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Crime Chronicles: Burke and Hare, the Resurrection Men

There truly is no honor among thieves

By Greg SeebregtsPublished about a month ago 15 min read
The Resurrection Men (Union Canal Unlocked)

The year is 1828, and Edinburgh, Scotland, was the center of anatomical study. As a result, there was a high demand for cadavers for academic studies. Unfortunately, however, the supply of cadavers wasn't able to meet the increasing demand which led to a significant shortage of corpses - that sounds very weird, doesn't it?

This led to the rise of bodysnatching by men who became colloquially known as 'the resurrection men'.

The increase in bodysnatching was influenced quite a bit by Scottish law at the time. At the time, Scottish law had very strict rules about WHERE the cadavers came from, namely:

  • Suicides
  • Foundlings/Orphans
  • Prisoners who died while incarcerated

The resurrection men, as the body thieves were called, encountered a number of challenges including safes that were designed to stop the graves from being disturbed. All that said, there was a great deal of money in selling cadavers to academics. It didn't take long for two men to cross the line and do the unthinkable.

This is the story of Burke and Hare.

Who are Burke and Hare?

A common picture of Will Burke (National Galleries Scotland)

William Burke was born in 1792 in Northern Ireland, to middle-class parents and was one of two son. He and his brother, Constantine, joined the military when they were in their teens. Burke served in the Donegal militia for a few years until he met a young woman and got married and settled in County Mayo, Ireland. This was Burke's first marriage, and it was short-lived. In 1818, Burke had an argument with his father-in-law and subsequently abandoned his wife, moving to Scotland and settling in a village near Falkirk where he became a labourer working on the Union Canal.

He married a second time to Helen McDougal - whom he called Nelly - and the two moved to the neighbourhood of Tanner's Close in Edinburgh in 1827. Whilst in Edinburgh, Burke became a cobbler (a shoe repairman/maker). His new trade brought him a certain amount of success.

A picture of William Hare (National Galleries Scotland)

Not much is known about William Hare except that he worked on the Union Canal for seven years before moving to Tanner's Close in Edinburgh and working as a coal man's assistant. He lived at the lodging house of a man named Logue and his wife Margaret.

Now, Logue died in 1826 and William Hare is presumed to have married Margaret and taken over the lodging house. He met William Hare in 1827, and the two men became fast friends. Although, that too, wouldn't last long.

There's Money in a Corpse

On November 29, 1827, an army veteran named Donald was living at the Hares' lodging house when he passed away from oedema (a build up of fluid in the body that leads to all kinds of crazy issues). He had passed before receiving his pension money for the month which meant that he was 4 pounds short on rent. This was understandably quite upsetting to William Hare who moaned like a drain to William Burke about the lost income. It was Burke who suggested that they sell the pensioner's body to one of the local anatomy schools, they'd sell the body and split the earnings evenly between them.

As soon as they got the chance, that's exactly what they did. They hid the body under the bed in Donald's room and filled his coffin with bark before sealing it again. Once the coffin had been removed, the two waited until nightfall before carting off the body to Edinburgh University. While there, they were directed to the offices of one Dr Robert Knox who offered them 7 pounds and 10 shillings for the body. They agreed to the price and the deal was done. Hare took a larger portion of this sale (4 pounds, 5 shillings) to cover the lost income and Burke took the rest.

As they were leaving, one of the assistants apparently mentioned that the doctor would be glad to see them again should they have another body on hand. This may seem odd, but I would classify this as professional innocence - that is to say, the assistant made this statement as one of fact (because it was true, the anatomy schools always needed fresh bodies), he likely had no idea that his words would lead to murder.

Murder for Money

The first murder was in either January or February of 1828, and was most likely a man named Joseph who was lodging at Hare's place. He was a miller who had contracted a bad fever and Hare's wife was concerned he may be contagious. After a brief discussion with Burke, Hare plied the ill man with whiskey and, with his friend's help, smothered him with a pillow. The two men took the corpse to Robert Knox and were paid ten pounds for it - according to Burke's later confession, this became the standard payment.

