Written by George Colclough
The Georgian period was one of immense change and progress in the United Kingdom: victory in the Napoleonic Wars had firmly seated the former backwater of Europe as the master of the globe for the next century. Mechanisation in agriculture was producing bountiful abundance of crops, and causing a collapse in the consumer price of food, and consumer goods were becoming more plentiful and affordable as the industrial revolution began in earnest.
Arguably, no aspect of human life for the Briton developed more in this period than medicine. In pharmacology, morphine, aspirin, and codeine were now staples at every apothecary’s shop. In pathology previously ravishing diseases such as typhus and syphilis were finally beginning to be fully understood, and through vaccinations, some such as smallpox were taking their first steps to being fully eliminated. Equally, Inventions such as the stethoscope were revolutionising clinical diagnosis in manners that would have been the stuff of fantasy even a century prior.
Likewise surgery and anatomical study also appeared to be entering something of a renaissance in the Georgian period. Surgeons such as Dr. James Blundell began to carry out the first successful human blood transfusions, and anatomists such as Henry Gray were beginning to codify and expand upon centuries of previous study to give our Georgian forerunners an accurate understanding of human physiology.
Sadly viewers, this is where I have to drop my trousers and take a wee on your proverbial bonfire, because while undoubtedly great advances in medicine were being made in this period… there was a dark side.
Much like a undergraduate mechanical engineer who enters the workshop on his first day and discovers he doesn’t know what way around to hold a spanner, prospective anatomists and surgeons in this period, much like every period, were finding that theory only got them so far on the operating table, and that there was a dire need for them to develop their practical skills were they ever to thrive in their field. That needed corpses… lots and lots of corpses.
There were “some” routes to acquire corpses legally: prisoners, orphans, and abandoned children were all fair game for dissection and indeed for many medical institutions this served their needs perfectly adequately.
But when an area, such as say, Edinburgh (where today’s story took place) began to acquire something of a reputation for excellence in its understanding and teaching of anatomy, people would flock from far and wide to study at its institutions. Quickly, the demand for corpses began to exceed that which could be supplied from the weak, infirm, and vulnerable that the state deemed a-ok to be chopped up.
How do you think the entrepreneurial individuals of Edinburgh responded to this?
If you guessed stealing freshly buried corpses, well done, you are correct!
Grave robbery absolutely crescendoed in Edinburgh as corpse thieves, dubbed by the locals as Resurrection Men began pilfering every patch of freshly turned cemetery soil they could get their hands on.
Edinburgh natives, understandably irked by having their dearly departed loved ones corpses’ stolen to be sliced up and gorked at by well-heeled anatomy students, began to take preventative measures: armed sentries were placed in cemeteries, guard towers were built, and Mortsafe grave cages were rotated around graves – remaining on so long as to allow the corpse within to decompose to the point of becoming undesirable.
Now, place yourself in the shoes of a Resurrection Man ladies and gentleman. Corpse stealing has suddenly become a bit of a pain in the arse hasn’t it! You just want an easy pay day! You can’t be bothered dealing with cages and gunfire just to dig up a corpse! If only you could make your own corpses from the comfort of your own home!
Well! That is exactly what the villains of today’s story did.
Today – we look at the story of William Hare and William Burke; two men who over the course of a year murdered at least 16 people – and sold their corpses to the Edinburgh medical establishment.
The First Cadaver:
Today’s story begins in the dark, soot stained streets of Tanners Square, Edinburgh. William and Margaret Hare were proprietors of a lodging house on the street; hardly the Edinburgh Ritz Carlton, but nonetheless the couple were able to eke out a reasonable living letting out their modest rooms to travellers and local workers alike.
The dividends this business yielded, rarely left them with rumbly tummies or debt collectors battering at the door, but they were far from rich, just about keeping their heads above water. For William and Margaret the poverty line was more of a tightrope line strewn between two skyscrapers – one mistake, and they would be sent plunging deep into it.
This naturally created issues when a lodger stiffed the check and did a runner, or worse, god forbid, died – as corpses don’t tend to be particularly forthcoming in settling their tab.
This is exactly what happened on the 29th of November 1827, when a lodger named Donald, passed away from dropsy, leaving his rent unsettled. Donald was a Napoleonic War veteran who had no surviving family. He depended upon his military pension to pay his rent. Subsequently he had no possessions and no estate – nothing that could be used to settle his account with William and Margaret. The local parish would see to it that he got a reasonably dignified burial, but nothing more.
Now viewers, I would like to imagine that if you or I were in this position, we would simply take this on the chin, lament at the tragic end of a life that endured great suffering and hardship, and accept the fact we weren’t getting that rent.
But as previously alluded to, this was not the case for William and Margaret, they had bills to pay, and one way or another they would get their money out of the man.
A local carpenter, on commission from the local parish constructed a modest coffin for the man, and delivered it to the lodging house on tanners square, where Donald was loaded inside by the parish undertaker, and the coffin was firmly bolted shut. With yet more dearly departed soles to attend to in this tragic page of human history, the undertaker bid William and Margaret farewell, and said that he would return later in the day to collect the coffin.
William Hare retired to the local pub, where, with his friend William Burke began to rant and rave irately about his lost rent. He paid no regard to the unfortunate soul who had passed, he was simply furious about the rent.
Drink flowed liberally down the gullets of Burke and Hare, and in a drunken, wobbly haze, it didn’t take long for the pair to have an epiphany: sell Donald’s remains to one of the many anatomical schools in Edinburgh, easy! This would pay Donald’s, and some! As don’t forget viewers, Edinburgh being a nexus of anatomical learning meant it was a sellers market for corpses, so it was a no brainer for a pair as depraved and morally bankrupt as William Burke and William Hare.
Mustering all the strength his whiskey soaked being could muster, Hare prized open the coffin, and the two men scurried their prize under the bed in Donald’s former room – out of sight, out of mind; safe from prying eyes.
Aware that the now empty, and subsequently very light coffin would be just a bit obvious when collected, the pair absconded to the tanners yard that ironically, flanked the peripheries of Tanners Squares, and made off with enough unwanted offcuts and waste as to fill the coffin with a weight roughly equivalent to that of a human corpse. The coffin was duly collected, and none the wiser, the parish undertaker believed he had done its christian duty in giving the poor and tragic Donald, some modicum of dignity in death.
A few days later, on the first of december, when darkness, interrupted by naught but the faintest flicker of gas lights fell upon the quiet streets of Edinburgh, Burke and Hare decided it was time to make their move to Surgeons Square, to cash in their beastly booty.
Nervously Burke and Hare trudged through the streets of Edinburgh, with Donald’s remains in tow, and eventually, after asking what must have been a few very awkward questions, found themselves directed to 10 Surgeons Square, the Office of one Dr Robert Knox, a man who if his portraits are to be believed, was ironically the spitting image of Dr Frankenstein, or any other deranged man of science drawn from the pages of gothic literature.
