William Hare and William Burke
William Burke and William Hare are the most famous grave robbers of 19th century Scotland, but none of the 16 fresh corpses they turned over for dissection in the anatomy classroom of Dr. Robert Knox at 10 Surgeon Square in Edinburg, came from any graveyard.
by Mark Pulham
Up the close and down the stair,
In the house with Burke and Hare.
Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief
Knox, the man who buys the beef.
- Children's rhyme
It is dark, and the only sound is that of someone digging. As quietly as they can, the grave robbers remove the earth from the newly interred and remove the lid of the coffin. Fearful of capture, they remove the corpse and hurriedly get away before someone discovers them. It is a profitable and fast growing business. And the most famous body grave robbers of all are Burke and Hare. In films and stories, they are shown committing this dreadful act. But the films and stories got it wrong, Burke and Hare never dug up a body. No, they were far worse.
In Britain, the Murder Act of 1752 made it illegal for any doctor to perform a dissection on a corpse, unless the corpse was that of an executed criminal. In the 1700’s, any number of crimes could result in the death penalty. Even petty crimes such as cutting down trees, pick pocketing more than a shilling, stealing a horse or a sheep (hence the phrase, “may as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb”) or being out at night with a blackened face could result in an execution. As a result, there were hundreds of corpses available each year.
By the 1800’s, as the number of medical students began to grow, the demand for cadavers increased, but by now laws allowing more lenient punishments were on the books and the number of criminals executed had fallen to as low as 50 to 60 a year.
As always, with demand outstripping supply, someone would provide the bodies. Anatomists would turn a blind eye when the resurrection men came around with a recently interred corpse. Body snatching became a lucrative business and was so common that many graveyards built high walls and railings around them and erected watchtowers.
In British law at the time, a body was not regarded as property. Once dead, the body could not be owned or stolen, and so stealing corpses was not an offense. If the snatchers removed something other than the body, anything personal the body had been buried with, or even a shroud, then that was theft, and the robber could be punished.
The wealthy could afford iron coffins or mortsafes, a sort of cage surrounding the grave, and were moderately safe from the resurrectionists, so the poor were the perfect targets. With their cheaply made coffins, and haphazard burial, they were easy to dig up. In many cases, the bodies taken were from pit graves, a hole roughly 20 feet deep that was slowly filled with coffins over a period of weeks before being filled in. The poor had become worth more dead than they were alive.
Some members of the medical community expressed fears that this would lead to murder, the philosopher Jeremy Bentham even mentioning this in his private correspondence with the Home Secretary, Robert Peel. The Select Committee on Anatomy had received clear warnings that the amounts of money offered for cadavers would certainly lead some to murder. Tragically, time would prove them right.
William Burke was born in County Tyrone, Ulster, in Ireland in 1792 and moved to Scotland in 1817 to work on the Union Canal, leaving behind his wife and children. While working on the canal, he met Helen McDougal, and they began living as man and wife.
William Hare was also born in Ulster, his year of birth given as either 1790 or 1804. He also moved to Scotland, and like Burke, worked on the Union Canal, though there is no evidence that they knew each other. Hare moved to Edinburgh, where he met a man named Logue, who ran a boarding house named “Log’s Lodging” in Tanner’s Close, in the West Port area of Edinburgh, with his wife, Margaret Laird. When Logue died in 1826, Hare married Margaret.
In the latter part of 1827, after some time spent travelling around the country working, Burke and McDougal ended up at the Log’s Lodging, and soon they became permanent residents.
One of the other residents was an old army pensioner named Donald. In November 1827, he died from natural causes. Hare was upset, not because of his death, but because the old man died owing Hare ₤4 in rent. Determined to recoup the money as best he could, Hare decided to sell the old man’s body to the medical schools.
Hare made arrangements with the local parish for Donald’s funeral. The parish would pay the expenses, and would supply the coffin. Within a day or two, a carpenter came, and Donald’s body was placed in the coffin and the coffin then nailed shut, awaiting collection for burial.
Hare needed help with the next part of the plan, and he turned to Burke. The two men forced out the nails, opened the coffin, and removed Donald’s body, which by now was starting to smell from decomposition. They filled the coffin with tanning bark to give it weight, and then nailed it closed.
