In the shadows of Edinburgh, a grim tale unfolded, a tale of horror and death that left the city cold.
Two men, Burke and Hare, their souls tainted and black, Engaged in a wicked trade, corpses upon their track.
The year was 1828, a time of darkness and despair, And in this cursed city, evil filled the air.
For Edinburgh, a center of anatomy's cruel quest, Yearned for cadavers, a demand it could not rest.
The law demanded that corpses for dissection and research only came from the dead who met a certain church. Prisoners, suicides, or orphans were left all alone, but the legal supply couldn't satisfy the demand shown.
Resurrection men, rose in the dead of night, To steal away the bodies, hidden from the light.
Graves left undisturbed, mortsafes and guards in place, But still, the shortage persisted, a haunting embrace.
It was in this time of desperation and dire need, that Burke sought counsel, his dark path to heed.
Hare, his companion, whispered a wicked plan, to sell the dead, to Robert Knox, a nefarious man
A lodger in Hare's house, lifeless, breathless, gone, They turned to Knox, their ghastly transaction drawn. For a sum of silver, £7 10s, a fortune they received, and with that blood money, their evil souls were deceived.
Two months passed, a fevered lodger posed a threat, To Hare's house, a place others would soon forget. Burke and Hare, their hearts black as the night, decided to murder, to extinguish her feeble light.
Their murderous spree continued, their wives complicit, As death danced with them, their souls deeply afflicted. Margaret Docherty, their final victim, met her demise, Suffocated and silenced, under death's cold guise.
The authorities were suspicious, the truth they sought, But evidence eluded, and justice came to naught. Hare, offered immunity, turned king's evidence, Revealing their heinous acts, their vile pretense. Burke, found guilty of one murder, his fate was sealed, Death's cold embrace awaited, his fate was revealed. Hanged by the neck, his body dissected, torn, Displayed as a grim reminder, of the horrors he had borne.
Edinburgh awoke to the need for bodies, a gruesome sight, And the Anatomy Act of 1832 emerged from the night. The Burke and Hare murders, a tale of death and woe,
Immortalized in literature, their horror on full show.
In the early 19th century, Edinburgh's streets ran red, With the blood of those lost, their souls forever dead. Anatomical study thrived, a macabre science, grotesque,Led by Monro, Knox, and others, the city's grotesque grotesque.
Burke, a disfigured man, scarred by smallpox's curse, A cobbler turned murderer, the embodiment of dark verse. Hare, illiterate and uncouth, a man devoid of remorse, Joined in this dance of death, this tragic, wicked course.
Their victims, a procession of souls lost and forlorn, Miller Joseph, salt seller Simpson, their lives torn. The helpless, the feeble, the vulnerable, they preyed, Snuffed out by their hands, in darkness they were laid. The order of their crimes, a web of twisted lies, A miller, a salt seller, the sequence hidden in disguise. Abigail Simpson, an English lodger, and others unnamed, Suffocated, their breath extinguished, their lives maimed.
Knox, the anatomist, with his insatiable greed, Bought their wretched spoils, fulfilling their wicked deed. Unbeknownst to him, he received the bodies warm, Fresh from the hands of murderers, their hearts devoid of charm.Their spree continued, fueled by darkness and despair, As more lives were taken, more souls left in the snare. A washerwoman, an old woman, a cinder gatherer, too, They fell victim to
Burke and Hare, their evil knew no taboo. Their crimes reached a crescendo, a deafening roar,
When Daft Jamie, a helpless soul, fell to the floor. His deformities mocked, his life filled with pain, Burke and Hare snuffed out his light, forever his stain. Margaret Docherty, their final victim, her fate was sealed, Silenced by their hands, her soul forever concealed. In straw, her lifeless body found its resting place, A grim testament to the horror that haunted this space.
The tale of Burke and Hare, a chapter of horror and dread, Forever etched in the annals of the city, blood-stained and red. Their crimes, a reminder of humanity's darkest side,
A warning that evil can fester, where shadows reside.
On the morrow, the Grays returned to the scene, and Ann, consumed by suspicion, felt a chill creep up her spine when Burke forbade her approach the bed where her stockings lay. Left alone within the house's dim embrace as evening set, the Grays embarked on a quest to unearth the truth concealed within the straw. And there, beneath to desperate gaze, Docherty's
lifeless form was revealed, besmirched with blood and traces of saliva, a visage twisted in the grip of death's cruel hand.