Knox was nothing but delighted by the corpse that had been brought to him, and in the face of an insatiable demand for cadavers for his lectures, paid no heed to the identity, dignity, nor circumstances of the deceased. After some bartering and negotiations, they settled on the price of seven pounds and ten shillings, four pounds and five shillings of which went to Hare, and three pounds and five shillings of which went to Burke – with Hare receiving the larger share to cover Donalds unpaid rent.
As they pair went to leave, thoroughly satisfied with their winnings, one of Knox’s assistants remarked that:
“(We) would be glad to see them again when they had another to dispose of”
And with that, a dark seed had been planted in the minds of William Burke and William Hare, a seed that as it bloomed would leave at least 16 dead; all slayed mercilessly in cold blood by the pair, as they sought to take the fullest advantage of their new connection.
Background of Burke and Hare:
Now that we know how today’s story got started, let us take a few moments to learn some more about the foul characters that would perpetuate the killer conspiracy.
William Burke was born in 1792 in the leafy and verdant parish of Urney, County Tyrone, Ireland. His parents were tenant farmers, and in stark contrast to the demon he would later become, he appears to have been nothing but a good christian boy and upstanding member of the community in his formative years. He spent time under the tutelage of a presbyterian minister, who taught him how to read and write. He went on to join the County Donegal Militia, where he served as an adjutant for seven years. He was posted to Ballina, county Mayo, where he married and fathered two children.
His life would come crashing down however, with the end of the Napoleonic Wars. His militia was disbanded, and he found himself destitute and unable to find work. Consequently, he travelled to Scotland to find work, and simply abandoned his family. He found work as a labourer building the Union Canal between Edinburgh and Glasgow.
It was here he met a Scottish woman named Helen McDougal in 1819, to whom he found himself quickly in love. The feeling was mutual, and despite never formally getting married, Helen soon adopted William’s surname for herself.
When his contract on the Union Canal finished, he spent time floating between different labouring jobs, spending 18 months as a weaver, and 5 months as a baker, before finally finding his calling as a cobbler. A trade that he would stick with for the rest of his professional life.
In the summer of 1827, he was most surprised to come across an old acquaintance from Ireland, one Margaret Laird. She too had a common law Husband, named William Hare.
The two couples quickly became friends, and soon enough the Hare’s invited the Burke’s to come and live with them at their Lodging House in Tanners Close, Edinburgh.
Within those four walls, a fraternity was founded based upon drinking, fighting, making up, and repeating.
In moments of sobriety, Burke was purportedly quite an agreeable guy. Literate, articulate, pious, and always posed to inject a quote from a great work of literature into a conversation.
Hare was seemingly the exact opposite. He could neither read nor write, and was quick to take umbrage and throw his hands in situations he didn’t find to his liking.
Like Burke, Hare was an Irishman who came to Scotland to work on the Union Canal, and subsequently floated between jobs as a labourer.
Frankly, quite how these two men came to become such close friends is a mystery to me, but nonetheless so it was. A perverse union bound first in drink, later to be bound in blood.
So, to get back to the story, Burke and Hare now had a buyer for their macabre merchandise, and it was a sellers market to boot, with Edinburgh’s seemingly inexhaustible demand for corpses apparently insatiable. What’s more, with a yield of seven pounds and ten shillings, the corpse selling industry teased to the pair at being much more lucrative than propieting a vagrant’s doss house, cobbinling, or the back breaking work of canal digging. Naturally, they wanted to sell more, many more in fact and exploit this new opportunity to the fullest, but this presented an obvious problem.
That being: Where does one procure cadavers readily and freely? As already discussed, exhuming them from freshly turned graves, while still legal, was becoming an ever more arduous task as the people of Edinburgh went to great lengths and strides to stop their dearly departed ending up on the surgeons chopping board. Furthermore, while William Hare’s lodging house may have been a nexus for the weak and infirm of Edinburgh, people were hardly dropping dead there with any degree of regularity – certainly not enough for two up and coming Resurrection Men to timetable their criminal career around.
So, after much discussion on the matter, no doubt fueled by ample amounts of drink from the same dire den where the duo decided to dispose of dear donald, they arrived at the (apparently) obvious conclusion: If corpses wouldn’t be forthcoming… they would just have to make their own!
4-6 weeks after their terrible transaction with Dr Robert Knox they seized the initiative, and graduated from simple, yet still abhorrent Ressurection Men, to full blown murderers. Yet at this time they still remained calculated, and to some degree hesitant to be too brash with their killings and take too many risks; they wanted the deaths to be explainable, but that would not last forever, with the pair eventually becoming more and more brazen with their crimes.
The opportunity came in February 1828 when a Miller, known only as Joseph, checked into William Hare’s lodging house. Joseph was stricken by a fever, which provided the perfect cover for him to suddenly pass away without anyone raising any eyebrows, and furthermore neither Burke and Hare, nor their other guests particularly wanted an infectious patient around spreading their illness, so Burke and Hare banked that everyone else in residence would simply be glad to have him gone, and not dwell too deeply upon his sudden absence.
Burke and Hare entered Joseph’s room, with welcoming ear to ear smiles cemented to their faces, in hand was a large bottle of whiskey. Burke and Hare, naught but supposed caring christians eager to do all they could to ease the poor man’s symptoms liberally plied Joseph with their drink.
Moments later, when Joseph was firmly tipsy and much less able to defend himself, Burke and Hare shared a knowing nod between each other, and their caring demeanour vanished in an instant. William Hare grabbed a pillow, firmly placing it down upon Joseph’s face and suffocating him, while William Burke pounced across his chest – to restrain poor Joseph, and stop the infirm and drunken man from mustering what little resistance he otherwise may have been able to.
It didn’t take long, and sure enough Joseph soon fell limp and lifeless, the first victim of Burke and Hare.
They stripped his body – after all, clothes were expensive in the world before modern industrialised manufacturing and there was no sense letting good linen go to waste! Then, they folded him inside a heavy wooden tea chest.
Then after waiting for nightfall they hauled the heavy chest into the street, and began the now familiar march up to 10 Surgeons Square. Along the way, with backs cricked and strained from the supposedly arduous labour they hired a porter to carry the chest.
Upon arriving in Surgeons Square, they were cordially greeted by Dr Robert Knox, who at the sight of a large tea chest in hand knew full well what had been brought for him. He was particularly pleased with the “freshness” of Joseph’s cadaver, and compensated the men with ten great British pounds – about one thousand pounds, or one thousand three hundred US dollars adjusted for inflation.
After they exchanged money, shook hands, and agreed that they all intended this to be a regular arrangement, the three men negotiated a contract for any futures cadavers that were brought to him – £10 in winter, when the remains could simply be stored outside remain fresher for longer, and £8 in the summer, when the cruel summer heat would set about their decomposition with merciless haste.
With their price settled, their buyer secured, and their supply issues evaded, William Burke and William Hare went on to repeat this frightening feat over a dozen times in the coming 9 months and remained an ever present and lingering danger to anyone unfortunate enough to let their guard down around the devilish dyad.
