William Burke’s skeleton

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I am currently working on a historic detective novel, part of which takes place in the capital of Scotland, Edinburgh.  As I always do, I’m spending a lot of my time in research.  Edinburgh is familiar territory for me – and it’s one of the most interesting cities in the world – but I am always intrigued by the things I come across.

In The Helots’ Tale – Downfall we run across the resurrectionists and a brief reference to Burke and Hare so when I was investigating using the West Port of Edinburgh for a scene in my current book and the names of Burke and Hare appeared, I couldn’t but help take a break from writing and investigate further. 

We recoil in horror at acts of violence and murder today including despicable acts like the shooting of Jacob Blake and the deliberate killing of unarmed, peaceful protesters in Kenosha by a vigilante with an assault weapon and we despair at the violence of protests but two hundred years ago there were horrors a-plenty too and mobs on the streets protesting.  Nothing is new it seems.


The infamous murderers, Burke and Hare were Irish labourers who came to Scotland, initially working on the Union Canal and loading and unloading boats at Port Hopetoun.   Burke quarrelled with a Mr Log, the owner of a lodging house in Tanner’s Close, where he was staying, and was evicted.  But when Log was dead and buried he returned to the Close where he took up with Log’s widow and assumed all the rights of the landlord over the seven bedrooms of the so-called lodging house as well as the privileges of a husband.

Often drunk, the miserable twopence or threepence paid by the wretched and obscure tramps who lodged with him exacerbated his drinking problem and made him more dissolute than ever.  Although not a pugilist, he was always ready to fight and Mrs Log, also a drunkard, was ready to respond at any time so rows, quarrels, disturbances of all kinds perpetually prevailed in Tanner’s Close.  It was into this situation that Hare arrived with his doxy, Helen McDougal, whom he had met while working on the canal.

Their house was situated near the foot of Tanner’s Close.  It went by the name of Log’s lodging house and the entrance was from Westport Street to the alley by means of descending a few steps.  The overshadowing buildings made it a dark and forbidding space.  Proceeding downwards you came to a small self-contained dwelling – one flat containing three apartments with a sign, “Beds to Let”. 

The outer apartment was large, occupied all around by structures called beds, composed of knocked-up fir stumps and covered with a few grey sheets and brown blankets among which the squalid wanderers sought rest and the profligate slept off their debauchery.  There was also a small closet with a window that overlooked a dead wall and a pigsty, into which the victims were lured.   

The character of the house and the incessant raucous noise that was always proceeding from there caused no surprise to anyone when actual cries of murder and suffering rang out into the night while the killing modus operandi enabled the murderers to prosecute their terrible traffic to the dissecting rooms without exciting suspicion.

Neither Burke nor Hare were resurrectionists (i.e. grave robbers who sold bodies to anatomical schools) although they are often lumped into this category, but they were first encouraged to pursue their murder spree by the sum paid to them by a distinguished anatomist for the body of a poor old pensioner named Donald who died while staying with them a short time before his pension became due.

Hare was expecting reimbursement of £4 owed to him by Donald and was so exasperated by the loss that he filled Donald’s coffin with bark from the adjacent tannery and kept the corpse in a sack.  Burke and Hare carried the sack through College Street to Surgeon’s Square between them without challenge and sold the corpse to Doctor Knox for £7 10 shillings, no questions asked.

This easy money exerted a magnetic influence.  The two women with them knew what was likely to happen but did not actually participate in the killings themselves which, by Burke’s own confession, continued from Christmas 1827 to the end of October 1828.

Their modus operandi was very simple, the unknown and obscure wayfarer was lured into the lodging house, welcomed by the women and the two men, perhaps weary and hungry.  They were well-dosed with raw whisky, glass after glass being readily and coldly filled in contemplation of the value of the future corpse.  Then, upon observing the drooping head, the closing eye, the languid helpless body, the two women disappeared. Hare held the victim’s lips and nose and Burke pressed his 12 stone weight onto the chest.  Scarcely a sigh, perhaps a long gurgling struggle to breathe.  More was not required and all was finally still in that dark room with its window looking out onto the dead wall.

Mary Halliday was murdered this way. The same night her body was in the hands of a “skilled anatomist” who made no enquiries.  As the supply from Log’s lodgings increased, the price paid for each subject increased too, from £12-£14 for each corpse.