With urgency propelling their steps, they hurried to alert the authorities, only to find McDougal standing in their path, a glimmer of deceit in his eyes. He offered them a tempting bribe of ten pounds per week, an attempt to buy their silence and complicity in his wicked schemes. Yet the Grays, fortified by their virtue, spurned his tainted proposal. And while they faithfully reported the ghastly murder to the police, Burke and Hare, like sinister specters, whisked the lifeless corpse away, their grim task leading them to the very chambers of Knox.
In due course, the police embarked on their own investigation, uncovering Docherty's blood-stained garments, cunningly concealed beneath the bed. Interrogations ensued, and Burke and his wife caught in a web of deceit, wove a tapestry of conflicting tales regarding Docherty's departure from their abode. These inconsistencies raised suspicion, casting an ominous shadow upon their souls and drawing the police ever closer. And as the early morning light painted the sky, the lawmen descended upon Knox's dissecting rooms, where they found Docherty's lifeless body. James, with somber certainty, recognized her as the woman he had witnessed in the company of Burke and Hare.
The day unfolded with swift retribution, as Hare and his wife, along with Broggan, were taken into
custody, their denials of any knowledge or involvement echoing through the halls of justice. Sixteen lives had been extinguished at the hands of Burke and Hare, their wicked deeds perpetrated amidst the haze of intoxication. Burke confessed that he could not find sleep without a bottle of whisky by his side, a twopenny candle flickering through the night, and that the sweet oblivion he sought was often found within a draught of spirits, half a bottle drained in a single breath. Opium, too, became his solace, soothing his tormented conscience.
On the fateful day of 3rd November 1828, a warrant was issued for the apprehension of Burke, Hare, and their wives, while Broggan was released without further consequence. The four suspects, now kept apart, were subjected to rigorous questioning, their earlier statements clashing with the words that now spilled from their trembling lips.
The police surgeon, Alexander Black, conducted a thorough examination of Docherty's lifeless form, and two esteemed forensic specialists, Robert Christison, and William Newbigging, were summoned to shed light on the macabre affair. Their expert opinions concluded that suffocation had likely claimed the victim's life, though irrefutable medical, remained elusive. And thus, based on the testimony of the two doctors, the Burkes, and Hares were charged with the heinous crime of murder. In his quest for truth, Christison interviewed Knox, unearthing a dark underbelly where Burke and Hare lurked, watching over destitute,, ready to purchase bodies before they found their final resting place. Christison, in his discerning judgment, found Knox wanting in principle and compassion but spared him from accusations of breaking the law.
The police, certain of foul play and with one of the four in their grasp, grappled with the uncertainty of securing a conviction. A cloud of suspicion hung heavy over the events, and whispers of other unsolved murders danced through their minds, hindered only by the absence of bodies. The public, hungering for knowledge, devoured the sensationalized tales splashed across newspapers, tales that morphed
and twisted in the darkness of uncertainty.
Speculative reports fueled the imaginations of the masses, who, in their collective dread, assumed that every missing soul had fallen victim to the pair's wicked deeds. Janet Brown, driven by a fervent need for justice, approached the police, identifying her friend Mary Paterson's garments among the morbid collection. A local baker, too, came forward, revealing that Jamie Wilson's trousers adorned Burke's nephew. And on the 19th of November, a warrant was issued for the murder of Jamie Wilson, encompassing all four suspects.
Sir William Rae, the Lord Advocate, employed a calculated tactic, singling out one individual in his relentless pursuit of the truth, seeking to extract a confession that would condemn them all. Hare, the chosen pawn, was offered immunity from prosecution on the condition that he would testify against his former accomplices, shedding light on the murder of Docherty and any other ghastly secrets concealed within their tainted hearts.
McDougal, shielded by the inviolable bond of marriage, was likewise spared from the clutches of justice. Hare, unable to resist the allure of freedom, surrendered his dark secrets, revealing the full extent of their monstrous deeds. Convinced of the sufficiency of the evidence, Rae pressed formal charges against Burke and McDougal for the murders of Mary Paterson, James Wilson, and Mrs. Docherty.
A statement made b
y Burke in January 1829 to the Edinburgh Courant sought to absolve Doctor Knox of any complicity, denying that the surgeon had encouraged, taught, or instigated him to commit such heinous acts. Thus, Knox, shielded by Burke's words, emerged unscathed from the storm of public opinion.
