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Burke and Hare: legendary Scottish grave robbers

Hard working Ulster immigrants by day, scheming murderers by night - William Burke and William Hare were a unique pair of criminals who made a profit from providing dead bodies to the anatomy students of 19th century Edinburgh.


Edinburgh's population of university students and practicing anatomists created a unique market for fresh corpses that prompted Burke and Hare to enter into an illegal trade.


Acting on a strict code of 'no questions asked', the financial rewards of Burke and Hare's crimes led to a series of 16 murders spanning a period of just under a year. And had the two criminals not allowed their greed to consume them, they may never have been caught.

Murder for money


In early 19th century Britain, the law stated that only the bodies of executed criminals could be used for autopsy purposes. But with the ever-growing popularity of anatomy studies, the demand for fresh corpses soon outstripped the supply and grave robbing became common practice among criminals who wanted to earn an easy pound.


Murder for money is not an original concept by any means, but Burke and Hare had a new perspective on killing for financial gain. Unusually, they had little interest in the wealth of their victims, all they needed was a fresh corpse to sell.


Burke and Hare are reported to have first met in Edinburgh, after both men had left their native Ireland to work on the Union Canal in Scotland. However, it was not until Burke moved from Leith to West Port, with his partner Helen McDougal, that he and Hare actually met. Hare had settled at a boarding lodge with a recently widowed woman named Margaret, the two had struck up a relationship soon after her husband's death and they ran the lodge as if they were a married couple.


After a chance meeting, it was Margaret who introduced Helen and Burke to her partner and the couple soon became paying lodgers. The two couples were never the best of friends, but their love for drinking and easy moneymaking schemes made them a murderous match. Ultimately, their real dislike for one another would lead to their downfall.

In 1827, one of Hare's lodgers, an old man named Donald, fell ill and died. His death was of no real concern to Hare except that Donald owed him £4 in rent. Such was Hare's anger that he began to consider how the dead man could pay off his debt. Aware of the demand for corpses by anatomists, Hare hatched a plan.


On the day of the funeral, Burke and Hare took Donald's body from the coffin and replaced it with a sack of bark. Later in the day they removed the body from the house and took it to the anatomy offices of Professor Robert Knox. They were asked to return after nightfall and on doing so, they were paid 7 pounds 10 shillings for their efforts.


This ready cash made the pair contemplate a risky, but ultimately effortless, moneymaking scheme. Grave robbing was labour intensive and the quality or freshness of a corpse was not guaranteed. However, committing the murder themselves would be an easy way to ensure the supply of fresh quality corpses for sale.


They didn't have to look very far for their first victim.


Another of Hare's lodgers, a miller named Joseph, had fallen ill not long after Donald's death. Though he was not seriously ill, Burke and Hare took it upon themselves to put an end to his suffering.


After several glasses of whiskey with the two men, Joseph passed out. And by holding his nose and mouth closed whilst the other restrained him, Burke and Hare had, by chance, discovered their very own signature murder method. By suffocating the victim, they provided the anatomy students with the fresh, undamaged cadavers that they needed.


From then on, their victims ranged from sickly lodgers to old prostitutes and in the first four months of 1828 their killings were limited to nameless individuals that would cause no questions to be asked.

A close call


However, in April 1828, local prostitutes Mary Paterson and Janet Brown were out drinking and met up with Burke. He invited them back to his brother's where they continued to drink.


While Mary slept off her excessive drinking, an argument broke out causing Janet to leave. She told Burke that she would return for Mary later and went to visit her old landlady Mrs Lawrie. After relaying the morning's events to her old friend, Mrs Lawrie became seriously concerned for Mary's safety and told Janet to return for her at once.


A servant accompanied Janet to the Burke's, but on arrival they were told that both Burke and Mary had gone out. Janet insisted on waiting at the lodgings and asked the servant to return to Mrs Lawrie and tell her the news.


Still suspicious of the whole affair, Mrs Lawrie sent the servant straight back to the Burke's and suggested that Janet must leave. By this time Mary's body was already on the way to Dr. Knox, but thanks to Mrs Lawrie's warning, Janet had escaped a similar fate.

