William Burke and William Hare were two murderers who committed a series of sixteen murders in Edinburgh in 1828. Burke was probably the older of the two men as he had been born in 1792. His parents were middle class and he was born in Ulster province in Urney, Ireland. Burke had married but deserted his wife after fighting with her father. When he left Ireland, he moved to Scotland, found lodgings near Falkirk, and worked as laborer on the Union Canal. During that time, he began a relationship with Helen McDougal, whom he affectionately called Nelly, and, in 1827, he and Nelly moved to Edinburgh where he eventually worked as a cobbler.
Hare’s year of birth ranges from 1792 to 1804. Like Burke, he was born in Northern Ireland in the province of Ulster and worked on the Union Canal before he moved to Edinburgh in the mid-1820s. He found lodgings in Edinburgh at a house in Tanner’s Close that was run by a man named Logue. Logue was married to a woman named Margaret Laird, and when Logue died, Hare married Margaret and began running the lodging house with Margaret.
To make ends meet, Burke and Nelly worked at a harvest in Penicuik. It was in Penicuik that they met Hare, who had also come to harvest crops. Hare was a hard-drinking, quarrelsome, and amoral person whereas Burke was described as friendly, industrious, and someone who always carried his bible. With such differences, it was somewhat surprising the two men bonded and became good friends, but they did. In fact, because of their friendship, after the harvest ended, Burke and Nelly moved to Tanner’s Close, and, it did not take long before the two friends gained a reputation for their hard-drinking and boisterous ways.
The lodging house that Hare ran had eight beds. Lodgers paid 3d. each, and sometimes two or three lodgers slept in the same bed. One lodger of Hare’s was an army pensioner named Donald, and while Donald was boarding at Hare’s, he died from dropsy on 29 November 1827. Donald owed Hare money, but he died before his pension check arrived, and, therefore, Hare bemoaned his financial loss to Burke.
Thinking of ways to solve Hare’s financial crisis, the two friends came up with the idea of selling Donald’s corpse. At the time, corpses were difficult to come by, so, medical schools began offering financial compensation for them. Hare and Burke had heard about anatomists paying for bodies, and they conceived the idea to sell Donald’s corpse for dissection by surreptitiously removing it from the coffin and weighing the coffin down with tanning bark so that no one would know.
After dark, they carried Donald’s corpse to Edinburgh University where they met a Doctor Robert Knox. Knox conducted anatomy lectures and needed corpses for dissection to accompany his lectures. Therefore, Knox or one of his assistants hinted that other corpses would also be welcomed. The price fixed for Donald’s corpse was £7 10s, which in today’s value is over £636 or about $857.00. Thus, Hare and Burke realized they had just discovered a gold mine.
When another of Hare’s lodgers named ‘Joseph the miller’ became ill, the men again saw dollar signs. They became impatient for Joseph to die and decided to help fate along. They plied Joseph with whiskey, forcibly restrained him, and suffocated him. (Some historians believe that Joseph was not the first person killed by Burke and Hare. They believe a woman named Abigail Simpson was murdered first). Despite who the men killed first, Burke and Hare soon realized that the corpses they provided to Knox could not be injured or damaged.
To ensure corpses were uninjured, the pair soon devised a successful modus operandi (m.o.) to avoid injuring or damaging them. Burke would sit or lay across the victim’s chest to prevent the person from moving or crying out. Hare would then cover or compress the person’s nose, mouth, and neck so that the person could not breathe. This technique of killing later became known as “Burking.”
Besides murdering Joseph, Burke and Hare’s victims included two men, twelve women, and one male child. The child was dumb, and Burke later claimed that the dumb child’s murder bothered him the most. However, even if the child’s death bothered him, Burke reported that he gave his brother’s children the boy’s clothing because “they were almost naked; and when he untied the bundle they … quarrel[ed] about them.” Another reason they disposed of the deceased person’s clothing was to prevent detection.
Burke and Hare also soon developed a technique to obtain their victims by stealthy means. They tempted or lured them, usually to Hare’s lodgings where they proceeded to get them drunk. In fact, most of their victims were intoxicated at the time of their death, and newspapers also reported that Burke and Hare “were always in a drunken state when they committed those murders, and when they got the money for them.”
Over time, the men became bolder and less concerned about being caught. “[W]hen they wanted money, they would say they would go and look for a shot; that was the name they gave them when they wanted to murder.” It was also reported that when they first began delivering the murdered bodies to Knox, they did so under darkness of night. However, as they grew more brazen, they began delivering bodies in broad daylight. One newspaper reported:
“When they carried the girl [named] Paterson to Knox’s, there were a great many boys in the high School Yards, who followed Burke … crying, ‘They are carrying a corpse,’ but they got her safely delivered [without incident].”
Hare and Burke eventually had a falling out. It was around this same time that Burke and Nelly moved in with Burke’s cousin named Broggan. Broggan lived a few streets away from Hare and operated a lodging house too. Despite the argument and Burke living with Broggan, the breach between Hare and Burke did not last long. They soon joined together and began killing again.