For Sir Walter Scott, an early historian of Burke and Hare’s murders, Joseph’s murder was markedly different from susequent killings, as it wasn’t driven SOLELY by a lust for gold, quote:
“There was an additional motive to reconcile them to the deed in the miller’s case .. the fear that the apprehension entertained through the fever would discredit the house, and the consideration that there was, as they might think, less crime in killing a man who was to die at any rate … it is a step in the history of the crime.”
I wish I could tell you more about the next victim viewers, and afford the man some degree of dignity in his death, but alas, I am unable to do so, for even William Burke and William Hare didn’t even bother to learn his name.
What we do know is that he was English, a tall man who stood just under six feet tall, and was roughly around 40 years old, and a match seller from Chesire – all according to Burke. He came to reside in the William Hares lodging house a week or so after the killing of Joseph, and soon the unnamed man was stricken by jaundice. Seeing there opportunity yet again, Burke and Hare struck once more, plied the man with drink, and suffocated him, before once again hauling his remains to the office of Dr Robert Knox in Surgeons Square – where once again the pair were awarded ten pounds for their efforts.
I really wish I could tell you more about him viewers, as it feels as if I am really doing the poor man’s legacy an injustice by committing such a small portion of the script to him, but alas, without delving into the realm of speculation, there really isn’t much more we can accurately say about him.
It is truly lamentable that a man like you or I, with wants, desires, hopes, and fears – a complex individual who deserved so much better than to leave a legacy no greater than a footnote on a page should receive such treatment, but thanks to the evil of Burke and Hare, that sadly is all we can do.
After the unnamed match seller’s killing, Burke and Hare began to expand their operations beyond the confines of Hare’s lodging house and prowl the streets for potential victims. Often they would patrol the streets of Blackfriars Wynd to find their next “shot for the doctor”, as they described it.
Soon enough, while out on their pernicious patrols William and Margaret Hare came across an eldery camstone seller named Abigail Simpson on the 11th of February. They befriended Abigail, and blindsided her with cordial charisma and ample amounts of free whiskey. Eventually, when Abigail’s guard was well and truly down, they suggested they continue the party at their friend’s lodging house, where they were joined by William and Helen Burke.
The group continued to make merry, or at least that’s how Abigail perceived it. She said she had a daughter, William Hare, posing as a single man to further entrap Abigail claimed he was a single man, and would take her daughter to be his bride. Abigail was delighted at this prospect, seeing both no reason to doubt Hare’s honesty, and a great opportunity to get her daughter out of the crushing poverty she herself had been cursed into.
Eventually the party wound down to a close, and Burke and Hare offered Abigail a bed for the night – on the house for friends of course! Abigail took up their offer, and just as she began to drift into the land of nod, was violently and sharply awoken by the two men she had supposed were her new friends. Hare, who had graduated from using a pillow to using his hands, clamped poor Abigail’s airways tight, as Burke once again lay across her to keep her restrained. The inevitable didn’t take long, and soon enough Burke and Hare claimed their second victim.
Once again, they met with Dr Robert Knox, who with particular delight at the freshness of Abigail’s remains, stuffed the agreed ten pounds into Hare’s hand, and went upon his merry way to once again, slice up a poor downtrodden soul for the intrigue and delight of a bunch of posh, well heeled medical students.
The next killing also remains shrouded by tragic mystery, as we have no name, or date for this killing. What we do know is that some time in the Spring of 1828, Margaret Hare lured a woman back to her and Williams lodging house on Tanners Square, purportedly much in the same way that Abigail was lured to the property previously.
We know little about what happened, no details we can use to humanise this poor victim however scant or abstractly one may otherwise be able. All we know is that she was plied with whiskey, and had to be put to bed three times by Margaret Hare, as despite the liberal soaking of alcohol in her system, she still couldn’t sleep soundly.
William Hare soon returned home from some unknown absence, and when he received the news that a fresh victim had been lured back to their abode, took it upon himself to single handedly murder the woman; smothering her with a blanket. Burke was later summoned to help with delivery of the victims remains, and once again the pairs palms were plied with ten british pounds, split between them in the now familiar pattern.
Yet another poor innocent soul had suffered a tragic, undeserving, and anonymous death at the horrid hands of Burke and Hare, and she sadly would not be the last.
The next killing(s) thankfully are somewhat more detailed and better pictured. On the 9th of April 1828, having once again applied the proven technique of plying victims with equal helpings of drink and charisma Burke managed to lure Mary Paterson and her friend Janet Brown. Both of the girls were prostitutes, and both 18 years of age.
This time however there was a change in form in the killings. Rather than luring the victims back to the lodging house on Tanners Road, they were instead taken to his brother’s house in Canongate.
Purportedly Janet Brown was very reluctant to follow Burke at all, much less to enter the house Burke claimed to be his home. Mary Paterson, who Burke later claimed to be very attractive, with a “much admired figure” shared none of Janet’s hesitations, and was happy to be entertained and plied with liquor, sensing none of the gross and most foreboding danger the two girls were in. Mary duly passed out on a bed. Burke, driven as much by lust as much as by bloodlust on that night attempted to seduce Janet Brown, to which she reciprocated.
It may well have been the case that William Burke had intended to murder Janet Brown also lets not develop any delusions that this monster was capable of human emotion or empathy for a second, no matter how perversly or warped it may have manifested – but fortunately for Janet, she never had to find out Burke’s true intentions towards her, as their liason was interrupted by the arrival of Helen Burke, Williams ACTUAL wife.
Understandably, Helen leapt into a rage at the site, and immediately started berating, as well as beating her husband, throwing both her hands, and any solid object that wasn’t nailed down at him in equal measure. Naturally, Janet Brown absconded the property with all due haste. Mary, who was still passed out upstairs, was subsequently killed by William and Helen.
Later Janet returned to the property looking for her friend, naturally worried for her safety being passed out drunk in the middle of such a violent quarrel. She was told that Mary had been taken by a gentleman client to Glasgow. Little did Janet know that at that very moment Mary was lying, still warm, in Dr Robert Knox’s office.
Mary was subject to an even greater indignity than most of the victims. After paying Burke and Hare the summer rate of eight pounds, her hair was cut short to help mask her identity, and she was stored in a barrel of whiskey, only being brought out to be gawked at by Knox, or one of his paying customers, as he put on shows displaying the beautiful woman’s remains. Furthermore, he commissioned a painting of her remains, and after 3 months of anticipation and hype building from his paid displays of her remains, she was finally dissected, for a vastly inflated ticket price.
Next came Elizabth and Mary Haldane, a killing arguably more tragic than even that of Mary Paterson, as the pair, a mother and daughter, were both killed not in some great entanglement that saw them both lured to Tanners Square, but in fact were killed months apart, driven into the same tragic fate by naught other than woeful bad fortune. In the spring of 1828, Elizabeth Haldane sought lodgings at Hare’s establishment on Tanners Square, where she was suffocated in her sleep in the usual manner.
Several months later in the summer of 1828, a most distraught girl arrived at the Lodging House, the girl happened to be the most uncanny likeness of Elizabeth Haldane, and sure enough it was her daughter, Margaret (or Peggy depending on the source).