Burke and Hare now acted furtively, as though they had committed a major crime, though in fact what they had done was not technically illegal. They first approached Professor Alexander Monro of the University of Edinburgh, but he had left for the day. Someone directed them to the private anatomy classroom of Dr. Robert Knox at 10 Surgeon Square.
Knox was 36 years old, a flamboyant and popular anatomist, though with a lower status than Monro. With more students than all of the other private anatomy schools put together, possibly more than 500, he had a pressing need for bodies for the dissection table. Burke and Hare asked if the school was interested, and they were asked to come back that night.
Donald’s body was taken from where it had been hidden, placed in a sack and taken to Knox’s school. They left with ₤7.10 shillings, with no questions asked. How easy it was.
A short time later, as luck would have it, another tenant named Joseph the Miller was ill. As soon as he died, they would have another corpse to sell to Dr. Knox. However, Joseph was not quite on death’s door, and so the two decided to help him along. They gave him whisky until he passed out, then they smothered him. It is quite possible that they regarded this as a mercy killing; after all, Joseph was suffering. Knox bought the body, this time for ₤10. Once again, no questions were asked.
The problem was how do they keep it up? This could be a very profitable business, but the chances of another tenant dying, or even becoming ill enough for a mercy killing, were slim. Body snatching was too much like hard work, and besides, the bodies from the grave were not fresh and so would be worth less money. The final step was inevitable.
On February 11, 1828, an elderly pensioner named Abigail Simpson was in Edinburgh. She had walked from Gilmerton to collect her pension money of 18 pence. By chance, she met up with Hare, who persuaded her that, before her long journey home in the cold, dark night, she should rest awhile at his lodgings and have a drink. Glad for the kind hospitality, she went home with Hare and was joined by Margaret, and Burke and McDougal. Soon, they were all drinking together. The plans they had for Abigail were delayed when they all became drunk and fell asleep.
The next morning, Abigail was given more to drink, and too inebriated to resist, she was smothered. Her body, like Donald and Joseph before her, was delivered to Dr. Knox that evening. Once again, the fresh corpse earned them ₤10.
Burke and Hare were excited over their success, and more victims followed. The method used was simple. One would hold the nose and mouth so no air could be drawn in, while the other would put his weight on the chest, compressing the lungs. This process, which later became known as “burking,” left no mark on the body.
With no questions asked as to where the bodies were coming from, and from the ease of which the murders were committed, Burke and Hare became confident and reckless. Their spending became more extravagant, and they were clothing themselves better than their legitimate income would warrant. They also became over confident in their choice of victim.
Mary Paterson was just 18 years old, and according to those who knew her, quite beautiful. Although she was described in contemporary accounts as a prostitute, this was not true. Her life, however, had been troubled, and at the age of 16 she had been admitted to the Magdalene Asylum, a reform school for girls whose life needed turning around. On April 8, 1828, she was discharged from Magdalene to begin what should have been a better life.
The next morning, Mary and her friend, Janet Brown, were in the Canongate. They headed for a local tavern to have an early drink, and it was here, by chance, that they met William Burke. He struck up a friendship with the two women and invited them to breakfast with him. Although Janet was a little hesitant, Mary was all for it, and reluctantly, Janet agreed.
Burke took them to the home of his brother, Constantine, in Gibb’s Close, where he pretended to be a lodger. Burke gave them breakfast and shared two bottles of whisky with them. Soon, Mary passed out, but Janet kept her head, and when Helen McDougal turned up and began a violent argument with Burke, she left.
Hare was sent for, and the two of them swiftly killed the unfortunate teenager.
Janet Brown had gone to see a friend and former landlady, Mrs. Lawrie, and told her what had happened. Lawrie, worried for Mary’s safety, sent Brown back, along with one of her servants. Scarcely 20 minutes had passed since Janet had left her friend, but it was too late. Hare told Janet that Mary had gone for a walk with Burke. Janet decided that she would wait for Mary, and so sent the servant back to Mrs. Lawrie. The servant related the news, and Mrs. Lawrie, now even more worried, sent the servant back with instructions to get Janet out of there immediately. There is no doubt that Mrs. Lawrie’s actions saved Janet Brown’s life.
Mary Paterson’s corpse was sold to Knox, who was so pleased with the condition and beauty of it that he preserved the body in alcohol for three months before dissecting it. Janet would spend many months searching for her friend.