There's some disagreement about the order of the killings after Joseph. We know that one of the next victims was an English salesman who fell ill with jaundice. Fearing the effect the ill man would have on his lodging business, Hare and his friend subsequently smothered the man - the same way they had with Joseph. After Joseph's killing, the next victim was Abigail Simpson, a salt seller who was lured to the Hares Lodging house by William Hare where she was murdered. Both bodies were subsequently sold to Dr Robert Knox for ten pounds each. It should be noted that some people rearrange the order.

At some point in late February or March, an unknown woman was invited to the lodging house, where she was suffocated. Her body was also sold for ten pounds to Robert Knox. The next victim was Mary Paterson, she was a prostitute and she and her friend Janet Brown were lured by William Burke to his brother's home. The usual pattern went through, the two women were plied with booze and Mary soon passed out in an upstairs bedroom.

William Burke now focused his full attention on Brown and attempted to seduce the young woman. I say 'attempted' because his wife walked in on the pair before things got anywhere and Janet made a run for it. Burke went upstairs and killed Mary Paterson a short while later. Janet Brown probably didn't realize until much later how she'd inadvertently saved her own skin by fleeing when Helen Burke appeared.

The next victim was Elizabeth Haldane, a woman who showed up at William Hare's lodging house seeking shelter - she was murdered in her sleep. A few months later, another woman arrives at the lodging house, looking for Elizabeth. This woman was Margaret Haldane, she was Elizabeth's daughter. William Burke calmed her down and killed her, after getting her drunk in the now common pattern. He did the same thing to another, unknown woman around the same time and sold both bodies to Robert Knox.

Things Get Personal

So, if you're keeping count, the murders of Margaret Haldane and the unknown woman bring up Burke and Hare's body count to 8 murders. That's 8 murders committed between January and May of 1828.

A short while after the Haldane killings, Hare lured a woman named Effy (or Effie) into a barn with whiskey, killed her, and sold her body to Robert Knox. Burke found the next victim, another unknown woman who was barely able to stand (she was drunk) being escorted to her lodgings by a local constable. He turned on the charm and convinced the constable that he was a friend of the woman's and would see her home safely. The constable, not seeing anything wrong with the situation, agreed. She was taken to Hare's residence and murdered. Her body too, was sold to Robert Knox for the usual ten pounds.

Drawings of Helen and William Burke (Public Domain Review)

Some time in June of 1828, an elderly woman and her grandson came to Hare's lodging house. It didn't take long for things to go sideways. The little boy was taken into another room before his grandmother was killed. He was then led back to the same room and met the same, grisly fate. The two bodies wouldn't fit into the usual tea chest used for transport, so they were instead stored in a barrel and loaded onto a cart. Unfortunately, the horse refused to go all the way to Robert Knox's office; the barrels had to be brought along on a hand cart instead. The two bodies were sold for the summer rate of eight pounds each.

A little while after this, the Burkes left for Falkirk to visit family and returned to find that the Hares had quite a bit of extra cash on hand. Hare, it turned out, had sold a body for eight pounds - keeping in mind that it's now summer. This led to a fistfight between the two men and they parted ways for a while. In September, the two men having apparently mended fences, plied a local laundry woman, Mrs Hostler, with booze, and the familiar pattern of murder and sale followed. Shortly thereafter, a relative of Helen's, Ann McDougal, arrived and it wasn't long before she ended up at Robert Knox's office being sold off for ten pounds.

Not long after Ann's murder, Margaret Hare suggested that they kill Helen Burke next. William Burke refused, and the subject of killing his wife was never brought up again.

The Killing Ends

Over the course of a year, William Burke and William Hare have now taken 14 lives. You may be wondering, why was nobody paying attention to these two? They were picking up bodies left, right, and center, surely someone would've recognized the victims. Well, that's exactly what happened with the next victim.

James Wilson was a mentally disabled man with deformed feet (this is important in a bit). He made a living by begging on the street and was affectionately called Daft Jamie. He was well-known in the streets of Edinburgh for his friendly nature. Burke and Hare lured him back to the lodging house at Tanner's Close, but he wasn't too keen on whiskey and fought back when they tried to kill him. Sadly, he was quickly overpowered and killed the same way as the other victims. The body was quickly taken to Robert Knox who, of course, paid the men ten pounds and thought no more about it.