Burke sensed not only the opportunity to have his palm plied with silver from Dr Robert Knox once more, but also the chance to tie up a potential loose end. He donned his usual disguise of an empathic human being, and welcomed the young girl inside. Quickly he calmed her down with silver tongued reassurances: she was in good health when she left, he was sure she’d be in touch soon, there really was no need to panic!
Sure enough, young Margaret’s concerns soon subsided, and then Burke drew the conversation towards more light hearted and jovial matters. Then, what would you know, it was getting late, they may as well break open the whiskey and make a night of it! With the veneer of a warm and humble friend crudely plastered on his foul form, Burke continued to convince Margaret to drink heavily, and then when she inevitably passed out – feeling thoroughly safe and secure in the company of her new friend… she met the same fate as her mother. Burke, the soulless shell of a man that he was, made the following comment regarding her:
“she was like her mother, of idle habits, and much given to drinking.”
Both Elizabeth and Margaret Haldane were delivered to Surgeons Square, price, ten great British pounds.
Around the same time as Margaets killing came yet another tragic victim we know sadly little about. Burke found a woman somewhere, killed her, and delivered her to Dr Robert Knox, who happily settled for the usual fee. Sadly this is all we know, neither Burke nor Hare never revealed
personally found to be the most believable, feel free to mentally substitute either way if you’re convinced otherwise!
her age, name, mannerisms, or anything else. Not a single strand of evidence we could use to attempt to humanise, and build a picture of the victim.
Next was Effy, a cindergather, one who scavenged for scraps in the waste, garbage, and effluence of Edinburgh. Effy was in fact previously known to Burke, who had previously bought scraps of leather from her for his moonlighting as a cobber, proving yet further just how little empathy existed in this monster’s mind – not even his acquaintances were safe. Burke once again clad himself in his welcoming ear to ear smile, and lured her into the stable with a sizable bottle of whiskey. When she was intoxicated and passed out on the hay that carpeted the stable, she was strangled, killed, and ferried to Dr Robert Knox’s office, for the usual fee of ten pounds.
Soon after Effy’s killing, Burke was out patrolling the streets of Edinburgh for yet more prey, his monstrous mind always on the look out for a suitable mark. He considered himself most fortunate, when through the dim flicker of gas lighting he made out the distinct silhouette of an intoxicated woman being assisted by two large men. He closed the gap, and saw that in fact the two men were police constables – perfect for him, odds were they didn’t know her.
He feigned his best concerned friend routine, and made himself out as an acquaintance of the woman. He was so worried about her! He told the constables. He thanked them for assisting her, and said he’d see her back to her lodgings. The two constables, seeing no reason to doubt the genuine nature of the man before them obliged, and in turn thanked him for being helpful.
With that, the poor woman’s fate was sealed, she was dead within the hour, and was duly delivered to the office of Dr Robert Knox the next day; Another tragic and anonymous victim of Burke and Hare’s insatiable lust for gold.
In June, Burke set his sights on an old man. He was frail and weak, the perfect victim. Burke invited the man to have a drink with him at his lodging house, which, seeing no reason to be suspicious, he happily obliged.
The man would live however, as in a particularly cruel twist of fate, his destiny was exchanged with another. An old Irish woman, who had walked from Glasgow with her 12 year old grandson, stopped to ask for help finding her friends and family who lived locally. Burke, sensing the opportunity to claim two victims in one foul swoop, sent the old man, who had no idea just how fortunate he had been to be deprived of Burke’s hospitality, on his way, and turned his full attention to the elderly woman and her grandson.
Burke was insistent that the elderly woman and her grandson come to stay at Hare’s lodging house. After all, they must have been exhausted after their journey, their family and friends could wait a couple of hours while they recuperated. Seeing no reason to doubt Burke’s offer of hospitality, the elderly grandmother gratefully accepted, sealing their cruel fate.
Upon arrival at the lodging house, the boy was placed by the fire to warm up, and the grandmother shared a liberal amount of drink with her supposedly most generous hosts. After being thoroughly soaked with whiskey, she retired to a back room to rest, and at this moment, the true horror of Burke and Hare’s hospitality made itself apparent. She was killed in the usual way by Burke and Hare, while Helen and Margaret kept the grandson occupied.
There was a flicker of hope for the grandson, for a time anyway. He was not killed immediately, even the monsters of Burke and Hare seemed somewhat hesitant to kill a child. His fate was debated, while he sat on the floor, growing ever more anxious about his grandmother.
It didn’t take long for that flicker of hope to be extinguished however. Despite the hesitancy to kill a child, the facts of the matter remained, he was a loose end that could only cause issues, so in the group’s perverse logic, the obvious choice was to tie off this loose end, and fatten their dividends in the process. The boy was carried into the back room and met the same fate as his grandmother.
The boy’s killing haunted Burke, he would later go on to claim. The innocence of his face, stricken by, and replaced with naught but abject terror. The weeping eyes, whose reflection showed Burke exactly the monster he had become. The ghost of the boy would haunt Burke for the rest of his days, he found himself sleeping by candle light, terrified of the darkness, and phantoms of his sins that lurked there within. He took to drink heavier and heavier, anything to numb the voices, the images, and the memories.
Don’t be sympathetic for Burke however dear viewers, for while he may have made all of these claims about repentance, it still didn’t stop him from selling the bodies of the grandmother and young boy, and CERTAINLY didn’t stop him from going on to kill further.
Accordingly the two bodies were unceremoniously dumped into a barrel – the sum of the two being too great to fit in the usual tea chest. It was loaded onto Hare’s cart, and all was well, until a problem emerged. The horse, perhaps sensing the foul act to which it found itself complicit, stopped, and refused to move a single hoof further forward.
No amount of blandishment, beration, or beating would make the horse continue, and soon a crowd began to gather in bemusement of the spectacle. Wanting to make haste, for fear of some kind hearted passerby offering to help and catching a glimpse of the group’s contemptible cargo, they waved down a porter, and had him carry the barrel the rest of the way. Soon enough they found their way once more to Dr Robert Knox’s office, and sixteen great British pounds were pushed into Hare’s palm.
For the horse’s trouble, it was shot dead in the yard of Tanners Square by the ever calm and collected Hare.
The Final Murders, and the Downfall of Burke and Hare:
Now, the last three or so thousand words haven’t exactly made for cheerful viewing I know viewers. But fear not! You and I both love it when a bastard gets their comeuppance, and sure enough now we get to the part in today’s story where the noose both proverbially, and literally starts to tighten around someone’s neck.
Indeed, the seemingly unbreakable bond between today’s conspirators went on to develop the ever so slightest hairline crack in its otherwise seemingly stalwart facade, and like a cracked dam left unrepaired, soon enough it ruptured, spilling all that was previously contained safely within, and resulting in the unravelling, and total exposure of the murderous conspiracy.
In the summer, William and Helen Burke left Edinburgh, bound for Falkirk, in order to visit relatives. When they returned, they found William and Margaret Hare seemingly flush with cash.
Where before the trip they had been all but broke, the windfalls from their murder spent, with Hare literally having to sell the shirt from his back to cover expenses, now they were sitting in new clothes, their pantry was stuffed, and Hare may as well have been walking with a limp for hefty and substantial wallet he now carried in his trousers.