Up until Mary’s murder, the victims had all been unknowns, people who would never be missed. Mary was different. Although not a prostitute, she was not unknown, and a woman so beautiful would certainly be remembered . . . and missed. Whether Knox reprimanded Burke and Hare on bringing a body that is recognizable is not known, but certainly, their next selections were a little more careful.
Burke had, at some point in life, worked as a cobbler, and as such had bought leather scraps from an old beggar woman known as Effie. One day, Burke came upon Effie, and she tried to sell him some scraps of leather, not knowing that he was no longer in the cobbling business. Burke invited her back to the lodgings, and she readily accepted.
Once again, as soon as she was drunk enough to offer up no resistance, the two men took her life in their usual manner. Once again, no questioned were asked, Dr. Knox had a new fresh corpse, and Burke and Hare had ₤10.
Confidence had, once more, made the two men bolder, and Burke took what may have turned out to be a stupid risk. Walking in the streets one morning, Burke saw two policemen escorting a woman, obviously quite drunk, to the cells where she could sleep it off. As bold as could be, Burke strode up to the policemen and told them that he knew the woman quite well, and knew where she lived. He told them that he would look after her and make sure that she was well taken care of.
That night, the two men shared another ₤10.
That June, an old lady and her deaf grandson were wandering the streets of Edinburgh. She was asking directions to a friend’s house, and one of the people she asked was William Burke. The question told him that she was a stranger to the city, and she would not be missed. Burke told her that he knew where her friend lived, and that he lived on the way. He would be glad to walk with her. She and her grandson went with the seemingly friendly Burke, and when he reached the lodgings, invited her inside for a drink. She accepted, gratefully.
While the grandson was being entertained in another room by Helen and Margaret, the old woman was rapidly becoming drunk. As soon as she had fallen asleep, Hare was summoned from another room, and the old lady was quickly murdered. Stripped naked, they put the body into a herring barrel ready for transportation to Dr. Knox’s school.
In the other room, the boy was becoming anxious. What could they do with him, they couldn’t let him go. Although he was a stranger to the city, they had no doubt that he could lead authorities back to the boarding house. It was unlikely that the boy would take a drink, and so Burke took matters into his own hands. He grabbed the boy, put him across his knee, and broke his back. There was just enough room in the herring barrel for the boy’s body next to his grandmothers.
The barrel proved too heavy for the men to get it around to Surgeons Square unassisted, so they maneuvered it onto a cart and used Hare’s old horse to pull it. However, after a while, the horse refused to go further than the Mealmarket. A crowd began to gather, and they tried to assist the two men, but the horse was too stubborn and refused all efforts to get it to move.
Nervous that the growing crowd should start to focus less on the horse and more on the barrel, Burke and Hare engaged a porter with a barrow to help get it the rest of the way. Having surmounted one problem, another soon arose. When the bodies were placed in the barrel, they were freshly dead, and so entered the barrel with some ease. But the passage of time had allowed some rigor to set in, and getting them out proved to be hard work. It was finally accomplished with the help of some of the medical students.
Unbelievably, no questions were asked, even when presented with not only two fresh bodies, but one that was so young. Nevertheless, the two men left with ₤8 a piece.
In the latter part of June, Burke and Helen McDougal decided to take a trip to see relatives in the country. There had been some growing tension in the lodgings, and the women did not like each other very much. Before they left, according to Burke, Margaret Laird made a suggestion that Burke no doubt found worrying. She urged Burke to murder Helen while they were away. Burke refused.
When he and Helen returned, they found that things had changed. Before they left the Hares were strapped for cash, money was tight and they were in the process of pawning some of their belongings. But now, the money problems seemed to have vanished. It was clear to them that Hare had been “burking” on his own, and had not shared the proceeds with his partner in crime, a clear violation of their agreement.
Hare denied it all, but Burke paid a visit to Knox’s school, and his suspicions were confirmed when he was told that Hare had supplied a corpse. The two men argued and came to blows. With this break in the agreement, and probably remembering Margaret trying to get him to murder Helen, the Burke and Helen left the lodging and moved to the home of John Broggan, the husband of Burke’s cousin. Although Burke and Hare would continue to be partners in crime, they would not live under the same roof as them.
