Image via WikipediaI love scary stories and I have a large interest in criminal history. Therefore, the grisly and tragic story of the multiple murderers Burke and Hare is the perfect case for me. It fits in well with Halloween. After all it was at the Hallow-Fair that the two infamous pair met up and at a Halloween party the following year that they committed the last of their terrible murders. In a time when bodysnatching gripped the Edinburgh public with panic, these two “opportunistic low-lives”[i] saw an expedient opportunity to use their lodgings as a slaughterhouse for the poor and vagrant to be delivered to the dissecting slab of the celebrated anatomical surgeon and lecturer Dr Robert Knox.
Up the Close and Doon the Stair,
'But an' Ben wi' Burke an' Hare,
Burke's the Butcher, Hare's the Thief,
Knox the Man, that buys the Beef.
This was the ghoulish rhyme sung by the children of Edinburgh after William Burke and William Hare were arrested. Newspaper sensationalism made sure the story would enjoy good coverage that would climax with the packed public execution of Burke. His body would later be dissected by Robert Knox’s rival, Alexander Monro, where the lecture room would be filled to capacity by morbid onlookers and police would have to be called to remove others who clamoured to get into the room. This later incident reminds of the overwhelming public response to BBC’s decision to allow Nick Griffin, leader of the British National Party, to appear on the panel of “Question Time”! Ironically for Burke, Monro had also been his and Hare’s first choice when they first embarked on the corpse selling business.
The Napoleonic Wars and the Industrial Revolution created an increased demand for doctors and surgeons to help treat injured soldiers and workers. In order to better understand the body and to meet these demands surgeons needed to practice and then they needed to teach other surgeons. For this they needed human cadavers. Archaic laws, completely out of touch with the enlightened drive for medical and surgical knowledge, forbid the use of all carcasses other than those taken from the gallows. Out of this necessity was born the trade of stealing corpses from graves and gangs were formed all over the United Kingdom to take on this grim work. It became pretty obvious to everyone where the supply of corpses for competing lecturers were coming from, but so regular was the trade that the authorities did little to stem it.
History always gives us the benefit of hindsight, and looking back it was unsurprising that eventually the worst of the worst would figure out a less difficult and sinister way to obtain corpses. It wasn’t long before families became fearful that their long dead loved ones would be snatched and started spending extra money on security measures making it harder for the gangs. Surely, it was only a matter of time before someone would figure out that there would be an easier and perhaps even less risky way to obtain corpses, if moral and common decency weren’t too much of problem for you.
By all accounts William Burke and William Hare were not particularly intelligent human beings. Immigrant workers from Ulster, they had travelled to Edinburgh to work as navvies on the Union canal. After construction completed Hare would eventually move into the lodging house of fellow Irish Catholic, Margaret “Lucky” Laird, a recent widow, and become her common law husband. Later Margaret would end up drinking with William Burke and his new female partner, Nelly (aka Helen) McDougal (aka Dougal). Burke had left his wife and two children in Ireland for good and after working on the canal joined up with Nelly. Together they repaired shoes and sold them to the poor. According to Burke the fateful meeting occurred in 1827. The couple would move in at Tanners Close and it was there that the scheme was hatched or happened upon.
According to Burke’s confession, an old soldier called Donald died of natural causes in Hare’s lodgings. Apparently the old man owed Hare £4 rent and the heartless landlord felt that he deserved it by fair means or foul. The corpse was sold to Robert Knox’s establishment. It was easy money. Next time they didn’t wait for a tenant to pass on under natural circumstances. Old Joseph, a very sick lodger whose symptoms were beginning to scare other lodgers, threatened to affect Hare’s livelihood. So he and Burke once again decided to turn a potential financial disadvantage into substantial advantage. Very quickly they adopted the modus operandi that would serve them throughout their career. Old Joseph was intoxicated to the point of virtual unconsciousness then one of the nefarious two pinned him whilst the other pressed a pillow over his face. This is not as efficient or easy method as feature films and stories tell us. It is unlikely that the one doing the pinning just acted as an immobilizer. He probably compressed the chest aiding the suffocation. Later this was probably changed to the more familiar method that would be known as “Burking” – one hand over the nose, the other sealing the mouth and bodyweight to compress the chest again. These murders were committed on drunk and weak individuals in a manner that would leave no marks.