Burke challenged Hare on this, and the former later made an enquiry with Dr Robert Knox after finding his explanation of his new found fortune severely lacking. Knox confirmed that Hare had indeed brought him a cadaver recently, and on his own, and had paid him the usual summer rate of eight pounds.
To say Burke found this irksome would be a gross understatement. The man boiled over with fury at this perceived betrayal by his partner. An argument quickly led to a fight, as Burke found his hands to be a more substantive explanation of his rage than his words. This fight soon enough spilled out onto the street, and after thoroughly making absolute nobs of themselves in front of a gathered crowd, which found the spectacle thoroughly entertaining, the two parted ways. William and Helen Burke moved out of the Tanners Close lodging house, and instead took up residence in the John Broggan’s Lodging House two streets away.
Eventually however, testosterone fuelled ego subsided, and Burke and Hare kissed and made up, and did their best to patch up the crack that had formed in their friendship.
In September of 1828 the pair were seemingly on good terms again, when Burke set his sights on one Mrs Hostler, a washerwoman who regularly visited his new abode to ply her trade. Hare had no qualms about picking up their old partnership, and soon enough, in the regular fashion, Mrs Hostler was plied with drink and charm, strangled, and dumped in Dr Robert Knox’s office, for the usual summer time fee of eight pounds.
Not even a week after the slaying of Mrs Hostler, Ann McDougel, one of Helen Burke’s relatives, was visiting from Falkirk. Sadly for her, it took a greater bond than blood to spare one from Burke and Hare’s wrath, and within day she too was dead, by the usual method, and duly delivered to Dr Robert Knox’s office, where the pair were paid ten pounds for her remains.
Prior to the killing of Ann McDougel, Burke told Hare that he would have to do the bulk of the work on this one – as he himself did not want to be the one to begin killing a family member… as if that somehow makes it better?
After the killing Ann McDougel, the reforged alliance was once again tested when Margaret Hare suggested that Helen Burke should be the next target, as she was Scottish, and therefore, for some reason, could not apparently be trusted. William Burke, finally having found a moral line that even he was not willing to cross refused, and while his objection was noted and honoured by William and Margaret Hare, a seed of doubt was further planted in his mind that would not be uprooted.
The next victim would prove to be a serious misstep for Burke and Hare. The target, one 18 year old James Wilson, was a vagrant, a man of no abode, and meagre means. Surely no one would miss him, Burke and Hare reasoned. As it turned out, yes people would miss him. James Wilson, or “Daft Jamie” as he was known around Edinburgh, was a mentally handicapped man, but was very much known and liked for his light hearted, jovial, and inoffensive nature, and what’s more, he had very notable deformed feet.
James Wilson was lured back to Tanners Close with the promise of warm food, a hot fire, and a bottle full of whiskey, to which he was more than happy to oblige. Unfortunately for Burke and Hare however, James wasn’t a big drinker, being much more of a tobacco man. When it became clear that he wasn’t going to drink himself to the point of passing out like their previous victims, Burke and Hare pounced on the largely sober man, with Hare leaping over his torso to restrain him, and Burke moving to block his airwars with his hands. James however was a deceptively strong man, and after he landed a hard punch squarely on Burke’s face, he threw Hare from him and onto the floor.
Burke quickly recovered from the punch, and pulled James from the bed, attempting to restrain his limbs while he was on the floor. James put up a ferocious fight, but sadly, was eventually overpowered, and suffocated by Burke and Hare. He was stripped and sold to Dr Robert Knox for ten pounds.
This was a very bad move for Burke and Hare. As previously alluded to, James was a very familiar face on the streets of Edinburgh. He was immediately recognised by Knox’s assistants, to which Knox attempted to nip the idea in the bud then and there by harshly shouting his assistants down. This seemed to do the trick, at least within the confines of Edinburgh University, as the doctor heard no more chattering on the matter from his students, staff, nor attendees of his public dissections.
But alas, while Dr Robert Knox may have been omnipotent within his own domain, beyond the bounds of Edinburgh University he held command of no such power or authority. The great and good of Edinburgh soon enough noticed that James was missing, as their journeys past his usual haunt were strangely devoid of energy and laughter, not least to mention the man himself. Stranger still, as people began to gossip, not one single person claimed to have found his remains, odd for a homeless vagrant who would have died in the open.
This gossip and chatter diffused across the city, and soon enough found its way to the office of Dr Robert Knox. Safe to say, a bit of poo came out when Knox heard the news, who was fully aware that the man everyone was looking for was sat dead, lifeless, and above all else, murdered beside his office. The remains had to go, and they had to go now. Knox brought forward James’ dissection, and after removing his head, and distinctive deformed feet, dissected him in front of a paying audience, and dwelled no more on the matter.
You might have sensed by now dear viewers, that Burke and Hare were getting sloppy. Whereas the initial murders we investigated were efficent, clean, and reasonably well considered, they had grown to become much more wanton and blasé. They were killing anyone and everyone they could lure back to the Lodging House, friends, children, family, local figures, no one was safe, and soon enough this sloppiness would see their downfall… but not before one last murder.
That last murder would come on the 31st of October 1828. Burke was sat in a pub, when he happened upon a middle aged Irish Woman named Margaret Docherty, who came in begging for alms. Burke happily donated to begin winning the woman’s confidence, and upon hearing her name was Docherty, played upon his Irish roots to convince the woman that his family came from the same part of Ireland. He also convinced her that his mothers maiden name was also Docherty, so they must be related! Of course, he could hardly see one of his family members go without, no matter how distant, so invited her to stay at the John Broggins lodging house, at his own expense. Margaret, poor, desperate, and having yet seen no reason to doubt Burke, happily took up his offer.
Helen Burke was of course more than happy to do her part for their most profitable conspiracy, so she entertained Margaret while Burke went to go find Hare. He found him not far away, and after informing him that he had found “another shot for the doctor” – the pair retreated back to the John Briggens Lodging House to set about their beastly task.
There was a problem however James Grey, a former soldier (and if sources are to be believed an absolute unit) and his wife Anne were also staying at the Lodging House, and Burke and Hare, having not entirely abandoned their senses just yet knew that they couldn’t afford to risk any witnesses – much less one that could do them some serious damage. Burke fabricated some pretext, the specifics of which are lost to time, and asked them to leave for the Tanners Close Lodging House – all covered at Burke and Hares expense. They apparently saw no reason to refuse, and dutifully left. Finally, on the night of halloween, that night most typically reserved for evil, the last wicked act of today’s saga could unfold.
A party true and proper began, with neighbours Mr and Mrs Conway, as well as a Mrs Law joining the jovial fray. The Grey’s reappeared early in the evening to collect some clothing, as well as miscellaneous belongings they had left behind. They reported seeing everyone high in spirits, both of the jovial, and liquid variety and left without noting anything untoward.
At 11:30pm, one Hugh Alston was passing the Lodgings, but was not met with the pleasant display the Greys had been several hours prior. He heard deafening thuds and cracks emminating from the property, as well as panicked cries of “Help, Murder!”. He made off as fast as he was able, desperate to find a police constable, and after being unable to do so, returning to the house, all was silent, so he thought no more of it and retired for the night.
