Up the close and down the stair,
In the house with Burke and Hare.
Burke's the butcher, Hare's the thief
Knox, the boy who buys the beef.
(19th Century Children's Skipping Rhyme).
Cutting up human bodies to study their inner workings is nothing new. Greek physicians were carrying out human
dissection as far back as the 3rd Century BC. Before and after this time in history, the examination and dissection
of human bodies was forbidden by Roman Law. This forced anatomists to restrict their investigations to members
of the animal kingdom.
By the 16th Century , the authorities in England
had become a little more enlightened. Several
edicts – announcements of laws, usually imposed
by royalty – were made. Particular groups of
surgeons and physicians were allowed to dissect
the dead. But this permission was limited and it
remained so. Members of two specific groups,
The Company of Barber-Surgeons and the Royal
College of Physicians, were the only persons
permitted to make dissections. Between them,
they were allowed to study just ten bodies per
Until 1832, the Murder Act of 1752 remained in
force. This decreed that the only bodies to be
used for dissection were those of executed
murderers. In fact, only those condemned to both
death and dissection could be used. This sentence
was reserved for those who had committed
particularly gruesome crimes.
1: By Realdo Colombo (1500-1559)
By the early 18th Century, advances in medical science led to a greater demand for subjects to study. Two events
combined to create a shortage of bodies for use in medical schools and private anatomical schools. During the 18th
Century, many different misdemeanours were hanging offences. Hundreds were hanged, many for comparatively
By the 19th Century, the number of judicial hangings fell to around 55 per year. However, The opening of more
and bigger medical schools brought the requirement up to as many as 500 cadavers in a year. Demand exceeded
supply; the medical establishments needed nearly ten times as many corpses as were available. Of course, when
supply and demand vary, there are always people willing to make up the difference. So, the grandly-titled
'Resurrectionists', the body snatchers, went to work.
Interfering with a grave was a common-law transgression, which could be punished with just imprisonment or
even only a fine. The body snatchers, aware they couldn't be executed or transported abroad for their crimes, felt
the rewards for their night time activities were well worth the risks involved. The authorities considered body
snatching as a necessary evil, which they could largely ignore.
Naturally, the families of the deceased were hugely upset by the loss of their loved one's remains. Moreover, the
medical schools soon found themselves being offered corpses in poor condition, as the supply of freshly buried
bodies dwindled. This was the case in early 19th Century Edinburgh. The University Medical School and its rival
private anatomical schools were competing for suitable corpses to examine and dissect.
In about 1817, Strabane-born William Burke emigrated toScotland,
leaving his wife and two children in Ireland. Then in his mid-
twenties, he had come to work as a 'Navvy' (navigator - a term for
labourer) on the Union Canal. He met Helen McDougal (M'Dougal)
and, as his wife had declined to join him in Scotland, settled down
with her. Later seen as a respectable, married couple, they lived
together for about ten years.
Burke could read and write. He had charm and an outgoing
personality. He later worked as a weaver and a baker, before
learning the shoemaker's trade.
2: William Burke
William Hare, a fellow Irishman and Navvy, was an altogether different
proposition. With his, "…ferocious and malignant disposition", he was
forced to flee Ireland after having killed one of the horses he used to drive
along the Newry Canal for his employer, Mr. Hall, the keeper of the
eleventh lock near Poyntzpass, Newry.
3: William Hare
While working on the Union Canal's Edinburgh terminus, Hare met a man
named Logue, who ran a boarding house for tramps and beggars in Tanner's
Close, in the West Port area. Logue died in 1826, and Hare married his widow,
Margaret Laird. Margaret kept on running the boarding house and Hare
continued working on the canal. Margaret bore Hare a child, her
4: Margaret Hare (nee Laird)
5: The Hares' Loging House, on Tanner's Close
William Burke and Helen McDougal arrived in the city in November 1827, and they moved into Tanner's Close.
Burke had already met Margaret Hare in Edinburgh. Soon the two Williams, Burke and Hare, had become close
The 29th of November 1827 was not a good day for old Donald, a former soldier who was lodging with the Hares.
He died (of natural causes), owing Hare £4 in rent money. Hare knew that Edinburgh's anatomists needed fresh
cadavers, so he felt that he could justifiably acquire Donald's unpaid rent by selling the corpse to an anatomist.