Burke and Hare officially killed 16 people in the course of nine months. The order of victims has been disputed, not just between crime historians but between Burke and, well, Burke. The murderer made two confessions, one to the sheriff and a later, more detailed one, to the Evening Courant newspaper. The two killers’ victims included several truly evocative cases, which ensured that both men and their wives received hatred that bordered on hysteria. Mary Patterson was a particularly attractive prostitute who was known to some of the students who watched her being publically dissected in the lecture theatre. “Daft” Jamie Wilson was a young mentally subnormal 18 year old beggar, well-liked and well-known locally, who apparently put up a very spirited defence before he met his untimely end. There was a 12 year old boy who was murdered alongside his mother.[ii] Finally there was Mary Docherty, a poor old beggar, whose Irish background provided Burke with the perfect story to lure her back to Hare’s lodging house. He claimed that they must be related and invited her over for some porridge and a dram of whiskey. However, her murder did not go unnoticed. A family of lodgers, the Grays, suspected it and saw evidence of the body. When Nelly pleaded and attempted to bribe them, the crime was confirmed and they reported it to the police. The game was up, but the show had only just begun!
Hare, in a move that would cast him forever as the more evil of the two, would betray his accomplice and accept immunity from prosecution in return for disclosing their crimes. Up to this point the evidence was only circumstantial against Burke and Hare, so they needed one member of the gang to testify. Hare even arranged it for his wife to get off. Subsequently Burke’s “wife” also escaped without a conviction. All three fled the country and a myth eventually circulated that made it into nearly every criminal re-telling of the story that retribution was eventually meted on Hare. According to the story he was thrown into a lime pit, after which he would walk the streets of London as a blind beggar. This is all highly unlikely and there is no evidence whatsoever to support the claim. Nevertheless, as is the nature of myths, if repeated enough it becomes the “truth” and makes for a satisfactory conclusion to “The Legend of Burke and Hare”. In reality Hare faded into obscurity not long after being released from prison and no credible evidence has surfaced as to what happened to him, his wife or Burke’s wife.
Burke blamed as much as possible on Hare in his confessions. This helped immortalize Hare as the mastermind in most versions of the story, but it didn’t stop the hatred vented against him when he was convicted on Christmas Day. After his public dissection his body remained on show for the public to view. His corpse was then skinned. Apparently pieces of his skin were sold and legend has it that even Charles Dickens used a strip as a bookmark. The Police Museum in Edinburgh has a matchbox made of it on display. Meanwhile his skeleton is on view at the Edinburgh Medical Museum.
Burke and Hare first came to my attention through a feature film that scared the socks off me. Looking back it works more as a dark tragic Faustian tale than the horror film it was intended to be, but nevertheless to a prepubescent boy “The Doctor and the Devils” was a film that made an impression. It was an end of innocence of sorts for me. Beryl Reid, who I had only previously known as a children’s storyteller, plays the Docherty character (here changed to Mrs Flynn) and her inglorious and ignoble death scene followed with having her finger cut off for a ring not worth more than “two bob”[iii] was enough to bring home to me the heartless horror that makes the essence of this story so chilling.
Interestingly “The Doctor and the Devils” changes the names of all the protagonists. Burke becomes Robert Fallon (played by Jonathan Price), Hare is Timothy Broon (played by Stephen Rea) and Knox is changed to Dr Thomas Rock (played by Timothy Dalton). This had been done before for the first feature film based on the lives of Burke and Hare, “The Greed of William Hart”. Robert Louis Stevenson did the same with his novella, “The Bodysnatcher”, which was also made into a 1945 feature film. Although it is perhaps fair to say that Stevenson only used the case as inspiration rather than as the basis for his story. The Doctor and the Devils also has respectable literary origins. The original was a film script written by the famous Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas and presented several themes that were already mainstays of the story. I will come to these later.
Not long after seeing the Doctor and the Devils I began reading a series of booklets written for young teenagers in my school’s library. The stories concerned a group of teenagers who went back in time and found out about 19th century murderers both real and fictional. At the end of each instalment the booklet gave details on the literary or actual history of the particular spotlighted villain. The third book was concerned with Burke and Hare, and for the first time I read a version of the true story. The story, of course, seemed uncannily similar to the film that had scared me previously. The penny began to drop and I began to discover that the facts were even grimmer than the fiction I had seen.
I was 19 years old before I came across the grisly two again. There are several somewhat sensationalist “True Crime” magazines available in the UK. They are marketed and produced like tabloids for the crime historian. An issue with Burke and Hare on the front cover caught my attention. This was at a time when most of knowledge on criminal history stemmed from such books as the pulp non-fiction “World’s Greatest” series, so the mixture of myths and facts without any thorough research didn’t bother me. This account included the fictitious story of Burke breaking the back of the 12 your old boy over his knee.
1960’s “The Flesh and the Fiends” is the best Burke and Hare film ever made. Released the same year as another classic horror thriller, Psycho, The Flesh and the Fiends was old-style horror at its zenith before audiences demanded more gore. I saw it late one night on TV and, once again, I was intrigued to find out more about Burke and Hare. Donald Pleasance stars as the evil Hare, becoming the exact bogeyman caricature most of us imagined him to be. He goads Burke and masterminds the whole murderous scheme, which is pretty much in line with the real Burke’s account of the events. It makes for very eerie viewing and yet is played as a straight drama and pulls it off in good style.