Hare and Burke’s undoing came about because of the suspicions of a married couple named Gray. They lodged with Broggan and noticed a woman named Margaret (or Margery) Campbell Docherty missing. They decided to investigate and discovered her body under a bed covered by straw. Burke had lured her to Broggan’s where he and Hare had killed her.
The Grays confronted Nelly, who attempted to bribe them to keep quiet, but they went to authorities anyway. In the meantime, Hare and Burke learned that the Grays had discovered Docherty’s corpse. They immediately took it to Knox, so when the police investigated, all they found at Broggan’s was Docherty’s bloody clothing. However, because of the bloody clothing, they began to question Burke and Nelly. Their stories conflicted, and they were taken in for questioning on 1 November 1828.
The following morning authorities discovered Docherty’s body at Knox’s office. The discovery resulted in Hare, Margaret, and Broggan being brought in for questioning. Everyone told a different story, although Burke and Hare blamed each other for Docherty’s death. Police eventually sorted out the truth, and, on 3 November, they released Broggan and arrested Burke, Nelly, Hare, and Margaret for murder.
Doctors then examined Docherty’s body. Although they could not medically prove that Docherty had been suffocated, they reported suffocation as her cause of death. Based on that, Burke and Hare were charged with murder. Unfortunately, although police believed the two men had committed several murders, the lack of bodies made it difficult for prosecutors to charge them with more than Docherty’s death.
After the arrests, wild and exaggerated stories began to circulate in the press. Anyone missing was alleged to be a victim of Burke and Hare. Prosecutors, in the meantime, were hampered by their lack of evidence, and, so, they offered Hare immunity if he would testify against Burke and Nelly. He agreed, and as Hare could not testify against his wife, only Burke and Nelly were charged.
Burke and Nelly were charged with three murders. Prosecutors focused on the money gained from the murders and discovered that Hare and Burke “entered into a contract with Dr. Knox and his assistants that they were to get £10 in winter, and £8 in summer for as many subjects as they bring to them.” However, Burke and Hare were not the only ones benefiting financially. Margaret also benefited financially because whenever a person was killed at the lodging house, she received a £1 from Hare’s share.
Questions were also raised about Knox’s culpability. An investigation into Knox’s guilt by a committee of nine “gentleman” found him not culpable, and Burke’s own statement exonerated him, so Knox was never charged with any crime. However, the public at large believed Knox had been complicit. Cartoons soon lampooned him and a crowd burned his effigy in front of his house. One Wiltshire newspaper also questioned Knox’s morals and wondered how Burke and Hare’s availability of bodies raised no suspicions in Knox’s mind:
“[N]ot a single question was ever put; or if ever, mere mockery; to the wretches who came week after week with uninterred bodies crammed into tea-chests; but that each corpse was eagerly received, and fresh orders issued for more.”
The continual criticism, eventually caused Knox to resign his position as curator. He left Edinburgh in 1842 and began lecturing in Britain and Europe. While doing so, he violated some regulations and was debarred from lecturing. He then opened his own practice and worked as a pathological anatomist, until his death in 1862.
On Christmas Day, Burke was found guilty, and Nelly was found “not guilty” and released. When she went out the next day for alcohol, an angry mob confronted her and the police were called. For her own protection, she was taken to a nearby police station, but the mob was so angry, they attacked the station. Nelly escaped through a window and no one seems to know where she disappeared or what happened to her.
Margaret was released from police custody on 19 January 1829. She traveled to Glasgow intending on returning to Ireland by ship. While waiting for the ship, someone recognized her and she was attacked by a crowd. Police gave her protection and escorted her to Belfast, where she safely boarded a ship. Thereafter, no information exists as to exactly where she disembarked in Ireland or what happened to her.
Hare was released on 5 February and with aid left Edinburgh by coach wearing a disguise. However, along the way, he was recognized. When the coach reached Dumfries, he went down to supper, and a crowd gathered intending on doing him harm. He escaped through a window and was temporarily placed in the local gaol for his own protection. Eventually, he was escorted out of town and was last seen heading east walking towards Newcastle.
As for Burke, the clergy encouraged him to give a full confession before his execution. He did but primarily blamed Hare for the murders. Burke was hanged on 28 January surrounded by a crowd of some 25,000 people. An announcement was also made that his corpse was to be publicly dissected and that a limited number of tickets were distributed. The dissection occurred at Old College, in the university’s anatomy theatre, but because there were so many people interested in seeing his body, a minor riot ensued. Therefore, accommodations were made to allow groups of 50 people to pass through the theatre after his body was dissected.
-  “Confessions of Burke, Authenticated by His Own Signature,” Essex Herald, February 17, 1829, p. 4.
-  “Murders in Edinburgh for the Sake of Selling the Bodies,” London Courier and Evening Gazette, December 27, 1828, p. 3.
-  “Confessions of Burke, Authenticated by His Own Signature,” p. 4.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  “Hare the Murderer, – Dr. Knox,” Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette, March 12, 1829, p. 4.