Burke and Hare: Scotland's Infamous Serial Killers

In the early 1800s, Great Britain's medical colleges grew to capacity, and while most classes could be taught in lecture halls, anatomy classes needed a corpse for demonstration purposes.
Up until the 19th century, the only cadavers that could be used in these classes were those of recently executed criminals, as at the time it was unthinkable to disturb a person's remains. The number of executions was, as William Roughead wrote, "...wholly inadequate to meet the growing needs, and the surgeons' and barbers' apprentices had been in use diligently to till the soil and reap the harvest of what has been finely called 'Death's mailing.'"
The practice of grave robbing soon became the regular occupation of some underworld characters, and author Hugh Douglas wrote of the proficiency of these grave robbers. They could open a grave, remove a body and restore the soil between patrols of the night watch. The following day, the relatives could mourn by the grave, unaware that their loved one was on an anatomy slab in Edinburgh.
Though doctors and their assistants most likely suspected that the bodies were from graves, they generally said nothing in order to keep students interested in the anatomy classes.
Irishmen William Burke and William Hare developed a more direct method of providing fresh cadavers to Edinburgh anatomy schools.
While lodging at Maddiston during his work on the Canal, Burke met Helen McDougal, a native Scot who was then, after separating from her legal husband, living with a man with whom she had two children. Burke and McDougal 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.
William Hare had also traveled from Ireland to Scotland to work on the Union Canal, although it is not known if he came across 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 and the widowed Margaret were soon living as common-law husband and wife and running the lodging house as a married couple. 
When Burke and McDougal moved to Edinburgh, they took up residence in West Port and by chance met 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 could never be described as friends, but they became permanently linked by a fondness for whisky and the desire to make easy money.
In November of 1827, one of Hares lodgers, an old army pensioner named Donald, fell ill and died. Hare was not concerned about the man's death, but was outraged that Donald had passed away owing 4 pound rent.
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, whose assistants said that they were interested in the body, and to bring it after nightfall.
That night Knox's doorman answered the bell to find Burke and Hare and a large sack. Three of Knox's assistants examined the body and offered to pay a little over 7 pound for it. The two men quickly agreed, and left the doctors rooms discussing the obvious advantages of this method of making significant amounts of money with so little effort.
Another of Hares lodgers, Joseph the Miller, fell ill not many days later.Joseph owed no money to Hare and was not as seriously ill as Donald had been, but Hare and Burke discussed the situation and decided, with no medical expertise whatsoever, that Joseph was going to die, and was in pain, and they decided to put him out of his misery.
The two, showing great sympathy for Joseph's discomfort, gave the sick man glasses of whisky until Joseph fell unconscious. Then one of the men held Josephs nose and mouth shut while the other spread himself across the victim's prone body, pining the arms and preventing any struggle.
Joseph never regained consciousness and was soon on Knox's doorstep. Burke and Hare had stumbled onto a foolproof method of murder with Joseph: it appeared that the victim had died from illness or drunkenness and there were no incriminating marks. They would repeat the process frequently over the next 11 months.
Hares other lodgers continued to be healthy, and so Burke and Hare eventually felt the need to seek out new merchandise for Dr. Knox outside of the lodging house.
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.
The following morning, Abigail awoke with a bad hangover, and accepted Burke and Hares remedy of a little more whisky. The first whisky was followed by another, and soon Abigail was once again asleep on the bed. She didn't put up a fight as Burke and Hare smothered her, and her body was packed into a tea chest and taken that evening to Knoxs rooms. For the first time Dr. Knox personally inspected the body, and he remarked on the freshness of the cadaver, but did not inquire further. He authorized a payment of 10 pounds.
Not long after Abigail's demise, another of Hares lodgers, an Englishman who sold matches, fell ill. As they had with Joseph, Burke and Hare charitably put the poor man out of his suffering.