The Broggan’s had hired a washerwoman named Ostler, a recent widow forced back into employment. Burke asked her to take a drink with him, and she accepted. Soon, she was in high spirits, singing, and drinking some more. When she began to get drowsy, Hare came around and between them they smothered the woman. She was hidden in a box until her remains could be taken to Knox. For Mrs. Ostler, the two men received ₤8. It was now a sign of their reckless behavior that Burke and Hare were willing to murder outside of the safety of their home.
Another visitor to Edinburgh soon became their next victim. Unlike any of the other victims, they didn’t have to go looking for her, she came to them. Ann McDougal came to Edinburgh to visit her cousin, Helen. Despite family ties, she too would become a fresh corpse for the dissecting table. Burke seemed a little more reluctant with Ann, seeing as she was a friend and related to Helen. It fell upon Hare to do most of the work, though Burke did join in. Ann was taken to Knox in a trunk supplied by Knox’s school, and they were paid ₤10.
Once again, Burke and Hare started to become overconfident and take risks. Mary Haldane was an elderly prostitute who was well known in the area. She was certainly known to Burke and Hare, and even, at one time, lived at Log’s Lodging. According to reports, Burke had long considered Haldane as a suitable victim, and one day he bumped into her when she was particularly vulnerable.
She was feeling the effects of a long drinking session, and was grateful to the well dressed man who offered a drink to her. She went with him to the lodging, having met Hare along the way. Within a short space of time, Haldane was completely helpless, and Knox had a new corpse for the students to observe.
Peggy Haldane was old Mary’s daughter, and she grew worried about her mother. Peggy began asking around, and very soon, a grocer by the name of David Rymer mentioned seeing Mary with Hare a few days before.
Peggy went to Logs to look for her mother. McDougal and Laird denied that Mary had been there, becoming more indignant at the suggestion that they would allow a common prostitute into their home. Hare, seeing that this argument was not going to work, stepped in to calm things down. He agreed that Mary had been there, but she had left. In what must have seemed the spirit of friendship, Hare offered Peggy a drink, and then another. Soon, Peggy and her mother were reunited at Dr. Knox’s anatomy school.
By now, questions were being asked on the street, people had noticed that some familiar faces were missing. Yet no-one went to the authorities. Burke and Hare seemed oblivious to the dangers they were placing themselves in. Rather than be cautious and pick their next victim with care, they instead picked the highest profile victim so far – “Daft Jamie” Wilson.
James Wilson was 18 years old, very well known, and very well loved. His father had died when Jamie was 12, and as his mother worked, Jamie spent the days wandering the streets. One report of the period described him as “a quiet, harmless being, and gave no person the smallest offense whatever; he was such a simpleton that he would not fight to defend himself.”
He and his mother had recently had a falling out, and Jamie had taken to sleeping wherever he could. People would feed him and he managed to get by on the kindness of the people around him. Children loved him, he made them laugh, and he was a familiar sight wandering through the streets of West Port. Jamie Wilson was popular, well liked, easily missed, and had a club foot that would make him instantly recognizable. All of which makes him a surprising choice for a victim.
In October 1828, according to sources, it was Margaret Laird who targeted Jamie. He was out looking for his mother, and Margaret told him she knew where she was. Jamie followed along and she led him back to the lodgings. Hare welcomed the guest and urged him to have a drink. But, although Jamie drank once in a while, he didn’t like to be drunk, and at first he refused. Soon though, he had a drink. In the meantime, Margaret went off to get Burke.
Burke and Hare managed to get Jamie into the little room that they used, and the drinks that Jamie had taken were proving to be effective and he lay down. But Jamie was no pushover. He was young and strong, and he had not drunk enough to make him insensible.
Burke was impatient and could wait no longer. He launched himself on Jamie, and almost immediately, Jamie began to fight back. He threw Burke off, and Burke, angered, attacked again. But he was no match for Jamie.
During this, Hare just stood and watched, and it was only when Burke threatened to stab him that Hare joined in. With both Hare and Burke now fighting him, Jamie stood no chance. Soon, he felt his nose and mouth close off, while Burke lay across his body to keep it still.
The body was placed in a chest and taken to Knox’s rooms, where it was sold for ₤10.