Extracting the late Donald from his coffin, they filled it with tanning bark, so that at the funeral, the coffin's being
too light wouldn't reveal the absence of the body. They took Donald's body to Edinburgh University, in search of a
Burke and Hare were seeking Professor Alexander Monro, surgeon, anatomist and medical educator at Edinburgh
Medical College. They were, however, misdirected by a student, to this house in Surgeon's Square.
6: The house of Dr. Robert Knox, in Surgeen's Square
A meeting came followed, with the assistant of Dr. Robert Knox, Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of
Edinburgh. This unnamed assistant bought Donald's corpse, and it seems that Dr. Knox himself was very happy
with his new anatomical specimen. He accepted it readily and is said to have declared that he would be happy to
encounter Burke and Hare, "…in like circumstances in the future."
Understandably, Burke and Hare were in good spirits as they returned to Tanner's Close. Poor old Donald's
remains had fetched a total of £7.10/- (£7.50), which is £532.80 in today's money. Apparently, Burke and Hare
were generally shiftless, careless and could be downright lazy. But they were not stupid; it took no great leap of
the imagination for them to concoct a modus operandi. Given that our
two protagonists could expect up to £10 for a corpse in good shape, Messrs Burke and Hare decided that, rather
than awaiting a lodger's death, they could 'help' the assumed victim on his or her way. As Burke said later, it was
this notion that, "… made them try the murdering for subjects."
Burke and Hare clearly had to 'get their eye in' as regards committing a murder. A miller, called Joseph, became
unwell when lodging at Tanner's Close. Burke and Hare began assisting him to drown his sorrows in whisky. It's
likely that Joseph, despite being both ill and inebriated fought back when his companions' intention became
clear. So, Joseph was held down, while a hand was clamped tightly over his nose and mouth. This technique, later
to be called 'Burking', proved to be quite useful for more than the obvious reason. It worked and it also left no
marks or at least, none that the forensic methods of the day could detect.
So Burke and Hare's notorious killing spree began. Over the next ten months or so, they continued their grisly
'trade', killing three men, twelve women and a child by October 1828. These 16 victims may have been the tip of
the iceberg. The total number of murrders might have been as high as 30.
While there is no need to describe the victims in detail here, there are certain pointers in the way they were
treated to the characters of both Burke and Hare, and to their relationship.
Having dispatched teenage prostitute Mary Paterson, Burke and Hare
went on to killMary Halden – another prostitute – and her daughter,
Peggy. One victim, Ann McDougal, was related to Burke's partner Helen.
Although Burke had no concerns about killing her, Hare was the one who
agreed to commit this particular murder.
7: Mary Paterson, murder victim no.1
As it happened, Mary and Peggy Halden were well known in
the area; their inexplicably going missing started gossip. But
instead of lying low until suspicions died down, Burke and
Hare killed one James Wilson. Locally popular as a children's
entertainer, 'Daft Jamie' , Wilson had a malformed foot.
During the dissection they attended, some of Professor Knox's
students recognised Jamie. The Professor vehemently denied
the corpse's identity. But unusually, Knox's demonstration
began with the dissection of the mystery cadaver's face.
8: James Wilson, a.k.a. 'Daft Jamie'
It was the expression on the tortured, dying face of another victim that haunted Burke. Among the 'targets' was an
elderly woman who had with her a mute relative, probably her grandson. While the old lady was succumbing to an
overdose of 'painkiller' (probably laudanum), the 12-year-old boy was being stretched face up across Burke's
knees – the boy died when his spine snapped.
Burke and Hare even contemplated 'Burking' their own partners, if ever funds became short. There's every
indication this was not said as a joke. By now, Burke had his suspicions, believing that Hare was in fact selling
bodies to Knox on his own account. Not surprisingly, this led to an argument.
Burke also later revealed that both he and Hare, when committing a murder were, "…generally in a state of
intoxication." Burke also said that he, "could not sleep at night without a bottle of whisky by his bedside, and a
twopenny candle to burn all night beside him; when he awoke he would take a drink from the bottle—sometimes
half a bottle at a draught"—and that would make him sleep.
On Halloween 1828, Burke and Helen persuaded a Mrs. Mary Docherty
that Burke's mother had the same surname and was a relation of hers. As
Burke and his common-law wife were themselves taking in lodgers, Burke
had to bide his time.
The lodgers, Anne and James Grey, were accommodated 'temporarily' at
the Hare's house. After the Greys had left for the night, a neighbour of
Burke's heard a woman's voice crying "Murder!". The sound of a struggle
was also heard.