Although Hare and Burke would later swear that neither Margaret nor Helen knew anything about the murders, the next victim brings this assertion into question. 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 three attempts, Margaret finally got the woman to rest in the bed and quickly sent for her husband and Burke, who later appeared at Dr. Knox's doorstep that evening with a fresh delivery.
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, where 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 brothers 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 drunk. 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.
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 Hares and fetch Mary back immediately.
On returning to Burke's brother's home, Janet found only the Hares and Helen in the house. She was told that Mary had gone out with Burke but would return soon. Janet sent the servant back to Mrs. Lawries and sat down to wait.
The servant told Mrs. Lawrie what had happened, and the landlady again became alarmed and told the servant to go back and bring Janet back with her. Janet dutifully returned to Mrs. Lawries, avoiding for the third time that day the fate that had already befallen Mary.
Mary Paterson's murder was the riskiest Burke and Hare had yet committed. 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 Knox's 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.
In his work as cobbler, Burke occasionally bought leather from a beggar-woman named Effie. One morning she attempted to sell some scraps to Burke, who invited her in and took her out to the lodging houses stable. After several drinks, Effie fell asleep in the straw, Burke went to fetch Hare, and that evening they were 10 pounds richer.
Having brought several bodies to Dr. Knox without casting overt suspicion on himself, Burke became even bolder and began taking more risks. In the streets one morning he encountered two policemen carrying an obviously drunken woman to jail so that she could sleep off the previous night's entertainment. Burke told the officers that he knew the woman, even knew where she lived, and would take her home and see that she was properly taken care of. Burke and Hare divided another 10 pound that night.
In June of 1828, Burke found an old man wandering the streets and lured him with promises of whisky to come home with him. They were later stopped by an old woman and a young boy, who asked for directions to the home of a friend of theirs. Burke said he knew exactly where they needed to go, and abandoned the old man and said he would take them to their friends but why not stop and rest first at his house? The woman agreed and explained that the boy was her deaf grandson, and they were not familiar with Edinburgh.
The woman was soon inebriated from the refreshments , and while her grandson was with Margaret and Helen in another room, Burke and Hare murdered the woman by their usual method. Debate then began about the boy. Being young, they feared he would not take whisky, but they were afraid to let him go out on the streets where he might lead people back to the house. When the boy became increasingly anxious about the absence of his grandmother, Burke grabbed the boy and broke the childs' back over his knee although he later claimed that the boy had been smothered. Both bodies were wedged into an old herring barrel and fetched 8 pound each from Dr. Knox.
Also in June, Burke and Helen took a brief respite from his work to visit some of Helens relatives. In his later confession, Burke stated that prior to their leaving, Margaret suggested that Helen be murdered, but Burke refused. Probably for this reason, and also because Burke discovered that Hare had been working solo in supplying Dr. Knox during his absence, Burke and Helen moved out of Hares lodging house and into quarters nearby soon after the return from their vacation.
Although living separately, the two men continued to ply their trade as a team. A Mrs. Ostler came to Burke's new boarding house for a celebration in honor of the landlord's new baby and was never seen again. A relative of Helens, Ann McDougal, visited in Edinburgh and stayed with Burke and Helen. Ann was soon dispatched by the usual method, although Burke nobly persuaded Hare to take the active part in that murder since Ann was a distant friend of Burkes. Ann turned out to be a good friend indeed, providing Burke and his partner with another 10.
William Hare met Mary Haldane, an elderly prostitute, in the Edinburgh streets and invited her back to the lodging house for a dram. Burke joined them and Mary drank and fell asleep in the lodging houses stable. She was murdered quickly, but Mary's daughter Peggy, who had been told her mother had been seen with Hare earlier, went to Hares to ask about her whereabouts. Upon arrival, Margaret and Helen heatedly denied Mary or any prostitute would be allowed into their house. An argument ensued that Hare stopped by saying that Mary had been there earlier but had later left. Hare then offered Peggy a drink and then another -- and once Burke arrived, she soon joined her mother at Dr. Knox's.