Now. I appreciate hindsight is 20:20 and all that. But if I hear someone crying murder… silence is kind of exactly the one sound I DON’T want to hear afterwards – if my GCSE in biology taught me anything, it is that the making of sound is generally dependent upon being alive. But hey, you do you Mr Alston!
Mr and Mrs Grey returned the next day at around 9am. The house was still and subdued compared to the night before – as one would expect after a heavy night of boozing, but there was no sign of Margaret… and the atmosphere was peculiar. The Burke’s weren’t themselves, and they seemed to be watching them. Anne went to go and retrieve some clothing from by the bed, very close to a pile of straw that sat about a foot deeper than it had the day prior, William Burke scrambled to move her away from the pile. He stuttered and struggled to find words and clambered to muster any excuse he could. Anne also noticed William Burke liberally sprinkling whiskey around the room, when asked, he simply responded he was “making room in the bottle” – the man was acting very strangely.
James and Anne Grey dwelled on the peculiar behaviour all day, and when the house was finally vacant, couldn’t help but want to find out just what was under that pile of straw. They brushed back the straw, and were met with Margaret Docherty, staring back at them through her cold and lifeless eyes. They fled the property immediately, desperate to raise the alarm and escape the ire of the Burkes.
They were intercepted by Helen Burke, who could tell from their wide eyes and terror stricken faces that they had in fact found Margaret’s body. She fell to her knees begging them not to tell the police, she offered them money: five pounds, then ten pounds, anything to be quiet! They pushed her aside and continued bombing down the street, adament to find a police constable ASAP. They were further intercepted by Margaret Hare, who further amplified the begged demands to keep quiet. It was to no avail, Anne and James reported the body that day.
They sensed that the proverbial brown and stinky was well and truly hitting the fan, and Burke and Hare did all they could to abet the situation, and moved Margaret Docherty’s body to Dr Robert Knox’s office. Burke and Hare demanded a quick sale, so with little time to inspect the body, Knox offered the men five pounds, with the promise of a further five pounds should it be up to snuff.
A short while later, at 8pm, one Sergeant Major Fisher of the Edinburgh Constabulary accompanied James Grey back to Broggins Lodging House. Burke was apprehended trying to vacate the scene, and after being clipped round the ear was forced back into the lodging house by Sergeant Major Fisher.
He was standoffish and irate with both Fisher and Grey, he claimed he had thrown Anne and James out for bad behaviour. Fisher searched the property, with Grey and Burke in tow, but of course found no body. He did however find blood stained womens clothes under a bed, which FOR SOME REASON hadn’t been disposed of.
Furthermore, William and Helen Burke were inquisited about Margaret Docherty. They both agreed that she had left of her own accord, but little else. All tried to present a stalwart, impregnable, and above all else watertight version of events, but alas their efforts would come to naught. The investigating officers saw through their lies as clearly as though looking through a pane of glass, and they were duly arrested.
Between the discovery of Margaret Docherty’s bloodied clothes, and the testimony of James and Anne Grey, the police knew SOMETHING untoward had happened, all that was needed now was discover what that was, and who exactly was involved.
William Burke, William Hare, Margaret Hare, Helen Burke, Mr and Mrs Conway, Mrs Law, and John Briggens, the owner of the lodging house were all brought in for questioning over the course of the next day, with the latter four all being quickly dismissed when it became apparent they had nothing to do with the incident. This left just the Burkes and Hares, who were then formally arrested, under the increasingly suspicious spotlight of the police detectives.
Somehow, the police knew EXACTLY where to look to find Margaret’s body. Did someone squeal? Was Robert Knox’s reputation preceding him? Ultimately, we don’t know, that detail has been lost in time. Whatever the prompt, it was only the following morning after the gang’s arrest that several large, and imposing uniformed officers were knocking on his surgery’s door, asking to have a little chat about his cadavers…
Knox did his best to protest, but ultimately there was little he could do to stop the inevitable. Soon enough, the officers were inside, where sure enough they found Marget Docherty’s cold and lifeless remains sat front and centre of his cellar. The body was moved to the police station, positively ID’d by James Grey, and subsequently placed under guard pending further investigations. Knox managed to retain his freedom, shockingly, as despite the severe and
rightful moral outrage of the investigating constables, he hadn’t ACTUALLY committed any offences.
Investigation then turned to finally trying to figure out what on god’s earth had actually happened to poor old Margaret Docherty. The constables were no strangers to murder on the mean streets of Georgian Edinburgh, but even their strong characters, hardened by years of exposure to the very worst of mankind, weren’t ready to stomach the full and true extent of the gangs brutality.
All suspects were moved into separate cells, out of earshot of one another, to minimise their chances to confer and get their stories matching. Maybe, just maybe, fortune would prevail, and some clashing testimonies would finally lead the investigating constables to the truth. Luckily, fortune did indeed prevail, and all four suspects gave wildly clashing statements, with barely a scant piece of consistency between.
William and Margaret Hare’s statements were never publicly released – for reasons that will become apparent later. We do however have the Burkes’ testimonies; William Burke originally claimed to have never seen the woman before, she was naught but a stranger to him!
Burke then subsequently revised his story to a “MUCH” more believable one: a man dressed in a long ankle length coat, who funnily, he couldn’t quite remember to describe, came to him asking where he could have a pair of his shoes mended, Burke, who lest we forget moonlighted as a cobber when we wasn’t out murdering was more than happy to take the mans custom for himself, and directed him to his room in John Briggens Lodging House.
Burke was such a conscientious member of the community, he even lent the stranger a pair of his own shows while his were being mended – wasn’t he a great guy? No way such an all round sound bloke ever did any murdering, right?
The stranger then supposedly asked if he could leave a package in the room, to which Burke, the world’s nicest and least violent man, happily obliged! And here’s the kicker, wouldn’t you know it, that package just so happened to be Margaret’s Body! Shocker! How unfortunate for Burke! He was the real victim in all this, truly.
Not only was Burke the most upstanding man who ever lived, who absolutely had nothing to do with any murdering – but he chastised the stranger for rudely leaving a body in his house too! The man, whose face nor name he could remember, duly removed the body in the face of such a stern dressing down from such a perfect and morally upstanding member of the community, and Burke never saw him again.
Later, seemingly determined to make sure he made it to the gallows, Burke changed his story yet again: change of plan now, actually you know what? Yeah she was there, she got really drunk and passed out and died and that was absolutely, DEFINITELY it this time. He did admit that he sold her body to Dr Knox, but these things happen don’t they, what are you gonna do?
Robert Knox was eventually interviewed, and believing he had committed no crime, and therefore had nothing to fear, freely admitted to buying a number of bodies from Burke and Hare.
Sadly, he was correct, he hadn’t actually committed a crime, and what’s more, all the other victims previously discussed were long since dissected, and couldn’t be used to gather any evidence. Subsequently little of use was yielded from the testimony of the doctor.