The old Irishwoman's final utterances remained unreported but Ann Grey
became suspicious on returning to the Burke's house. Mary Docherty was
missing and Burke said she'd been asked to leave when she became "over-
friendly" with him.
9: Mary Docherty, the last victim
In fact, Mary Docherty's body was hidden under the spare room bed. Ann and James Grey become still more
suspicious when they were sternly warned to keep out of this room. When Burke left, the Greys quickly found
Mary's body. Confronting Helen with the discovery caused her to panic, and desperately offer £10 a week for the
Grey's silence. The Greys reported the matter to the police. Helen acted fast, warning Burke of the imminent
arrival of the law. But taking Mary Docherty's body to Dr. Knox at Surgeon's Square was of no help. The police
found the body, which James Grey identified .
On the 6th November 1828, Janet Brown spotted a report in the paper. This concerned the disappearance of her
friend Mary Paterson, the teenage prostitute who was the second victim of 'Burking'. Janet went to the police, and
identified her friend's clothing.
10: Helen McDougal and William Burke
Burke and Helen McDougal were arrested and interrogated. Burke told the police that Mary Docherty had left his
lodgings at 7 o'clock in the morning. When interviewed seperately, McDougal said Docherty had left in the evening.
The stories related by Burke and Hare also differed markedly. Hare blamed Burke, Burke blamed Hare and both
claimed to have no knowledge of the murders
The chance of a successful prosecution's occurring in what might seem an open-and-shut case was undermined by
inconclusive evidence. Mary Docherty's body had been found and identified but nobody could say for sure how
she'd died. In court, Burke and Hare could blame each other and the jury would therefore be uncertain over which
of them should be convicted.
11: Contemporary drawing
Christopher North, for Blackwood's Magazine, visited both the murderers in their cells. He reported: ' …although
there was "nothing repulsive" about Burke who was "certainly not deficient in intellect", he was "steeped in
hypocrisy and deceit; his collected and guarded demeanour, full of danger and guile; a cool, calculating, callous and
unrelenting villain." North described Hare as, "…the most brutal man ever subjected to my sight, and at first look
seemingly an idiot.'"
Sir William Rae, the Lord Advocate, came up with a workable solution. He went to William Hare with an offer he
could hardly refuse. If Hare confessed to his crimes and 'turned King's Evidence' (i.e. acted as stool pigeon) against
Burke, he would become immune to prosecution. Hare took the obvious course. As might be expected, his
promised freedom fuelled public hatred against Burke and McDougal.
On Christmas Eve 1828 the trial began at the High Court Of Justicuary in Edinburgh. It emerged that nine killings
occurred at Hare's lodging house, two more taking place in the stables. Four more murders were committed at
'Burke's House', a further crime of murder taking place at the House of Burke's brother Constantine, who lived in
The so-called 'Burke's House' was in fact a lodging house belonging to a
carter called John Brogan. Brogan had suffered severe burns in
childhood; healing was incomplete, as his life mask shows.
Brogan was a friend of Burke and Hare, and had assisted in conveying
bodies to Dr Knox's School of anatomy.
Despite the lack of conclusive evidence, Burke and McDougal were to
face capital charges. One charge involved the last murder, that of Mary
Docherty, and this was the first charge to be heard. The aim was that, if
the Docherty murder charge led to a successful conviction, the two
remaining charges would be dropped. The trial began on Christmas Eve,
12: Life mask of John Brogan
On the morning of Christmas Day, William Burke and Helen McDougal were charged with the murder of Mary
Docherty. Burke was also charged with the murders of James Wilson (daft Jamie), and Mary Paterson. After 50
minutes' deliberation, the jury returned at 9.20 a.m., and declared they'd found Burke guilty of the Mary
Docherty murder. Helen McDougal's involvement in the crimes was regarded as 'not proven'. She was a free
Before donning his black cap to deliver the death sentence, the Lord Justice-Clerk David Boyle said to Burke…
"…taking into consideration that the public eye would be offended with so dismal an exhibition [i.e. the exhibition
of Burke's body in chains], I am disposed to agree that your sentence shall be put in execution in the usual way,
but accompanied with the statutory attendant of the punishment of the crime of murder, viz.- that your body
should be publicly dissected and anatomized. And I trust, that if it is ever customary to preserve skeletons,
yours will be preserved, in order that posterity may keep in remembrance of your atrocious crimes."
