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Up the close and down the stair, in the house with Burke and Hare

Updated: Jul 2, 2021

Sophie Hutton: Tour Research, Development and Admin Assistant

There are numerous instances, in civilisation, if not of active 'body snatching' but of its prohibition. However, advancements in anatomical science were not to be constrained by reverence for the dead! In the sixteenth century, corpses of unclaimed criminals and indigents were granted to surgeons to perform dissections, though this was so sparingly that little progress in anatomy was made. An absence of corpses resulted in ‘body snatching’, a morbid practice adopted by Burke and Hare in the West Port of Edinburgh.

William Burke was born in 1792 in the Parish of Orrey, County Tyrone, Ireland. Following the disbandment of the Donegal Militia and a dispute over the sub-tenancy of land with his father-in-law, Burke emigrated to Scotland. He arrived in 1818 and promptly met his partner Helen McDougal. William Hare was also native to Ireland and of a similar age to Burke. With little education, Hare had a brutal temper and was described as ‘particularly unbearable’ when he consumed liquor!

The duo met when Burke and McDougal moved into accommodation in Tanner’s Close in Edinburgh’s West Port. In 1827, Hare’s tenant, an army pensioner known as Old Donald passed away, leaving an outstanding rent sum of four pounds. Hare, anxious to recoup the debt, proposed that Old Donald’s corpse should be sold to a surgeon, promising Burke a share of the proceeds. The coffin, which had been screwed down, was opened and the corpse was substituted with tanning bark. Hare was compensated seven pounds and ten shillings by Dr Robert Knox, an anatomy lecturer at The University of Edinburgh, in Surgeons Square.

This is a sketch of William Hare.
William Hare. Source: Commons Wikimedia

The success of Burke and Hare’s first transaction was an easy method of attaining a comfortable livelihood however it led to impatience, as the duo decided to smother a tenant named Joseph who was dying from a fever (albeit too slowly). The method they used (Hare suffocated the victim whilst Burke lay across the upper torso to restrict movement and expansion of the chest) was forensically undetectable and left the corpse in pristine condition. The corpse was sold in Surgeon’s Square for ten pounds to Dr Robert Knox, who noted the ‘freshness’ of the corpse but did not ask any questions!

Abigail Simpson, was a pensioner who travelled from Gilmerton to Edinburgh to supplement her pension by selling salt. She was intoxicated when she entered into a conversation with William Hare, who greeted her like an old friend, in a Grassmarket bar in 1828. Simpson was invited to his accommodation, where she was plied with enough liquor to prevent her return home, strangled and stored in a tea-chest to transfer her corpse to Dr Knox.

William Burke encountered Mary Paterson and Janet Brown while drinking in Canongate and invited them to Constantine Burke’s (his brother's) house to finish the two bottles of whisky he had purchased. Following a violent outburst between McDougal and William, Janet Brown escaped and Mary Paterson was killed in her sleep. Several of Knox’s students were said to have recognised Mary’s corpse and asked how she died, to which Burke replied ‘the girl had drunk herself to death’.

A sketch of Dr Robert Knox addressing students at Surgeons Hall.
Dr Robert Knox. Source: Flickr

In total, Burke and Hare are said to have smothered and strangled at least sixteen people, the last of whom was Margaret Docherty. Margaret was lured into Burke’s accommodation under the pretext that she was a relation of his mother, who had been a Docherty. Existing tenants, Ann and James Gray, who were an inconvenience to the men, were paid to stay at Hare’s for the night. Margaret Docherty was smothered and her corpse was stored in a pile of straw in the bedroom. When the Grays returned, they searched the straw and found Docherty’s corpse. They refused to accept a bribe from Helen McDougal and reported the death to the police.

Burke and his partner Helen were charged with Margaret Docherty’s death in December, 1828. Burke received two additional charges for the deaths of Mary Patterson and James Wilson and was hanged at Lawnmarket. Ironically, his body was donated to anatomical science and his skeleton remains on display at Surgeon’s Hall, alongside his death mask and a pocketbook bound in his skin. Hare, despite his involvement, turned king’s evidence and was granted immunity in 1829 before crossing the border to England. Dr Knox was cleared of his involvement, though his reputation as a surgeon was destroyed.

Learn more about William Burke, William Hare and Dr Robert Knox on our Eerie Edinburgh: Tales of a Gruesome Town tour! Click here to book!

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