Following Mary and Janet's visit to the Burke's house, the next five victims were deliberately chosen so that they wouldn't be recognised by the students and the local community. And it was around this time that the two couples fell out. Burke (pictured right) accused Hare of supplying Knox with bodies behind his back and it was agreed that Helen and Burke would move out on their return from visiting Helen's relatives.


Once they returned, Burke and Hare's greed and apparent laziness drove them to kill much closer to home, this time they picked Ann McDougal, a relative of Helen's, who was lured to the lodging house and killed. Whilst Burke had no qualms about Ann's final demise, he did ask Hare to carry out the killing.


Carelessly, their next three victims were central to the local community and therefore easily recognised by the paying students who attended Dr. Knox's classes.


Mary Haldane was an ageing local prostitute who agreed to partake of a dram at Hare's lodgings. On being told that her mother had been seen with Hare, Mary's daughter Peggy decided to pay his lodgings a visit. On arrival, Hare said that Mary had visited, but had left. He then invited Peggy in for a drink and before long she joined her mother at Dr. Knox's. Both bodies fetched £10 each.


The neighbourhood grew suspicious at these disappearances. Mary and Peggy were familiar faces, but the risk taking didn't end there. Known as 'Daft Jamie', James Wilson was a local entertainer and extremely popular with children. Easily recognised by his deformed foot, he caused quite a stir at Dr Knox's class, yet despite several enquiries, Dr Knox strongly denied that the body was that of James Wilson. The events proceeding their final killing undoubtedly led to the downfall of Burke and Hare. And had their new lodgers James and Ann Gray been of a similar moral disposition, they may have joined the foursome in their criminal careers.


Mary Docherty met with Burke by chance on the morning of Halloween 1828, having convinced her that she and his mother were related to Mary, she returned to the lodgings with Burke for a drink. Burke offered her a room and the Grays were moved out and given a room at the Hare's.


Late that night after drinking and dancing, the Burke's neighbours claimed they heard arguments at the Burke's and a voice calling 'murder'. They set off in search of a policeman, but having no luck and hearing no more shouting, they decided to go home.


The next morning the Grays returned to the lodgings to find Mary gone. Helen claimed that she had been overly friendly towards Burke and they had kicked her out. In truth, Mary was yet to leave the building, as her body was laid under the spare bed and covered in straw.

During the day, Ann approached the spare room and was sternly warned to stay away.


Suspicious of why Burke should be so defensive, James and Ann waited until they were alone in the house and after a brief investigation they found Mary's body.


The Grays immediately confronted Helen, who panicked and offered them £10 a week to keep quiet. The Grays refused and left the house to get a policeman. Burke and Helen were taken to the police station for questioning and when interviewed separately their stories didn't match up.


At the same time, an anonymous tip led the police to Dr.Knox's classrooms. Mary Docherty's body was found and later identified by James Gray.


The Hare's were also arrested and slowly the police began to uncover the real reason for the sudden disappearances in West Port. Unsurprisingly, none of the four had the chance to go over their story and Burke blamed Hare for the murders; claiming he knew nothing of what had been happening.


After a month of indecision, the police offered Hare immunity if he testified against Burke and Helen. And on agreement, Burke and Helen were charged with Mary Docherty's murder and Burke with the murders of James Wilson and Mary Paterson.


The trial began on Christmas Eve 1828. Both the Hares testified against the Burkes and several witnesses told of victims they had seen with Helen or Burke prior to their disappearance.


On Christmas Morning, after just 50 minutes of consideration by the jury, Burke was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging and Helen was freed. During the month between Burke’s sentencing and his execution, he made two thorough confessions detailing 16 murders that he and Hare had committed, though the order was inconsistent.


Contrary to popular belief, Burke and Hare were not infamous grave robbers, in fact there is no proof to suggest they ever robbed a single grave.


Hare was released in February 1829 and many popular tales tell of him as a blind beggar on the streets of London having been mobbed and thrown in a lime pit. However, none of these reports were ever confirmed. The last known sighting of him was in the English town of Carlisle.


Helen travelled south, but she never managed to escape her past. According to rumour she moved to Australia where she died in 1868. Margaret is believed to have returned to Ireland, though like Helen she was mobbed wherever she went.

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