Burke was taken to the condemned cell. The Hares and Helen McDougal walked free.
13: Life Masks of Burke and Hare, now in the Edinburgh Anatomical Museum
The West Point Murders had become big news. The
edition of the Edinburgh Evening Courant that covered
the trial sold an extra 8,000 copies, increasing its
revenue by £240.
January 28th 1829 dawned wet and stormy but this did
nothing to deter crowds from packing the Lawnmarket,
the location not far from Edinburgh Castle where Burke
was to hang.
Window seats overlooking the scene were rented out for
between five shillings and a pound; an estimated 25,000
people were present.
As the rain fell pitilessly, Burke was taken to the gallows.
When the executioner blindfolded Burke, the noise of
the crowd swelled into a huge cheer. Shouts of "Hang
Hare" and "Hang Knox" could be heard.
14: Burke's execution in the Lawnmarket
Encouraged by the crowd's urest to to act more quickly, the executioner released the trap; Burke plumetted
down, halting with a jerk as the rope tightened. It was 8.15am. Every time Burke's dying body twitched, the crowd
roared. At 8.45am, the body was cut down. For the time being, the show was over.
The following day, there was an uproar in and around the University's Old College , where Burke body was to be
dissected. The police had to be called, as hundreds of students fought for access to the anatomy theatre…not many
were ticket holders. A wise professor allowed gatecrashers to pass in batches of 50. Order was restored.
The two-hour dissection's highlight saw Professor Monro dipping a quill pen into Burke's exposed cranium and
writing, on a parchment…
'This is written with the blood of Wm Burke, who was hanged at Edinburgh. This blood was taken from his
The insignificant hue and cry triggered by the West Point Murders' did little to quell public anger, nor did Burke's
execution slake the public's thirst for vengeance. Wallets allegedly made Burke's hide after tanning went on sale in
Edinburgh . The Surgeons' Hall Museum has in its collection, a genuine 'Burke skin' wallet, while at the Police
Information Centre on the Royal Mile, a calling card case is on display.
15: Notebook case, gold embossed 'Burke's Skin Pocket Book'. Note the included pencil
Helen McDougal's release was highly unpopular, but an acquittal is legally valid. As for Hare (and Margaret): their
fate remains debatable. It is said that they went to settle in London, where a mob recognised Hare and threw him
into a lime pit. Whether or not he ended his days a blind beggar on London's streets is unknown.
16: Dr. Robert Knox in a tabeau in the Surgeon's Hall Museum, Edinburgh
This brings us to Dr. Knox, the "boy who bought the beef2. Knox was a qualified medical practitioner and surgeon
but he didn't practice, at least not on the living. Yet Knox was ambitious. He wanted to be Professor at Edinburgh
University, a hotly-contested position; he had to excel to beat his rivals. So, Knox devoted his life to anatomical
research and teaching, a calling that required a ready supply of subjects. In addition, Knox was taking numerous
anatomy papers and textbooks through publication, and had also been appointed Curator of the Museum of the
College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.
When Burke and Hare came calling, Knox had been an independent anatomy teacher for a year. This reinforces
the likelihood of his having established an organization of suppliers. Knox and his associates probably kept the
body snatchers of Edinburgh itself, and those in Dublin, Glasgow and Manchester, quite busy.
Burke and Hare, however, were never body snatchers, or 'resurrectionists'; they were too fastidious and idle to
start digging up the dead after dark. Consequently, their wares were in better condition than exhumed corpses,
yet the price difference was small.
When news of the West Point Murders began to break in late 1828, Knox found himself in a tricky situation. Many
believed he was involved in the crimes, a notion that colleagues and students denied vehemently. But in much
the same way as a 'mob' today may mistakenly accuse a pediatrician instead of a paedophile,
Knox was vilified, and the press had a field day, Caricatures of Knox appeared in the papers freely using the terms
'obnoxious' and 'noxious'. Some referred to him as a 'butcher who preferred his meat to be fresh".
17: Dr. Knox caricatured as 'The Receiver-General at Work, or The Dog at a Bone'.
In fact, the condemned man Burke had even tried to help maintain Knox's good name. In his own handwriting, he
penned a note that read...
