If you thought Edinburgh history was all cute little stories about puppy dogs, think again. Edinburgh has a dark side, complete with a pair of serial killers who make Jack the Ripper look like a small time hood. In just eighteen months between 1827 and 1828, William Burke and William Hare murdered at least 16 people in Edinburgh and sold their corpses to Edinburgh’s Medical College. Nice guys eh?
How It Started
The two men met in 1827 when Burke and his female companion became tenants in a somewhat sleazy boarding house owned by Hare’s wife. The two couples hit it off. One can just imagine the two guys sharing beers after a hard day at work—kicking back and shooting the breeze. They had a lot in common. Both were laborers and had immigrated to Edinburgh from Ireland. Both had found life a pretty hardscrabble affair and were looking for a way up and out. They must have had dreams, but their ticket to the good life turned out to be suffocating unsuspecting victims in Hare’s boarding house and delivering the cadavers to one Dr. Knox, a prominent physician and anatomist who paid cash and asked no questions. It was a cool gig until they got a little too cocky and got caught. The hours were good and the money wasn’t bad either.
They fell into the business accidentally when an elderly tenant died owing £4 back rent. Burke and Hare decided to steal the body out of the casket and sell it for the back rent. It seemed only fair. They substituted tanners bark for the corpse, sealed the coffin, and hustled the body off to Dr. Knox. In case you are wondering why a prominent doctor would stoop to paying for cadavers, I should note that Edinburgh was and still is, for that matter, a world famous center for medical education and research. In the early nineteenth century, medical students and researchers were flocking there for education and intellectual and scientific stimulation. Cadavers for dissection were in great demand but supply was limited; the only legal source of cadavers being the dead bodies of criminals. It was just the old economic law of supply and demand.
Burke and Hare had an entrepreneurial streak. The pay for corpses was so good that they decided to manufacture a few, using the boarding house to lure in their victims for the kill. Their first actual murder was another elderly lodger. Soon, with the help of their female consorts they were luring victims to the boarding house and dispatching them after plying them with booze, or in the case of the lame and the halt, simply overpowering them. Suffocation was their favorite method of dispatch. They concentrated on the vulnerable—an old lady and her grandson, a blind boy, a prostitute, even a cousin of Burke’s mistress. Success made them bold and careless. They should have stuck to vagrants and transients who would not be recognized or missed. They went too far when they killed a crippled, mentally retarded boy called “ Daft Jamie” who was well known in the district and whose disappearance was definitely noticed. Several of Knox’s anatomy students recognized the youngster’s body when it was being dissected in anatomy class and suspicions were aroused. The end was near.
Burke and Hare’s last victim, one Marjory Campbell Docherty, was the one that did them in (to coin a phrase.) A lodger searching for a missing stocking under a bed found instead the lady’s corpse and went off to notify police. Burke, Hare, and the two women were caught red handed. The jig was up. Hare and his wife turned crown’s evidence in exchange for immunity and provided the court with all the gory details, proving once again the truth of the old saw about there being no honor among thieves.
How It Ended
The trial was an absolute circus and Burke definitely got the short end of the stick. He was convicted and sentenced to death, while Hare was hustled off to London via mail coach to keep the crowd from lynching him. Mrs. Hare, the erstwhile proprietress of the lodging house and co-conspirator got off scot free and high tailed it back to Ireland. Burke’s mistress also escaped punishment. Rumor has it she emigrated to Australia and died there in 1868. Dr. Knox was never even charged. Burke was hanged on January 29, 1829 before an angry crowd of onlookers. His body was cut down and taken to the medical college where it was cut up and dissected. Never say the Scots don’t have a sense of humor.
In the Footsteps of Burke and Hare
Visitors to Edinburgh today can see Burke’s skeleton at the Museum of the Department of Anatomy at Edinburgh University, can check out a display of Burke and Hare artifacts at the Museum of The Royal College of Surgeons ( including a pocketbook supposedly made from Burke’s skin) and browse through old newspaper clippings and other ephemera in the Edinburgh Room of the Edinburgh Central Library. It’s a stretch, but if you are feeling frisky and want a bit of raunchy fun to top off a Burke and Hare odyssey, there’s a strip club in Edinburgh named after the city’s two most famous serial killers. A fitting memorial, don’t you think? It’s called the Burke and Hare Pub, but you’ll get more than a beer there so leave the kiddies at home and don’t take any candy from strangers. The place is in an area of town nicknamed the “pubic triangle”. Need I say more?