The disappearance of Mary Haldane caused suspicion, as she was a well-known character in the neighborhood, and many noticed her absence. Burke and Hare were further emboldened by not being caught, however, and next targeted a very well known neighborhood resident whose murder would almost be their undoing.
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. 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.
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.
Burke was fetched from the tavern by Margaret, and the Hares and Burke tried to convince Jamie to have some whisky. Jamie drank only a small amount and refused more, although he was soon dozing on a spare bed. Burke and Hare attempted to put their usual method of killing into play, but Jamie was strong and fought back successfully enough that he pinned Burke, who screamed to Hare for help. Both men eventually overpowered Jamie and smothered him.
That evening, the two men collected 10 for Jamie's body. Suspicion grew quickly, however, because Jamie's mother made constant inquiries of her sons whereabouts. Also, when his body was uncovered at Dr. Knox's, several of the students easily recognized Jamie by his face and by a well-known deformity of his foot. Dr. Knox denied that the body was Jamie, but began the dissection quickly, focusing first on those most recognizable features.
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 neighbors later claimed to have heard dancing and drinking and arguments coming from Burke and Helens rooms. Around midnight, an upstairs neighbor was passing by Burke and Helens 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 went out to fetch a policeman.
Helen and Margaret quickly went off to warn their spouses, and were fast enough that when the police arrived at Burke and Helens 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 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.
The busy days following Halloween included an official autopsy of Mary Docherty, the questioning of Burkes and Hares neighbors, and multiple interviews with the four accused. The four had apparently not synchronized their stories. Their tales varied from stating that they had never met Docherty to Burkes telling of a strange man ,whom he named as William Hare, coming to his house to get his shoes repaired and who had a large tea chest with him. Helen apparently did not know of this story, however, and she did not echo this alibi or claim that William Hare was a stranger.
November 6th, an Edinburgh newspaper reported on individuals having recently disappeared , including a lad called Daft Jamie. This report caught the interest of Janet Brown, who went to the police and identified some of the clothing the police had found in Burkes house as Mary Paterson's.
The public were outraged and called for justice against all four, and Dr. Knox as well. 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 Gray's testimony and Janet's identification of Mary Paterson's clothing, was weak at best. He also suspected that Helen and Margaret were secondary players 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.
The prosecution brought forth both Hares ,who testified that Burke and/or Helen were the main players in the murders, and other witnesses who claimed to have seen the victims in Burke or Helens company shortly before they disappeared.
In defense, Burkes counsel tried to downplay Burkes role in the murders , and Helens solicitor suggested that it was Helen, terrified by seeing Docherty killed, who the neighbor overheard crying "murder" that Halloween night.
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 was executed on January 28, 1829. In the month between his sentencing and the execution, he gave two detailed confessions. In both of them he cited 16 murders that he and/or Hare had committed, although he got confused about the order of the murders between the two confessions. At his scaffold, enormous crowds shouted for Hare and Dr. Knox to join him at the gallows.
Helen, on being released, 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.
Dr. Robert Knox attempted to remain in Edinburgh, and he maintained a silence about any suspicions he might have had about how Burke and Hare supplied his classroom with such fresh corpses. Angry crowds occasionally mobbed his house and classrooms, but he continued lecturing and giving classes until the number of students who wanted to study under a man associated with Burke and Hare dropped dramatically. He twice applied for vacant positions within Edinburgh University's medical school but was rejected both times. He eventually moved to London where he held a post at the Cancer Hospital before passing away in 1862.
Burke and Hare live on in Britain's culture, and in movies like, The Body Snatcher, The Doctor and the Devils, and The Flesh and the Fiends, and have inspired writers from Robert Louis Stevenson's , The Bodysnatcher, to Seri Holmans novel, The Dress Lodger.
Their crimes even added to the English language. The verb "to burke" still means to murder someone by violent means or by smothering.
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.
Burkes the butcher, Hares 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.
I hope you enjoyed reading about Burke and Hare!

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