'Burke declares that docter Knox never incoreged him neither taught or incoregd him to murder any person
neither any of his assistents that worthy gentleman Mr. Fergeson was the only man that ever mentioned any
thing about the bodies He inquired where we got that young woman Paterson
Sined William Burke prisoner.'
18: Burke's statement in support of Knox
At his trial, Burke swore on oath that Dr. Knox was invariably unaware of the source of the bodies. But mud sticks.
Knox continued teaching in Edinburgh for many years, but his reputation was inevitably sullied. This is indeed a
Dr. Robert Knox had begun his career with a year at St Bartholomew's Hospital (Bart's) in London. He learned
much more of his profession as an assistant army surgeon at Brussels Military Hospital in 1814. After joining the
72nd Highlanders in South Africa for three years, he studied anatomy in Paris. Edinburgh called him in the early
1820s and he ran Barclay's anatomy school in Surgeon's Square until 1840. In 1842, he went to London, working
on as a medical journalist, lecturer and text writer until his death in December 1862. In the final analysis, it is
probably correct to excuse Knox. This highly intelligent, critical, irritable pioneer was a driven man, driven by
ambition. Knox was exonerated but this didn't prevent a mob from breaking his windows. Nor did it even
delay the crumbling of his professional life.
19, 20: Two views of the life mask of Dr. Robert Knox
Dr. Knox's association with Burke and Hare proved extremely costly in both professional and personal terms.
Ironically, had it not been for the lack of knowledge of the student who wrongly directed Burke and Hare, they
might have visited Professor Monro, as intended. Had this occured, Monro might have been belittled, while Knox
was writing with Burke's blood.
Whatever the cost to Dr. Knox, the cost to Burke of the West Port Murders was not in terms of money, job or
position. A notebook discovered in 1829, in a tin box under a flagstone near Burke's house, has interesting figures
inside, written in Burke's own hand. Counting old soldier Donald's 'contribution', Burke and Hare realised £80.00
from the selling of 17 cadavers. This was gross profit, from which had to come Hare's payment, as well as the costs
of transportation, porterage and drink.
For himself, Burke earned 38 pounds 13 shillings and sixpence (£38.68.)...he hardly sold his life dearly.
To this day, Burke continues to serve the sentence imposed by Lord Justice-Clerk David Boyle 185 years ago.
21: Marked man: Burke's skeleton carries this placard
A rough measurement indicates he was about 5 feet 4 inches tall; many of his teeth are conspicuous by their
22: Burke's skull was cut in at least four places during the dissection
There is a twist in the end of this tale. In 1870, the authorities introduced 'Long drop' or 'Standard drop' hanging.
Using the condemned man's weight and build, the executioner would calculated the length of drop needed to break
or dislocate the man's neck. Fracture or dislocation usually occurred between the 3rd and 4th or 4th and 5th
cervical vertebrae (neck vertebrae). In 1829, 'Short drop' hanging was the norm.
In a 'Long drop' execution, where the neck is broken or dislocated, death can occur in 0.3 to 0.8 seconds. In a
short-drop hanging, consciousness may be lost in eight to ten seconds, or it may persist for as much as a minute.
Brain death is thought to occur in about six minutes; the heart may continue beating for between ten and 15
William Burke's skull has had its cranium (skull cap) cut open. The right orbital ridge (above the eye) has been cut
in two places, and the mandible (jaw) has been cut centrally. But Burke's neck vertebrae and the discs between
them are unmarked.
23: Burke's neck was not broken by his hanging
William Hare, Mrs. Hare, Helen McDougal, Dr. Knox, old Donald and the 16 murder victims are probably resting
in peace. Burke, as can be seen, does not. Sentence served ? Not yet...
1: Helmut Schmid, Ravensburg 2000 *
2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 9 & 10: Contemporary news illustrations *
5: Hares' lodging-house, Tanner's Close at the time of its demolition in 1902*
11: Moricks at en.wikipedia *
12: By kind permission of The Royal Collge of Surgeons, Edinburgh
14: Anon (1829)*
15: By kind permission of The Royal Collge of Surgeons, Edinburgh
16: By Kim Traynor (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 *
17: Dr. Robert Knox (anatomist): an1829 caricature*
18: Anon (1829)*
19 to 23: Gatekeeper
Grateful thanks to...
Dr. Anette I Hagan, Senior Curator Rare Book Collections,
National Library of Scotland
Please note: Images marked * are from Wikimedia Commons (copyright expired)
Copyright Gatekeeper 2014