"They often said to one another that no person could find them out, no one being present at the murders but themselves two and that they might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb"
from Burke's official confession
WILLIAM BURKE (1792-
Contrary to popular belief, Burke and Hare were not grave robbers. Although common practice at the time, digging up corpses would have involved too much effort and besides the fresher the bodies they delivered to Professor Robert Knox (on a no questions asked basis) the better.
two Irish immigrants moved to Edinburgh to work on The Union Canal but
didn't meet until Burke moved from Leith into a boarding house with his
partner, Helen McDougal.
In 1827 when a lodger of Hare's named Donald died naturally owing him £4 in rent. Hare knew that there was a high demand for bodies for anatomical study and saw a way the dead man could pay back his debt.
the day of Old Donald's funeral the two men removed his body from the
coffin and filled it with tanning bark. Later they took the body to Professor
Knox at Surgeon Square and were paid 7 pounds and 10 shillings for it.
Their chosen method of murder was to restrict their victim's breathing by covering the nose and mouth while the other restrained them. This left no suspicious marks on the body and provided the anatomy students with fresh undamaged cadavers. This method later became known as 'Burking'.
murdered at least 16 people in just under a year before being caught,
although the figure could have been as high as 30. At first they deliberately
preyed on people who wouldn't be known or recognised but their greed for
easy money combined with their sheer laziness lead to their downfall and
before long they regarded almost anyone was a potential victim. They even
contemplated killing and selling their own partner's Helen and Margaret
if they were ever short of money.
One of their victims, Ann McDougal, was a relative of Burke's partner Helen and although Burke had no qualms about killing her, he asked that Hare did the deed on that occassion.
Mary Halden, another prostitute, was lured to Hare's boarding house. When her daughter, Peggy, called on Log's Lodgings looking for her after hearing she was last seen with Hare. Both women ended up dead and delivered to Professor Knox where they fetched £10 each.
Mary and Peggy were familiar faces and gossip surrounding their dissapearance soon spread. Rather than lying low Burke and Hare became even more careless and murdered a well known children's entertainer, James Wilson, known as 'Daft Jamie'. He had a deformed foot and was instantly recognised by paying students at Professor Knox's anatomy class. Knox strongly denied that the subject was James Wilson but immediately began his lecture by dissecting his face.
On Halloween 1828 Mary Docherty, the 16th and final victim, an old Irish woman was invited back to stay with Burke and Helen after they convinced her they were related.
had since left the Hare's Boarding House after an argument over Burke's
suspicions that the Hare's were selling bodies to Knox behind his back
and Burke and Helen were now taking in lodgers of their own, a couple
James and Ann Gray.
returning to the Burke's, Ann questioned where Mary was and was told she
had been asked to leave after being 'over friendly' with Burke. But the
truth was she was still in the house, dead and hidden under the bed in
the spare room and covered with straw.
Burke and Helen were arrested and when interviewed separately they had conflicting accounts of the events. Under investigation Burke blamed Hare and claimed to know nothing about what had been happening and vice-versa. The Hare's were also arrested.
After a month of questioning the police had little evidence to secure a prosecution and finally the Lord Advocate, Sir William Rae, offered Hare immunity to turn King's Evidence and testify against Burke and Helen which he readily did.
The short trial at the High Court of Justicuary began on Christmas Eve 1828 and the following morning Burke and Helen were charged with the murder of Mary Docherty and Burke alone was also charged with the murder of Mary Paterson and James Wilson and sentenced to death by hanging. Helen's part in the crimes were 'not proven' and she was freed.
January 28th 1829 over 25,000 people attended and cheered the hanging
of William Burke in the Lawnmarket. Ironically his body ended up being
dissected in anatomy lectures and some students removed peices of his
skin and bound a book from it, stamped on the front in gold 'Burke's
There was much public anger at the fact that Hare was allowed to be let off 'Scot free' but despite attempts to bring further charges against him by James Wilson's mother, he was released in February 1829 and escaped to England via the postal coach. There were stories his identity was discovered and baying mobs threw him into a pit of lime and he spent his final days as a blind beggar in London.
Both Helen and Margaret were mobbed everywhere they went and it is rumoured that Helen escaped to Australia where she died in 1868. Margaret is said to have fled to Ireland after a lucky escape from mobs in Glasgow.
Professor Knox actively encouraged the pair to supply as many body's
as possible, he was also aquitted for his part in the crimes, but
his reputation made it difficult to continue his work in Edinburgh
and he eventually moved to London.
The execution of William Burke on The Lawnmarket 28th January 1829