Ultimately all four conspirators were charged with the murder of Margaret Dochety, but Sir William Ray, Lord Advocate, and public prosecutor in charge of the case had a problem. Between the circumstantial evidence, the witness testimony, and the constantly changing testimonies of the accused, they still couldn’t ACTUALLY prove what had happened. It was certain that William Burke, William Hare, Helen Burke, Margaret Hare or a combination thereof had committed the murder, and likely many more given the sheer quantity of bodies sold to Dr Robert Knox, but how could they prove beyond reasonable doubt who had ACTUALLY done the deed?
The answer? He couldn’t prove it. In the face of such surprisingly weak evidence, he needed a confession, lest all four perpetrators walk – some, was very much seen as being better than none. Sadly, this also meant granting immunity to at least half of the accused.
But would any of them actually talk? They had been through so much, basked in the intoxicating highs, and weathered the perishing lows of their criminal enterprise all together. Had they founded a macabre fraternity that even the crushing pressure of the long arm of the law couldn’t break?
Of course they hadn’t. Their supposed friendship was as fickle and weak as their motivations for the murders. In November 1828, William Ray offered William Hare immunity if he turned King’s Evidence against his friend, and Hare sang as freely as a songbird at the opportunity to secure his freedom. Both his tongue and his quill were but a blur for their speed, as he immediately spewed all the depraved details of the killings to secure his freedom. William and Helen Burke, were, to be blunt, up the proverbial creek without a paddle.
The trial began on the 24th of December 1828. To say the trial was taken seriously would be somewhat of a gross understatement, and the Scottish judiciary committed some of their top men to the case: It was presided over by Lord Justice Clerk David Boyle (the second most senior judge in Scotland), and heard by Lord Meadowbank, Lord Pitmilly and Lord Mackenzie.
The human being is a creature which doesn’t change particularly, and consequently the case attracted just as much interest and engrossment as such a macabre case would today. The public stands of the court were flooded within a minute of the doors being opened at 9am, with spectators equal parts disgusted and enthralled being packed shoulder to shoulder, desperate to get a clear line of sight to the accused for their gawking and geering.
Outside of the court a flood of human traffic poured into and filled the surrounding streets, leaving not a single paving slab underfoot visible for the crowd. Local authorities, sensing that such a highly riled crowd represented “somewhat” of a danger to public order, rallied everything at its disposal to keep the peace: 300 constables were spread throughout the crowd, and in the suburbs the 92nd Gordon Highlanders Infantry Regiment and the Lothians and Border Horse Cavalry Regiment were mobilised and on hand to quell any civil disorder local law enforcement couldn’t contain.
The trial ran from 10am and continued for a full 24 hours through till Christmas before adjourning for the day, with all involved in both sides of the bench even eating their lunch and dinner during court proceedings. The trial was forbidden to be halted until a verdict was rendered. This was most unusual for a British trial of the period, and on the matter historian Lisa Rosner commented:
“… the Scots loved their trials, and they were justly proud of their legal system, among the most equitable and humane at the time … to formally postpone the trial even for dinner, would raise procedural questions about the validity of the
Much of the opening hours of the trial was filled with a discussion of legal pedantry: which charge should be heard first and why. Dusty old parchments had the dust blown off them, as hundreds of years of legal precedent was explored simply to decide the order ofr proceedings.You’ll be pleased to hear viewers, that I will be sparing you the details of this particularly thrilling part of the trial.
Eventually, it was ruled that the court would hear the charge for the murder of Margaret Docherty first. This was a no brainer of a choice, as the case had both surviving remains to examine, and the strongest evidence… if this most clear cut of cases failed, every other case would surely fail in its wake.
The court heard that the accused had been seen in her company, that efforts had been made to keep the lodging house empty during the night, that a passing man had heard desperate pleas for help, and that in the morning that followed, Margaret Dochety was nowhere to be seen. Furthermore they heard about the suspicious behaviour of the accused the following day, how William had been liberal throwing whiskey around the house to conceal the smell of Margaret’s remains. Finally, they heard about Anne and James Grey’s discovery of the body in light of this suspicious behaviour.
55 witnesses had been named in the case, 18 of which were called to trial. These witnesses laid bare Burke and Hare’s frequent rendezvous in pubs in the area, the regular buying of tea chests, and direct sightings of the pair with the now deceased Margaret Docherty. A most damning witness testimony came from one of Dr Robert Knox’s assistants, who spoke of being called to the lodging house to inspect a body.
All of these testimonies, while certainly damning, did little to inspire rage and ire from Burke in quite the way the penultimate witness did. The final witness was called, and as they descended to the stands, Burke shot a look of pure hate right at them. Not pausing, nor blinking, nor taking any single measure to even attempt to hide or contain the fury he held toward them. But who was this penultimate witness? Who’s testimony would inspire such ugly and crude emotions in Burke?
It was William Hare.
Calmly, and gently, Hare stood before the court and outlined the full and grisly details of Margaret Docherty’s killing – censoring naught but his own part in the sordid story.
Then it was the turn of the final witness, Margaret Hare. If Hare had lined up the final nail on Burke’s coffin, Margaret drove it in with thunderous vigour; matching Hare’s version of events fully.
Finally, at 8:30am on Christmas Day, after hearing a relentless barrage of damning evidence for twenty two and a half hours, the jury retired to deliberate. It took only 50 minutes for a verdict to be rendered:
William Burke – guilty.
Helen Burke – not proven.
As for William Burke’s sentence, I will let Lord Justice Boyle tell you that in his own words.
“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 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. … 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 … yours will be preserved, in order that posterity may keep in remembrance your atrocious crimes.”
Execution and Aftermath:
Burke was hanged in the early hours of the 28th of January 1829, only a month or so after the end of his trial. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his execution became one of the greatest public spectacles in the history of Edinburgh. Young and old, rich and poor, men and women flooded the area, as many as 25,000 people gathered, all united by their want to see that demon be driven down to the depths of hell with their own eyes.
The normal brown lacquer of dirt and dust that filled the courtyard Burke was to be hanged in was instead replaced by a canopy of cotton and flesh, as the crowd packed shoulder to shoulder, filling every available space. Every window, and every balcony that flanked the gallows was filled also, rented out for a handsome fee to those well heeled spectators who wanted the best seat in the house.
As the crowd gathered outside, one Father Reed joined the condemned soul in prayer over a glass of wine. Burke, seemingly in good spirits, was evidently at peace with his sins, and ready to face St Peter at the Pearly Gates. He needed no motivation nor coercion, and calmly climbed the stairs of the ramshackle wooden gallows. He was allowed to pray one
last time, and had a silk handkerchief placed in his right hand – to be dropped as a signal when he was ready. His head was bagged, and his neck slid in the noose, and hesitating nor wanting for naught, he soon enough dropped the handkerchief, and died instantly.
Burke was publicly dissected on the first of February in the anatomy theatre of Edinburgh University’s Old College – ironically on the exact same slab, in the exact same space where oh so many of his victims had ended up. Adamant that the man should be afforded no shred of dignity in death, a few twists were added to Burke’s dissection.