Once again, Knox asked no questions about where they got the body, but he had to have known who it was, and certainly any of his students would have recognized Jamie. In addition, the body had to have shown the markings of a fight, making it even more suspicious. A colleague of Knox, Dr. William Ferguson, believed that he recognized Jamie’s body, with its distinctive deformed foot. Knox quite firmly denied that it was “Daft Jamie,” yet according to reports, when the anatomy lesson began, the first place Knox dissected was the face and the foot.
Jamie’s death should have been the one to seal Burke and Hare’s fate, but they had managed, once again, to escape detection. But things were about to go wrong for the pair.
On the morning of August 31, 1828, William Burke was in Rymer’s grocery store, taking a drink, when Mary Docherty walked in. Mary, who also went by the names of Madgy or Majory Campbell, was an elderly Irish woman who had travelled from Glasgow to Edinburgh in search of her son. Burke, always on the lookout for potential victims, struck up a conversation with her. Noting her accent, he asked what her name was and what part of Ireland she came from.
Mary told Burke that he name was Docherty, and she was from Innisowen. Burke said that his mother was named Docherty, and that she too was from Innisowen, and hinted that they must be related in some way. He invited her back to his lodging, and Mary, delighted in meeting such a kind gentleman and a possible relation, happily agreed.
The Burke’s had two lodgers at the time, James and Ann Gray. They, along with Helen McDougal, welcomed Mary warmly, and while Mary was entertained, Burke went in search of his partner. Once both men were back at the lodging, preparations were made to celebrate Halloween that night.
All they had to do now was to get rid of the Grays. Burke told them that Mary was a distant relative, which their accents and the woman’s attitude toward Burke seemed to suggest was true. He explained that Mary needed somewhere to stay for the night, and it would be better if she stayed with a relative. The Gray’s thought this was understandable, and it was therefore proposed that Mary should stay the night in the room the Gray’s were occupying, and they could move, temporarily, to Log’s and stay with the Hare’s. James and Ann agreed, and late that night, they left. Mary’s fate was sealed.
The partying carried on until, sometime between 11 p.m. and midnight, neighbors heard shouting, and a woman’s voice cry out “Murder!” One neighbor ran for the police, but with it being Halloween and the police busy elsewhere, there were none to be found. By the time he returned, everything had become quiet, and he believed that the crisis was over. It was – Mary Docherty was dead.
The next morning, the Gray’s returned and noticing that Mary was not there, began asking difficult questions. Helen told the couple that there had been an argument when Mary started to become overly friendly with Burke, and so she had been thrown out. This may have been believed, but whatever suspicions they may have had were revived once more when Ann went to get some stockings from the bed. Burke shouted for her to stay away from the bed, and when she went near the bed again to get some potatoes from the nearby sack, he shouted at her again.
The Grays’ suspicions were now firmly aroused, and soon, an opportunity came to test them. They were left in the room when Burke and Helen went out for a short time. It was long enough for Ann to take a peek under the bed. She saw a woman’s arm, and James was called over. Both took a closer look and discovered the naked body of the woman they were partying with only the night before.
Horrified, they ran from the lodgings and encountered Helen, who was returning home. They told her they knew about the body, and Helen began to panic. She begged them not to say anything, and even offered them ₤10 a week to keep their mouths shut. The Gray’s, already outraged, went to the police.
While they were gone, Helen got Margaret, and both women sought out their husbands to warn them. The four acted fast, and by the time the police arrived that night, the body was gone, the men ₤10 better off, and a story had been concocted for the authorities.
The police officer, Sergeant-Major John Fisher was of the opinion that James Gray may have been trying to cause a problem for his ex-landlord, but nevertheless asked about the woman. Burke told him that she went away at around 7 o’clock that morning, and there was a witness to this fact, William Hare.
Fisher later asked Helen the same question, and she also said that the woman had left at 7 o’clock. But Burke and Helen had not rehearsed their story enough. Helen said it was seven o’clock at night. The suspicious 12-hour difference was enough for Fisher to bring them both in for further questioning. A neighbor reported to the police that two men were seen leaving the house before the police arrived, carrying with them a tea chest. An anonymous tip led them to Knox’s school.
The next morning, November 2, the police arrived at Knox’s and found a box. Inside was the body of a woman. James Gray was sent for and he identified the body as that of Mary Docherty. Burke and Helen were arrested and police were dispatched to Log’s Lodgings to bring in William Hare and Margaret Laird for questioning.