But the tide of public sentiment turned against him, painting him as a sinister maestro who orchestrated the deadly dance of Burke and Hare. Broadside after broadside was printed, editorials declaring that he, too, should stand trial alongside the murderers, their influence molding the perceptions of the masses. A new term was coined, birthed from the horrors unleashed upon Edinburgh: "burking," a chilling verb to describe the act of smothering a victim or committing an anatomy murder. It echoed through the streets in a haunting rhyme: Up the close and doon the stair,
But and ben' wi' Burke and Hare.
Burke's the butcher, Hare's the thief,
Knox the boy that buys the beef.
The trial unfolded on the eve of Christmas in the year 1828, commencing at the stroke of ten in the morning within the solemn confines of Edinburgh's Parliament House. The esteemed Lord Justice-Clerk, David Boyle, presided over the proceedings, supported by the Lords Meadowbank, Pitmilly, and Mackenzie.
The chamber filled to the brim as the doors swung open at nine o'clock, and outside, a multitude gathered, their curiosity piqued by the morbid spectacle that was about to unfold. Three hundred constables stood guard, their vigilant presence aimed at quelling any hint of disturbance, while infantry and cavalry stood ready, prepared to intervene if chaos threatened to reign.
The case stretched through the hours of day and night, persisting until the morning light greeted the weary souls within the courtroom. A mere respite for dinner was
dismissed, for even a brief delay could cast doubts upon the trial's integrity. And as the charges were read aloud
on that somber afternoon, Burke and McDougal's defense counsels voiced their objection, adamant that the two defendants should not be tried together. James Moncreiff, Burke's advocate, argued that his client faced three separate and distinct murders, committed at different times and in different places, in contrast to his co-defendant, who was not even implicated in two of the crimes.
Hours were spent entangled in legal wrangling, debating the validity of this objection. Ultimately, the judge ruled that a fair trial could only be ensured by dividing the indictment into separate charges for each of the three murders. He bestowed upon Rae the authority to decide which charge would be presented first, and Rae chose the murder of Docherty, armed with the corpse and the strongest evidence.
In the twilight hours, Burke and McDougal, with heavy hearts, pleaded not guilty to the murder of Docherty. The court summoned forth a procession of witnesses, their number reaching fifty-five, including the notorious Hare and the controversial Knox. Not all were called to testify, and Knox, shielded by the shadows, managed to avoid the piercing gaze of the courtroom. David Paterson, one of Knox's assistants, stepped forward, affirming that the diabolical duo had indeed supplied the doctor with numerous lifeless forms.
As dusk settled upon the chamber, Hare took his place in the witness stand, offering his testimony to the court. Cross-examined about the murder of Docherty, he painted a picture of Burke as the sole perpetrator, with McDougal being unwittingly drawn into the web of deceit, lured back to the house by the fleeing Docherty on two occasions.
Hare professed that he had merely assisted Burke in delivering the lifeless body to Knox, his presence indispensable to their nefarious transactions. Though questions lingered regarding other potential victims, Hare evaded their probing, as the charges focused solely on Docherty's demise. Soon after Hare's examination, his wife entered the witness box, cradling their coughing infant daughter. Margaret exploited the child's fits of coughing, using them as a respite, a moment of respite to compose her answers, professing a feeble memory that failed to recollect many crucial details.
The final witnesses for the prosecution were the esteemed doctors, Black and Christison. Both harbored suspicions of foul play, yet without tangible forensic evidence, their assertions remained shrouded in uncertainty. The defense called no witnesses, instead opting to read out the pre-trial declarations made by Burke and McDougal.
With the stage set, the prosecution delivered its final arguments, punctuating the air with the weight of their conviction. Then, in the early hours of the morning, Burke's defense counsel commenced his final statement, a two-hour plea for mercy, while McDougal's advocate took up the mantle at the break of dawn.
Boyle, the judge, then delivered his summation, guiding the jury to embrace the prosecution's narrative. With heavy hearts and burdened by the weight of their duty, the jury retired at 8:30 am on Christmas Day, emerging just fifty minutes later.
Their verdict resonated through the hallowed halls, a damning pronouncement of guilt against Burke for the murder of Docherty, while McDougal, saved by the proclamation of "not proven," narrowly escaped the clutches of justice. And as the death sentence was pronounced upon Burke, Boyle, his voice laced with solemnity, proclaimed:
"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 your atrocious crimes."
