrived at Burke and Helen’s that night, there was nobody in the house. A neighbor told the police that two men had recently left the house carrying a tea chest. Burke and Helen returned home soon after, and innocently asked what the matter was. The police separated the two and asked them individually what had become of the old woman who had been there the previous night. Burke, feeling confident that he and Helen had their alibis in synch, stated that Mrs. Docherty had left their home at seven o’clock that morning. Helen agreed that she had left at seven o’clock, but claimed that the woman had left at 7:00 in the evening. This 12-hour discrepancy was suspicious enough that Burke and Helen were taken in for more questioning. An anonymous tip led the police to Dr. Knox’s classrooms, where Docherty’s body was found and James Gray positively identified it.

The police soon moved in and found more evidence against Burke and Hare. The Hares soon joined Burke and Helen in prison, and the police began to slowly unravel the disappearances of so many people from West Port during the previous eleven months.

Each gave conflicting stories and blamed each other. Hare said that William Burke and Helen were the murderers. Burke said that he saw a stranger do the last murder who he named as "William Hare". The masses wanted Dr. Knox put on trial as well.

Hare Turns on Burke

William Hare[William Hare]
The Lord Advocate, however, was in a quandary about how and whom to prosecute. As there had been no eyewitness to any of the actual killings, the entire case depended on circumstantial evidence which, even including the Grays’ testimony and Janet’s identification of Mary Paterson’s clothing, was weak at best. He also suspected that Helen and Margaret were secondary players (a huge, and seemingly incorrect assumption) and that neither would testify against her male counterpart. After one month of vacillation, under the assumption that Burke had been the leader of the two men, a deal was made where William Hare would receive immunity if he testified against Burke and Helen. Hare readily agreed, and soon after Burke and Helen were both charged with the murder of Mary Docherty (Burke was also charged with the killings of Daft Jamie and Mary Paterson), and their trial began on Christmas Eve.

[William Burke]
Christmas morning the jury deliberated for only fifty minutes and came back with their verdicts: Burke was guilty and Helen was freed by the uniquely Scottish “not proven” verdict. On hearing the news, Burke reportedly cried and embraced Helen, saying, “you are out of the scrape!” (Burke, sketched at right).

On being released, Helen went back to the house she had shared with Burke, where an angry mob found her and the police had to be summoned so she could escape. She left Scotland for England, but news of the murders had spread as far south as Newcastle, and police once again had to protect her from vigilantes in that city. After Newcastle, it is not known what became of her, although lore states that she went to Australia and died there in 1868.

Margaret Hare also disappeared. After her release, she escaped angry mobs in Glasgow and Greenock, and is believed to have eventually journeyed back to Ireland.

William Hare was released in early February of 1829, but did not meet up with Margaret. The last known sighting of him was south of the English town Carlisle, although a popular later tale tells of his being blinded by a mob who threw him into a lime pit, and of him becoming a beggar on the streets of London. He was never seen or heard from after his release.

Was Dr. Knox Involved?

Sketch of Dr. Knox[Anatomist, Dr. Knox]
Although perceived now as grave robbers or body snatchers, Burke and Hare's corpses had never been buried. Indeed, the victims (sometimes brought in) had never left the guesthouse which the two men ran, and where they were suffocated, strangled or asphyxiated. Experts believe that Dr. Knox must have known that the corpses he was receiving had met a murderous end, but callously he turned a blind eye. Medical historian, Ruth Richardson says:

"If Knox was as brilliant an anatomist as everybody said, he should have had some knowledge that these bodies had been killed."

For this reason, once the murderers were discovered, and that Dr. Knox went unpunished, without so much as making an apology, caused outrage. Demonstrations against him in Edinburgh turned to rioting. His effigy was ripped apart as an indication of what the people felt the surgeons did to the dead. Parliament was forced to act, and the Anatomy Act of 1832 put an end to grave robbing and collecting bodies, especially by murder! Unclaimed bodies from the poor house continued to be made available for anatomists to practice on until this day.

Burke Executed

Deathmask of William Burke[Deathmask of William Burke]
William Burke was hanged in 1829 and the public made demands that the doctor that accepted the bodies, and Hare, suffer the same fate. William Hare was released and was never seen again (except for the alleged sighting). The doctor (Knox), was not charged, and continued at the school but was rejected from others he applied for. He eventually moved and worked in a Cancer research institute.

It is believed that William Burke and William Hare are responsible for the deaths of between 13-30 (some say 16 as an absolute number, but it is likely more) people, but oddly, Burke was the only one prosecuted -- and then only for the murder of Mrs. Docherty. William Hare and Maggie Laird turned King's evidence against him and Nell Macdougal.

[William Hare's lifemask, made in prison]

[William Hare's lifemask, made in prison, shown right]

The Aftermath and Legacy

An expression was coined from these atrocious murders as in 'to burke' or to 'Burke-ing', someone was to kill them by smothering. When Burke was hanged on 28 January 1829 before a large crowd, which was said to be chanting '"Burke him, Burke him". Nell MacDougal escaped prosecution, as the case against her lacked proof despite the fact that she seems to have known about it. No charges were ever brought against the Surgeon Dr. Knox as being the recipient of the bodies for dissection within the school and William Hare is said to have died a penniless pauper in London in 1858, but in many ways, he got away with murder.

There is curious mention still of them today and how they were the best, or worst, resurrectionists ever in Europe. Plays, musicals, and movies were made based on their horrific tales. And finally, the West Port murders have entered the timeless culture of children’s folklore. Threats of visits from Burke and Hare are used by some parents to discipline unruly children, and the pair are even prominently featured in a couple of sing-song rhymes that accompany children’s jump rope and hopscotch games:

Up the close and down the stair,
In the house with Burke and Hare.
Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief,
Knox, the boy who buys the beef.

Burke and Hare,
Fell down the stair,
With a body in a box,
Going to Dr. Knox.

Rhymes are still made then and now, and the story is still told: often more as folklore than fact.

Select Bibliography:

Douglas MacGowan, Infamous Scottish Criminals, 1999
Brian Bailey, The Terror of the Ghouls, 2001
Douglas, Hugh. Burke and Hare: The True Story. London: The Quality Book Club, 1973.
Roughead, William. Burke and Hare. Edinburgh and London: W. Hodge & Company, Ltd., 1921.
Edwards, Owen Dudley; Burke & Hare, Edinburgh : Polygon Books, 1981
Barzun, Jacques; Burke and Hare, the resurrection men; Metuchen, N.J. : Scarecrow Press, 1974. Gunn, Robert; Thesis paper: "Infamous villians of Scottish History", University Press, 1992

Other related reading:
  • The Terrible Tale of Sawney Bean
  • Witchcraft in medieval Scotland

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