News of the murder and arrests soon spread, and a brief report appeared in the Monday, November 3 edition of the Edinburgh Evening Courant.
EXTRAORDINARY OCCURENCE.-An old woman, of the name of Campbell, from Ireland, came to Edinburgh some days ago, in search of a son, whom she found, and who afterwards went out of town in search of work. She took up her lodgings on Friday in the house of a man named Burt or Burke, in the West Port. It appears there had been a merry-making in Burke's that night; at least the noise of music and dancing was heard, and it is believed the glass circulated pretty freely among the party. The old woman, it is said, with reluctance joined in the mirth, and also partook of the liquor, and was to sleep on straw alongside of Burke's bed. During the night shrieks were heard; but the neighbours paid no attention, as such sounds were not unusual in the house. In the morning, however, a female, on going into Burke's, observed the old woman lying as if dead, some of the straw being above her. She did not say anything, or raise any alarm; but in the evening, circumstances transpired which led to a belief that all was not right, for, by this time, the body had been removed out of the house, and, it was suspected, had been sold to a public lecturer. Information was conveyed to the police, and the whole parties taken into custody. After a search, the body was found yesterday in the lecture room of a respectable practitioner, who, the instant he was informed of the circumstance, not only gave it up, but afforded every information in his power. The body is now in the police office, and will be examined by medical gentlemen in the course of this day. There are some very strong and singular circumstances connected with the case, which have given rise to suspicions.
An autopsy was performed on Mary Docherty and she was found to have died from suffocation. However, whether her death was by accident or by design, the autopsy couldn’t say. There was no direct evidence linking Burke and Hare to the death.
The four were questioned repeatedly, and their accounts varied wildly, having had no time to rehearse their alibis. But there were no eyewitnesses, and with the circumstantial evidence so weak, the Lord Advocate was having a difficult time with the prosecution.
In the meantime, public outrage was growing. On November 6, the Edinburgh Evening Courant reported: “A great number of rumours have gone abroad of individuals having of late disappeared in an unaccountable manner.” The report mentioned a “sort of half-witted lad, called ‘Daft Jamie.’” The outrage was not only directed at the accused, but also at Dr. Knox and his school, whom the public saw as being equally responsible for the deaths.
With the news of the arrests, people began to come forward, including Janet Brown who told of the disappearance of her friend, Mary Paterson. Neighbors also came forward with tales of suspicious behavior. The police made a search of Log’s Lodging where clothing and other items were found. The clothing was identified by Janet Brown as belonging to Mary Paterson. Other items and clothing were identified as belonging to Mary Docherty and James Wilson.
Possibly because Burke was the one who brought Mary Docherty back to the lodgings, he was thought to be the leader of the team, and so William Hare was offered a deal. Turn King’s evidence against Burke and Helen McDougal, and he and Margaret would receive immunity.
Hare wasn’t stupid, and immediately agreed. Burke was charged with the murders of James Wilson and Mary Paterson, and both Burke and Helen were charged with the murder of Mary Docherty. William Hare and Margaret Laird were not charged at all.
The trial began on Christmas Eve, 1828. William Hare and Margaret Laird testified that Burke and Helen were the main participants in the killings. Other witnesses testified on how some of the victims were seen in the company of Helen or Burke not long before they disappeared. The trial lasted one day.
On Christmas morning, the case went to the jury. Less than an hour passed before they were back. Burke was found guilty on all counts and sentenced to death. Helen was found not proven, a verdict that is uniquely Scots, and means that the case has not been proved to find the defendant guilty, but the jury is not convinced of the defendants innocence enough to bring in a verdict of not guilty.
Hare had lucked out. Although Hare and his wife had been granted immunity, it was only for the crimes for which Burke and Helen had been charged. They could still be charged with any other murders. However, even if they were charged, the case could never been proven. The only evidence would have had to come from Burke, who would probably have jumped at the chance to get back at Hare and his wife. But, Burke was now banned as a witness because he was a convicted murderer.
Although Helen was free to go, she was held at Calton Prison until the next day, the justifiable fear being that the crowds that surrounded the courthouse would attack her. When she was released the next day, she went back to the house she had shared with Burke. If she hoped to live a normal, peaceful life, that hope was short lived.