Firstly, his remains were flayed, and the subsequent hide bound into a notebook, which can still be seen today at the Surgeons’ Hall Museum in Edinburgh. Secondly, Doctor Monro, the surgeon who carried out the autopsy took the liberty of dipping his quill into Burke’s open head, and wrote: “This is written with the blood of W M Burke, who was hanged at Edinburgh. This blood was taken from his head”.
Finally, as per Lord Justice Boyle’s instructions, his skeleton was gifted to the Edinburgh University Medical school, where it too can be still seen to this day.
But what of Burke’s co conspirators? His wife and former friends who were equally complicit in his horrendous crimes, but through pure dumb luck managed to get away completely scot free?
By and large they did what they could to stuff the haunting skeletons of their crimes in their closets, and despite furious public outcry, it sadly appears as though they lived happily ever after.
Helen Burke became a pariah following her exoneration and release, and found herself unable to complete even the simplest or most mundane public tasks without being accosted by blood thirsty mobs, desperate to right what they perceived as a most grave injustice.
One such example saw her accosted by a mob on the 26nd of December 1828, the day after her release. No sooner had she entered the confines of a grocery store, before the street outside was packed shoulder to shoulder with volunteer executioners, wielding ropes, knives, and a slight splattering of firearms. She was evacuated to a police station for her own safety, and the crowd responded by channelling their inner Jacobites and simply laid siege to the building, forcing Helen to escape through a back window.
The trial for Helen Burke runs cold on the 27th of December 1828, when she left Edinburgh, presumably she changed her identity, and was never heard from again.
William Hare meanwhile was released on the 5th of February 1829, after an extended stay in custody for his own protection. He attempted to relocate to Dumfries, disguised on a mailcoach. Luck really wasn’t on his side however, as sat dead across from him on the coach happened to be Erskine Sandford, a junior council who had represented the family of James Wilson, Hare’s penultimate victim.
Hare’s disguise may have fooled more casual observers to the case, but for a man so intimately involved Hare may as well have had his name tattooed across his forehead.
Sandford kicked up a royal stink, and the fellow passengers on the coach committed every variety of violence upon him short of actually killing him.
There was no reprieve in Dumfries either, as furious passengers from the coach diffused across the city and informed everyone about Hare’s arrival. The lodgings where he was residing were laid siege to that night, with the furious crowd determined to make sure he joined Burke down in the depths of hell. Hare’s life was saved only by the intervention of over one hundred special constables, who managed to subdue and hold back the crowd long enough for Hare to escape via a police coach.
He was taken to the edge of town, pointed in the direction of the English border and told to start walking and never return. He was never sighted again and much like Helen Burke disappeared.
Margaret Hare simply seems to have vanished, there is next to no credible references to her activities after the trial.
So begrudgingly, it does indeed appear that despite the best efforts of the people of Scotland, William Hare, Margaret Hare, and Helen Burke ultimately did get their happily ever after, and totally dodge all meaningful consequences of their crime.
So rather than being concluded with the short, sharp, and no doubt satisfying shock of a quartet of hangman’s ropes, the case of the Burke and Hare murders instead fizzled out with a whimper, with the accused having changed identities and moving onto greener pastures. The memory, and subsequently the rage of the people of Edinburgh eventually faded, and the story of Burke and Hare moved into the annals of legend.
So in light of that rather disappointing conclusion, should you ever happen to find yourself in
Edinburgh, I encourage you all to take a trip to the University of Edinburgh and go to see William Burke’s skeleton, the note written in his blood, and the notebook bound in his skin and gawk at them. Pay no heed to his humanity, or the pain and indignity that reduced the accoutrements of a living man to naught but a curioso relic – because he paid no heed to that of his victims. Such as he reduced his victims to nothing but a sideshow spectacle, so should we reduce the memory of this deplorable cockroach of a man to the same.
As for Dr Robert Knox, the man, who lets be quite frank, WAS fully complicit in all of these murders no matter how much he pleaded ignorance, found himself a pariah on the streets of Edinburgh, but managed to go on to an otherwise full and enriching career in London, and eventually passed away peacefully at the age of 71 one. Now, I’m not one to advocate for criminality, I don’t want a future episode of the podcast to be about my own exploits for sure, and I’m CERTAINLY not advocating for the desecration of this monster’s grave. I’m just saying, he’s interred in Brookwood Cemetery, Glades House, Cemetery Pales, Brookwood, Woking, GU24 0BL, Plot 100. I’d be DEVASTATED if I woke up one morning to the news that someone had dug him up and sold his bones for a tenner.
But do remember his victims, the many poor and weary souls slain by Willaim Hare, Margaret Hare, William Burke, and Helen Burke. As ever, I strive to shine a light on the humanity of these true crime stories, and the victims are the ones that deserve to be remembered.
Certainly, when I retire tonight with a pack of Marlboro Reds, I’ll be having one in memory of James Wilson, the tobacco loving, much loved lost soul of Edinburgh, who refused to go out without a fight.
Thank you for making it this far everyone, and I hope you all enjoyed today’s episode. I’m sure to many of you in the audience the story of Burke and Hare is already a familiar one, so I tried today to give you a more in depth story than you otherwise might have heard before, and to try to shed more of a light onto the identity and humanity of the victims, rather than simply gawk in awe and Burke and Hare’s barbarism.
This was a particularly difficult script to put together for a number of reasons, firstly, there is actually very little consensus about either the amount, or order of the murders. For example, as we alluded to in the main script, Burke himself made two separate and very contradictory confessions. Both of these in turn differed to a certain degree with Hare’s statements given post his pardoning, but there is some degree of overlap between the two.
Secondly, there was also the issue of seemingly everyone involved being called either William, Margaret, or James. Add on top of that, that the murderers were also husbands and wive’s who shared the same common law surnames – making even referring to people by surnames an arduous proposal at times. Hopefully all was clear for everyone!
Fortunately however, the modern enquirer is blessed to have access to a phenomenal number of historians who have looked into this case in the centuries before us. For anyone wanting to know more I would particularly recommend “Burke and Hare” by William Roughead, published in 1921. It can make for a little dry reading at times, but Roughead gives an almost word by word account of the trial which is simply unmatched in detail. For something a little bit more accessible but still very detailed and well compiled, I would recommend “The Anatomy Murders” by Lisa Rosner, published in 2010.
 The past was the worst.
 There are some clashing stories on this one, with some claiming Burke was simply luring Janet into lowering her guard, and that Helen was in on the act, with the argument simply being an act to solidify the ruse. Others claim that Burke really had intended to sleep with Janet, and do heaven knows what afterwards, so in fact, Helen’s rage was true and legitimate. Can’t say I particularly wrap my head around the morality on this one, serial killing apparently not being a moral deal breaker for Helen, but adultery… too much! Either way, having surveyed both sides of the story, I presented the explanation I
 William Burke was a bit of a shit liar wasn’t he? Personally, I think my teenage explanation to the judge about how this was absolutely the first time I’d ever done 130mph on the motorway, and it just so happened to be the time I got caught was more believable… cheers for letting me off with 6 points and a fine Judge Bouch!