A rendition of one of the killings (Ministry of History)

Knox's assistants quickly recognized Wilson, but he basically told them all to shut up about it. Outside the university, however, people started wondering where the lovable vagrant had disappeared to, and Knox (presumably to save his own hide), removed Wilson's feet and head before dissecting the body in front of a paying audience...yep, people paid to watch bodies being cut learn something new everyday, I guess.

The final victim, Margaret Docherty, was murdered on October 31, 1828. Burke met her at a local pub, and lured her to the John Brogan lodging house under the pretext that they were distant relatives and then went off to get his murder buddy - William Hare. Two other tenants at the Brogan lodging house, James and Anne Gray, were sent over to the Hares' place for the night and, as usual, the two men got Docherty good and sozzled before killing her.

The Grays returned the next morning and quickly became suspicious of the Burkes. They took the first chance they got to search the room and, to their horror, discovered the body of Margaret Docherty hidden in a pile of straw. They immediately went for the police, and Burke and Hare scrambled to get rid of Docherty's body. A police search located Docherty's bloodied clothing at the lodging house, and some inconsistencies in the testimonies of William and Helen Burke gave the police enough reason to take them in for questioning. Docherty's body was found at Robert Knox's offices the following morning, she was identified by James Gray.

No Honor Among Thieves

On November 3, 1828, an arrest warrant was issued and William Burke, William Hare, and their wives were arrested on suspicion of murder. None of the statements from the accused matched, and there was little evidence to work with. In order to nail a conviction, the prosecution would need a confession.

Unfortunately, getting that confession would mean granting immunity from prosecution. Still, it was necessary, and on December 1, 1828, the Lord Advocate, Sir William Rae (the guy in charge of the prosecution) approached William Hare with a deal. The offer was simple; turn king's evidence and you'll walk free. William Hare, presumably not wanting to risk being hanged, agreed to the deal - this deal extended to Margaret Hare as well due to spousal privilege which meant she was also immune from prosecution. Hare gave it up, all of it, every sordid detail of every killing and sale that he and Burke had ever committed.

Sir William Rae took that information and levelled additional charges against the Burkes for the murders of Mary Paterson and James Wilson.

The Trial of William and Helen Burke

The trial started off on December 24, 1828 and was set to run until a verdict was reached. It was decided to hear about Margaret Docherty's murder first and so that's where they started out. The court and all present heard from a number of people about different aspects of Docherty's murder, but it was William Hare's testimony that sealed the proverbial deal.

Calmly, William Hare spilled his guts on the stand; telling the court and the numerous onlookers all about how Docherty had been lured in and killed. He spared nothing, sharing every grisly detail, the only thing he minimized was his own role in the woman's death. Margaret Hare took the stand next, and echoed her husband's testimony to a T and sealed the fate of William Burke. Burke, for his part, said nothing. He just glared balefully at his now-former friend and partner in crime.

After a gruelling 22 hours of testimony, the jury withdrew to deliberate. They came back less than an hour later with their decision. William Burke was guilty. The judge, David Boyle had quite the response to the verdict.

"William Burke, you now stand convicted, by the verdict of a most respectable jury of the atrocious murder charged against you...more atrocious in point of cool-blooded deliberation never was exhibited in the annals of this, or of any other Court of Justice. You have now no other duty to perform on this earth, but to prepare, in the most suitable manner, for appearance before the Throne of Almighty God, to answer for this crime and for every other that you have been guilty of during your life."

As if that wasn't metal enough for you, it gets better.

"But, taking into consideration that the public eye would be offended with so dismal an exhibition, your sentence shall be put in execution in the usual way, but your body should be publicly dissected and anatomized. And I trust, that if it is ever customary to preserve skeletons, yours will be preserved, in order that posterity may keep in remembrance your atrocious crimes."

Judge Boyle you are an absolute LEGEND! So, what about Burke's wife?

Helen Burke was facing the same charges as her husband, but her case was ruled as not proven. I talked about the 'not proven' verdict in the Madeleine Smith story, basically put; the jury votes to acquit because they feel the case wasn't presented well enough to nail a conviction.