Burke's execution loomed on the horizon, a morbid spectacle awaited by an audience numbering as high as twenty-five thousand souls. Windows overlooking the scaffold were coveted and sold at exorbitant prices, ranging from a mere five shillings to a lofty twenty. On the 28th of January 1829, in the presence of this immense crowd,
Burke met his demise at the hands of the hangman's noose. His lifeless body swung in the cold Scottish air, a chilling reminder of the horrors he had unleashed upon the city. And on the 1st of February, in the anatomy theatre of the university's Old College, Professor Monro conducted a ghastly postmortem, attended by a selected few who clung to their precious tickets.
The spectacle sparked a frenzy among eager students, requiring the intervention of university professors to negotiate access, granting entry to fifty individuals at a time. Amidst this macabre display, Monro dipped his quill pen into Burke's blood, etching a haunting inscription:
"This is written with the blood of Wm Burke, who was hanged at Edinburgh. This blood was taken from his head."
Burke's skeletal remains found their final resting place within the Anatomical Museum of the Edinburgh Medical School, where they remain to this day, a somber testament to his crimes. His death mask and a book, allegedly bound with his own tanned skin, can be found on display at the Surgeons' Hall Museum.
Hare, released from custody on the 5th of February 1829, concealed his identity and fled Edinburgh, seeking refuge in the mail coach bound for Dumfries. His anonymity was short-lived, as a fellow passenger, Erskine Douglas Sandford, recognized him. The news of Hare's presence spread like wildfire, and upon arriving in Dumfries, he found himself confronted by an angry mob.
Police intervened, orchestrating a decoy to divert the crowd's attention while Hare slipped away through a back window, finding sanctuary within the confines of the town's prison. The fury of the crowd raged on, with stones raining upon the door and windows, and street lamps shattered in their wake. It took the arrival of a hundred special constables to restore order.
Under the cover of darkness, Hare, escorted by a sheriff officer and a militia guard, was quietly escorted out of town, left on the Annan Road to find his own way to the English border. Beyond that point, his fate slipped into the shadows, shrouded in uncertainty.
Knox, the enigmatic figure at the center of this dark saga, remained steadfast in his silence. Public sentiment turned against him, as caricatures lampooned his name and an effigy burned outside his house. A committee of inquiry cleared him of complicity, absolving him of any knowledge regarding the murders.
Yet, he chose to resign from his position as curator of the College of Surgeons' museum, as his peers slowly distanced themselves from him. In 1842, Knox departed Edinburgh, lecturing across Britain and the continent. However, his career suffered another blow when he ran afoul of the regulations set forth by the Royal College of Surgeons, leading to his removal from the roll of fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1848. He found solace in the field of pathological anatomy at the Brompton Cancer Hospital, and his medical practice in Hackney endured until his death in 1862.
The legacy of the Burke and Hare murders reverberated far and wide, prompting the need for legislative measures to address the supply of cadavers for scientific research. Jeremy Bentham, the English philosopher, had already advocated for such measures prior to the crimes committed by Burke and Hare. In mid-1828, a parliamentary select committee drafted
a bill to prevent the unlawful disinterment of human bodies and regulate schools of anatomy, even before the murders came to light. However, this bill faced rejection in the House of Lords in 1829.
The shocking atrocities committed by Burke and Hare brought the dire need for bodies for medical purposes to the forefront of public consciousness. It also sheds light on the sordid trade between doctors and grave robbers or murderers.
Shortly after, a separate incident in London, where a 14-year-old boy was murdered and his body attempted to be sold to King's College London, triggered further investigations into the activities of the London Burkers. These criminals had transitioned from grave robbing to outright murder in their quest for corpses. Two men were executed in December 1831 for their heinous crimes.
The public outcry following these events prompted swift action in Parliament. A bill was introduced and, after nine months, received royal assent to become the Anatomy Act 1832. This legislation authorized the dissection of bodies unclaimed after 48 hours from workhouses, effectively ending the practice of using bodies from executions for anatomical study.
The legacy of Burke and Hare and the subsequent legal developments served as a reminder of the dark depths to which humanity can sink. They brought about crucial changes in the laws surrounding anatomy and the procurement of bodies for medical research, seeking to strike a balance between scientific progress and ethical considerations.