With Halloween upon us, we’re in rather a macabre mood here in EPIC Ireland. Ireland’s contribution to the world of fictional horror is well known, but here we want to focus on the real life story of William Burke and William Hare.
What started out as a scheme to make easy money by in Edinburgh in 1827, quickly descended into something much more sinister. By 1829 the entire land was aghast and transfixed with the ‘West Port Murders’.
William Hare emigrated from Northern Ireland to the UK and worked along with many other Irish immigrants on the Union Canal before moving to Edinburgh where he ran a lodging house. William Burke was born in Urney, County Tyrone in 1792 and moved to Scotland around 1815. He also found work as a navvy on the Union Canal, where it is believed the two may have at first met.
Edinburgh at the time was a leading European city, particularly of anatomical study. Unfortunately the bodies needed for research were in short supply in the early 1800’s, and fewer than five corpses were allocated to the Edinburgh Medical College for research each year. Scottish law required that corpses used for medical research should only come from of those who had died in prison, suicide victims, or orphans. The shortage of corpses lead to an increase in grave robbing by what were known as ‘resurrectionists’ or ‘resurrection men’.
Exasperated by the shortage of available corpses, a doctor at Edinburgh College, Robert Knox, began paying for illegally exhumed corpses. Body snatching flourished to the point that recently buried relatives would be watched over 24 hours a day until such time that the body was decomposed enough to be of no use to the body snatchers. High walls and watchtowers were even constructed around many of Edinburgh’s graveyards, such as St Cuthbert’s at the top of King Stables Road.
In 1827 William Burke became a resident at Hare’s lodging house on Tanners Close on the west side of Edinburgh. The murderous duo began when together they sold the body of a resident, an elderly army pensioner by the name of Old Donald. He passed away from natural causes while lodging at Hare’s lodging house and was sold to Doctor Robert Knox for £7.10, in order to reclaim money owed by the deceased. From this morbidly opportunistic event the pair realised an opportunity to make quick and easy money, but instead of waiting for natural causes to start taking the lives of their corpses, Burke and Hare decided to ‘hasten’ the process.
(Above: Dr Robert Knox. Although suspicions were raised about the extent of his involvement in Burke & Hare’s scheme, no charges were brought against him.)
They began their grisly endeavour with the tenants of the boarding house before moving on to prostitutes and strangers on the streets of Edinburgh. They developed a trademark method of suffocation that would later become known as ‘Burking’. One particular victim was a lodger named Joseph that was suffering from fever. Hare was concerned that this would deter others from staying in the house so he and Burke murdered her and sold the body to Knox.
On Halloween 1828 Burke and Hare’s last victim, Marjory Campbell Docherty, was invited to stay with Burke and Helen on the pretence that she was a distant relation of Burke’s mother. Burke’s other lodgers, a couple called James and Ann Gray, were invited to stay temporarily at Hare’s boarding house that evening so the murder could take place. On their return to Burke’s lodgings the following day, the Gray’s were told that Marjory had been asked to leave because she had been flirtatious with Burke. The couple became suspicious when they were not allowed to enter the spare room where they had left some belongings, and when left alone they discovered Marjory’s dead body hidden under the bed. A bribe of £10 per week was attempted to keep the witness’ quiet but the bribe was refused and the police were called. Although the police suspected the men of other murders, there was no evidence on which they could take action.
An offer was put to Hare granting him immunity from prosecution. He provided the details of Docherty’s murder and confessed to all 16 deaths; formal charges were made against Burke and his wife for three murders. At the subsequent trial Burke was found guilty of one murder and sentenced to death. The case against his wife was not proven and struck out.
Burke was executed in Edinburgh by hanging on January 28th 1829. In an act befitting of his crimes, his corpse was dissected and his skeleton displayed at the Anatomical Museum of Edinburgh Medical School where it remains to this day. A pocket book was made out of his skin which can be viewed to this day in the police museum on The Royal Mile in Edinburgh.
As for Hare, he disappeared after the trial and his fate has remained a mystery, although several stories abound of him meeting a messy end at the hand of mob justice in one town or another, making it impossible to verify.
Three of Burke and Hare's victims
Burke's skeleton on display
William Burke and William Hare occupy a place in our Achieving Infamy gallery at EPIC Ireland. This fully interactive gallery lets you act as judge and jury on some of Ireland’s less reputable characters. EPIC Ireland tells the complete story of Ireland’s history of migration, and the influence its people have had on the world. Told over 20 galleries, it details the lives of over 300 people of Irish descent, and how they’ve contributed to the world of science, arts, engineering, business and sports.