By the next night, she was found there by an enraged crowd and the police had to come and aid in her escape. The police escorted her to a watch house where, even there, she was not safe. Living in Edinburgh would clearly not be possible.
Helen moved to England, but even there she was well known enough to make it necessary for the police to protect her from angry crowds. At this point, she disappeared, no one sure where she went, although rumor states that she moved to Australia and supposedly died in a house fire in 1868. However, a broadside, in the National Library of Scotland, written around 1829 tells of Helen’s death at the hands of a group of workers at Deanston Mills, near Doune, that recognized her. Whether this is an accurate report is not known.
Margaret Laird was kept in jail until January 19, most likely for the same reason Helen was held. She moved to Glasgow and Greenock, where angry crowds attacked her. It is believed that she eventually moved back to her native Ireland.
Jamie Wilson’s mother tried, unsuccessfully, to bring a separate case against William Hare for the murder of her son, but she was unsuccessful. His immunity from prosecution was enough to prevent this. Released on February 5, Hare immediately fled Edinburgh and was last seen in Carlisle, England. From there he vanishes into history. Tales of him moving to London to become a beggar or of him being captured by an angry mob that blinded him are unsubstantiated and are just rumours, or wishful thinking.
During the month of January, 1829, William Burke gave two confessions. Although there was confusion between the two confessions as to who was murdered when, he gave a highly detailed account of all 16 of the killings he and Hare had committed.
On the morning of Wednesday, January 28, 1829, Burke was taken to Libertons Wynd near the Lawnmarket. Estimates of the crowd gathered to watch Burke’s execution run from 25,000 to as high as 40,000. By all accounts, it was a joyful occasion, with women dressed in their best clothing, and an atmosphere closer to that of a carnival than a hanging. Some people had been there for most of the night, putting up with the rain to get a good view of the condemned man.
As the bells chimed 8 o’clock, Burke climbed the scaffold, and the crowd greeted him with shouts calling for Hare and Dr. Knox to hang with him. The general opinion was that both of the wives should have been hanged as well, and that the anatomists, if not actually the murderers, were certainly accessories, an opinion shared by Sir Walter Scott who attended the execution.
William Burke's execution
At 8:15 a.m., the trapdoor opened and Burke dropped to the cheers of the crowd. For half hour he dangled there until being cut down. Fittingly, as an executed criminal, Burke was legally available for dissection, and so his body was taken to Edinburgh University, where public interest compelled the authorities to place it on display. Such was the interest that people filed by the naked body at the astonishing rate of 60 per minute.
Burke’s skeleton can be seen at Surgeon’s Hall, Edinburgh, as can Burke’s death mask and Hare’s life mask.
Robert Knox was never prosecuted for his part in the crimes, much to the outrage of the citizens of Edinburgh. But experts have said that he must have known what was going on, and just turned a blind eye. Surely as brilliant an anatomist as he was, he must have been able to tell that at least some of these fresh corpses were murdered. In less than a year, Burke and Hare had provided the school with 16 bodies, all perfectly fresh, none of which showed any evidence of having been interred.
Knox kept silent about the Burke and Hare affair, not even making an apology, and continued to use body snatchers to supply him with anatomy subjects. Although he was exonerated of any blame, his part in the murders would not be forgotten. Once the most popular teacher in Edinburgh, he now found that his student body was shrinking rapidly. His applications to other positions were rejected; the medical community wanted nothing to do with him. He was burnt in effigy in the streets of Edinburgh, his house attacked, and demonstrations against him turned to riots.
Knox would eventually move to Glasgow and then to London, where he still found it impossible to get a post as a surgeon. Instead, he concentrated on writing and lectures until 1856, when he joined the London Cancer Hospital as an anatomist. For the next six years he worked there until his death on December 20, 1862.
The Burke and Hare case, followed by the “London Burkers” who killed 60 people in 1830-31, made a change in the law inevitable, and the House of Lords passed the Anatomy Act on July 19, 1832. The Act gave the lecturers legal access to corpses from prisons, workhouses and hospitals that were unclaimed after death. In addition, people could now donate bodies of their next of kin, and leave their bodies for medical research in their will. It would put an end to the gruesome business of grave robbing and the supplying of bodies by means of murder.