It was eventually the discovery of the dead body of a woman, quite naked, with her face covered in blood among some straw in a house occupied by Burke and another Irishman named Broggan that resulted in the arrest of the four inhabitants of Tanner’s Close.  Hare turn King’s evidence and on Christmas Eve 1828, William Burke and Helen McDonell were arraigned  at the Justiciary court charged with a string of murders – causing great excitement amongst the citizenry of Edinburgh. 

Amongst the charges were the murder of a beautiful girl named Mary Paterson in the house of Burke’s brother, Constantine (a scavenger residing in Gibbs close, Canongate); a well-known idiot, named James Wilson (Daft Jamie) at the house in Tanner’s Close and Mary McGonegal, or Docherty, at the same place.  Likely there were many more murders but these were selected to provide sufficient proof in the indictment.  Among those cases not pursued was supposedly that of a little Italian boy named Ludovico who went about the city with white mice.  Two little white mice were seen long after, haunting the dark recesses of Tanner’s Close and in Hare’s house a cage with the mice’s turning wheel was discovered.

The evidence contained a list of a great number of articles; dresses, clothes worn by the victims among other things and Daft Jamie’s brass snuffbox and spoon, objects which excited much interest as Jamie was a favourite with the citizens of Edinburgh and his body must have been recognised by Doctor Knox the instant he saw it on the dissecting table.

There were 55 witnesses and when all had been examined loud whispers ran through the court of “Where are the doctors?”  Their names were known, they were placed on the back of the indictment, yet they could scarcely have appeared without risking their lives, so high was the tide of popular indignation against them. 

Sentenced to death in the usual form, the Justice–Clerk expressed regret that Burke’s body could not be hung in chains but it was to be publicly dissected and he added, “I trust that if it is ever customary to preserve skeletons, yours will be preserved, in order that posterity may keep in remembrance your atrocious crimes”.   

Parliament Square rang with cheers and jeers as if the city were holding a jubilee when the sentence was pronounced but the mob was very unhappy with the verdict of “not proven” in the case of Helen McDougall and had Hare not effected his escape secretly by the mail coach home to Ireland, the mob would undoubtedly have torn him from limb to limb.

In prison and with death before him, Burke was silent and meditative, which a pious attendant took to be a sign of contrition until he said suddenly, “I think I’m entitled to and ought to get that £5 from Doctor Knox, which is still unpaid, on the body of the woman, Docherty”.

He confessed in the lock-up that he had participated in many more murders than those he’d been indicted for and said that after his mind was composed he would make disclosures and implicate others in the same crimes for which he was doomed to die.  He was asked how did he feel when committing these murders and replied that in his waking moments he had no feeling but that when he slept, he had frightful dreams.  He was subsequently removed to the Calton Jail and secured by a massive chain.  On the 27th January he was unchained and conveyed to the lock-up in Liberton’s Wynd, at the heap of which a gallows was erected. 

At his execution, he was attended by two Catholic priests and two Presbyterian ministers (his ideas of religion were somewhat vague) and when his heavy fetters were removed they fell with a rattle and clank to the floor.  At this he exclaimed, “So may all earthly chains fall from me!”   He ascended the scaffold with his eyes half-closed, as if anxious to ignore the roars of the vast assemblage from the great thoroughfare as far as the eye could reach which filled every window, roof and foot of vantage ground.  As he climbed, their deep, hoarse roar rose in a terrible and prolonged yell which caused him to cast a fierce glance of desperate defiance and hatred.  And then the sentence was carried out. 

Another prolonged yell of disgust and vengeance arose when, after hanging the usual time, the body was conveyed to the college.  The sight of the execution, instead of sating the desire for retribution had only inflamed the crowd further but the authorities announced that a grand public exhibition was to be arranged for the next day which abated the clamour.  The pale, naked corpse, so loathed, was laid on the black marble table of the theatre and displayed to thousands who streamed through the entire day.  Afterwards, Burke was cut up and his body parts put in strong pickle in small barrels for the dissecting table and part of his skin was tanned.

Later, Helen McDougall had the daring effrontery to present herself in Tanner’s Close but the citizenry created such a furore that she had to secure herself in the watch house to escape the infuriated mob.

Tanner’s Close still exists, but not the lodgings, and at the head of Liberton’s Wynd three reverse stones indicate where, on this and on other occasions, the ultimate sentence was carried out. Burke’s skeleton, to this day, hangs in the Anatomical Museum at Edinburgh University.

The post Echoes: Burke & Hare first appeared on David Cairns of Finavon.

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