I try to celebrate some of Edinburgh's notable and significant figures on my tours of the city, but sometimes it's hard to put a positive spin on historical events... The story of Burke and Hare is a popular one with many of the companies who specialise in tales of death and suffering, and I occasionally tell it too - even if these men were not exactly heroes, they left their mark on the city and ought to be noted if not exactly celebrated!
First of all, Williams Burke and Hare often described as grave robbers, and whilst it's not for me to try to paint them in a more positive light, in their defence they never robbed a grave in their lives. What they ought be described as is serial killers, who sought to profit from a curious set of circumstances in which, as Walter Scott put it:
"a wretch who is not worth
The context to the story is that Edinburgh's medical school was one of Europe's foremost centres of investigation for the study of the human body, study done chiefly through anatomical dissections of bodies of people who had died in the workhouses, in the prisons and hospitals, or at the end of the executioner's rope. Such was the reputation of the university that by the nineteenth century their demand for cadavers outpaced the supply, and the university had started offering cash for the provision of corpses for their medical students.
Donating the body of a loved one saved on the cost of a burial (which could be prohibitively expensive) and could earn the family donating it up to £10 in cash. At a time when £14 per year was considered a good salary for a domestic servant, and with many of Edinburgh's residents were living in destitution, this cash incentive had led to the rise of body snatchers stealing corpses from the graveyards in order to turn a profit. In places like Greyfriars Kirkyard you can find the mortsafes developed to help protect bodies from being dug up.
Hence Burke and Hare's inaccurate reputation as grave robbers. In reality, having both worked as labourers on the Union Canal, built to connect Glasgow and Edinburgh between 1817 and 1822, neither of these men wanted to do any more digging. Instead they went straight to source for their supply of fresh meat.
Their first victim was a resident at William Hare's lodging house on Tanner's Close, a lane long since lost which ran off the West Port, at the western end of the Grassmarket. An old soldier who had been staying with Hare and his wife died in his sleep in November 1827, owing the couple £3 in rent. Instead of allowing the body to be given a burial, Hare suggested they take it to the medical school, and see if they could claw back the money owed to them. To their delight, the university paid £7 for the old soldier's corpse, and suddenly William Hare was £4 up on the deal...
Over the next year Burke and Hare would go on to murder 16 people, in order to sell their bodies to the medical school. The victims were quite diverse in profile, a combination of men and women, both visitors to the city and local people, at least one child, and ranging in age from 12 years to old age.
The typical method of killing that they utilised was to lure their victims with the offer of alcohol, get them drunk enough to subdue them, and then suffocate them using a method which became known as 'Burking' - one of the men would kneel astride the victim's chest, restricting their movement and pinning their arms to their sides, while the other put a hand over the nose and mouth to cut off the air supply. The bodies would then be transported in a barrel or a chest to the medical school, where they would exchange the body for cash.
Their last victim was killed on 31 October 1828, and following a brief police investigation, both Burke and Hare and their respective wives were arrested four days later.
William Hare agreed to turn kings evidence against his friend William Burke, providing testimony that would convict him in exchange for leniency in his own case. He could not be compelled to provide evidence against his own wife, so instead it was William Burke and his wife Helen who stood trial for one single murder - the only death for which it was felt they had sufficient evidence available to secure a conviction - and the case came to trial at the Parliament House on Christmas Eve 1828.
The Scottish legal system at that time held that once a case was started, it should continue without interruption until a verdict is given, and so the Burke murder trial ran through Christmas Eve, and into the early hours of Christmas Day. Witnesses - including James Braidwood, who had established the world's first fire service, provided little in the way of what we would think of as forensic evidence, but nevertheless at 8.30am on Christmas Day the jury retired to consider its verdict, returning less than an hour later to pronounce William Burke guilty, but find his wife not proven of any involvement in the murder.
Burke's sentence was to be publicly hanged, and thereafter for his body to be donated to the medical school for dissection - a peculiarly apt form of poetic justice, perhaps!
And so it was that on 28 January 1829, William Burke was hanged on the square outside St Giles' Cathedral, attracting a crowd in excess of 25,000 people. Thereafter his corpse was taken to the medical school at the Old College, where it was dissected by the head of the university's anatomy school, Professor Alexander Monro. Burke's skeleton was kept and preserved as an anatomical teaching aid, and can be viewed today at the Surgeons' Hall Museum.
Barely three years later the passing of the Anatomy Act of 1832 formalised the process by which bodies could be provided for anatomical dissection, and made it illegal for cash payments to be made for medical donations.
As the incentive to dig up bodies had now been removed, the epidemic of grave robbings came to an end, and Edinburgh's graveyards once again became places where loved ones could rest in peace.
Find out more about Edinburgh heroes (and antiheroes...) with my private city walking tours!
Edinburgh Expert Walking Tours is run by Gareth, an adopted native of Edinburgh, with over 20 years experience of living and working in the city...
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