The Angry Mobs

The notebook made of Burke's skin (Witchery Tours)

William Burke was hanged on January 28, 1829. His body was dissected as per Judge Boyle's instructions...with a few...liberties taken. His skin was flayed and bound into a notebook. Professor Monro, the man doing the dissection, dipped his quill into the man's 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 then given to the University of Edinburgh's medical school where it is still on display.

Helen Burke was released the day after the trial, but it didn't take long for her to land in trouble. After the trial, she tried to get some groceries and was quickly recognized; an angry mob formed and she had to run for her life into a police station. She tried to see her husband before his death but was denied. She left Edinburgh and returned to Ireland on January 3, 1829. There's no record of what happened to her after she landed in Ireland.

The Skeleton of William Burke (Wikipedia)

William Hare was released on February 5, 1829 and made his way towards Dumfries in a mailcoach - presumably to start a new life. Unfortunately, he didn't have much luck. He was recognized by one of the passengers at a stop who kicked up a fuss and let everyone on the coach know who he was. Upon arriving at Dumfries, word spread like wildfire and before long, Hare had to take shelter in the local prison to get away from the angry mob. It took 100 specially-trained constables to get everything under control again and, first chance they got, the police plonked Hare on the Annan Road and pointed in the direction of the English border and told him to shove off.

That's the last we know of William Hare, however, as that's the last reliable sighting of him on record. Margaret Hare also just disappeared from the history books, so it's not known what happened to her after all was said and done.

What about Dr Robert Knox?

Dr Knox (The University of Edinburgh)

So, we know about Burke and Hare, but what about Robert Knox? Well, obviously there was a major outcry regarding the doctor's role in things. Sadly, he never faced any consequences for his role in the whole thing.

If that sounds like an injustice, congratulations, you're a normal person. The doctor refused to make a public statement of any sort regarding his dealings with Burke and Hare. Despite being cleared by an inquiry, Knox resigned from his position as the curator of the College Museum of Surgeons and was slowly cut out of academia by his peers.

Now, as far as I'm concerned the doctor should've definitely faced some sort of consequences. You can't tell me that this guy had no idea what Burke and Hare were up to when bringing him cadavers. Still, I suppose he did sort of get a visit from Karma in the end.

His academic career was practically shot, and despite all the trouble he got into because of the Burke and Hare killings and his reckless acquisition of cadavers, he kept going...until the Anatomy Act was passed into law in 1832. This act basically made it much easier to acquire legitimate subjects for dissection and effectively killed his competitive advantage in the field.

His application to the Head of Pathology at Edinburgh University was blocked in 1837. In 1842, after being unable to pay for further cadavers, he left for Glasgow, but was still short of subjects - presumably thanks to the aforementioned law and had to close his school in 1844.

He was caught falsifying attendance certificates (I guess that would be what they called the attendance record at the time) in 1847. As a result the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh refused to accept further certificates from him which basically meant he was banned from teaching in Scotland altogether. Additionally, he was expelled from the Royal Society of Edinburgh (Scotland's national science academy - I admit I had to look that up because I hadn't heard of it) in the same year.

Since he couldn't teach in Scotland, he took off for London after his wife's death, but he found getting another university job nigh impossible. Instead, he worked in medical journalism, did lectures, and wrote several books until 1856 when he became the pathological anatomist at London's Free Cancer Hospital. He worked there until his death in 1862.

Justice was Served...Partially

Ultimately, I guess justice was served, at least partially. William Burke was hanged, but Hare got away. Dr Knox had a significant part in this whole, sordid affair but he also got away pretty much scot-free. Is it possible that Knox was unaware of the murders? Maybe, but I highly doubt it. I mean, he deliberately damaged the body of Jamie Wilson to prevent his identification so he had to have at least some idea of what was happening.

I wish we knew more about what happened to Helen Burke and Margaret Hare, it seems they got away with their roles as well which just doesn't sit right with me.

I hope you wonderful readers enjoyed the article - as weird as that may sound. Now, I want to know what you guys think of this case so drop them thoughts in the comments section.


About the Creator

Greg Seebregts

I'm a South African writer, blogger and English tutor; I've published 1 novel and am working on publishing a 2nd. I also write reviews on whatever interests me. I have a YouTube Channel as well where I review books, and manga and so on.

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