Years later I took my soon-to-be wife and her children in Edinburgh for a long weekend’s holiday. We loved the city so much that we visited it again within a year – and this time on Halloween. Edinburgh is a fascinating city. Fortified for a long time, it became isolated from the rest of Scotland and is often considered to be the most English part of the country. Being a fortified city and densely populated over the centuries houses were built literally on top of one another and there are even some buildings located underground. The result is a maze of incredibly high buildings and dead end closes. It is very rich in history and contains both a palace and a complete castle. This is the city of the tragic Mary Queen of Scots.
I have been accused and I don’t wholly deny it, that I took my family on a Burke and Hare pilgrimage. There were plenty of other reasons why I wanted to go, but it gave me an excuse to really explore the story of Burke and Hare. I bought the films I knew and I found another one I had had no previous knowledge of, The Greed of William Hart. This very low budget horror starring ham legend, Tod Slaughter as the William Hare character, changed to William Hart, seems more at home in the 1930s than 1948 in terms of style. I also picked up the best book written on the subject, “Burke and Hare: The Year of the Ghouls”. Brian Bailey’s book cut the myths away, questioned certain facts about the case and used almost exclusively primary source material. It was an accessible and yet serious historical book.
Whilst in Edinburgh we went on several guided tours of varying degrees of quality. The best for Halloween was undoubtedly the Witchery Tours written and led by a caricature of the ghost of a supposed hanged highwayman called Adam Lyle. We enjoyed the tour so much that we booked it again on our second visit. Of course, Burke and Hare were mentioned along with the stories of the plague, medieval punishments and ghosts.
Recently I got the opportunity to see 1972’s “[The Horrors of] Burke and Hare”, which is the least popular of the films. It is a somewhat misguided fare that tries to add a sex comedy sub-plot into the story. It also has an appalling soundtrack, which makes it sound like an Ealing Studios comedy.
The Burke and Hare films reproduce both facts and myths that have been passed down since the crimes were committed. They have also often repeated several other themes, which have led some critics to claim that each film was a re-make. For example, the tragic prostitute Mary Patterson’s connection with the medical students is turned into a romantic sub-plot used in The Flesh and the Fiends, Burke and Hare and The Doctor and the Devils. This then happens again in 1972’s Burke and Hare, and finally in The Doctor and the Devils. Each film has a different take on the relationship with different results for the fictional smitten student and the Patterson character. In The Flesh and the Fiends this character is played by the great Billie Whitelaw and through her relationship with her ill-fated student lover, we see the terrible divide between the different classes of the time. These contrasts are heightened in both the subsequent films, contrasting the wealth and privilege of the surgeons and their associates with the poor that Burke and Hare live among.
Dylan Thomas blatantly used the theme of the over-reaching hero in The Doctor and the Devils. Dr Rock is easily the most sympathetic version of the Dr Knox character we have seen. Both and he and Robert Fallon, the Burke character, are juxtaposed as driven men. Thomas implies Macbeth in his original script with both characters. Rock over-reaches in his pursuit of knowledge and Fallon in his quest for money. Both, however, become possessed by their own demons and ultimately both end up destroyed in their own way: Fallon on the gallows and Rock with his career in tatters. Cushing’s Knox, however, is a little less sympathetic but has a better ending. There is little to sympathize in the Knox of 1972’s Burke and Hare. He is every bit the callous man of privilege Edinburgh’s people saw him as at the time of the trial of the two murderers. From the accounts I have read I don’t feel this is a fair depiction whereas in contrast Cushing and Dalton’s portrayals of coma across as a bit too kind.
The crimes of Burke and Hare probably influenced copycat killers. In London the term “Burking” had already entered into criminal language. The London Burkers, Bishop and Head, were a gang who apparently modelled their crimes on Burke and Hare. Then there was the Cook family, which featured a female Burker who was testified against by her young son. In the end, Burke and Hare’s crimes led to the creation of the Anatomy Act in 1832, which allowed surgeons to have access to unclaimed corpses for dissection. Coincidentally procedures were already in place as a select committee had already been set up in 1828 the year the majority of Burke and Hare’s crimes took place. Before the discovery of these murders and the further discovery of the murderers in London public opinion was not in favour of the Act. Sentiment, of course, dramatically changed in a very short time.
When we talk of Halloween we think of the supernatural. Each of the main supernatural monsters we have conjured up over the centuries settles into certain human stereotypes. Since Dr William Polidori’s novella, “The Vampyre”, the vampire has become associated with a decadent aristocracy. The self-made monsters, werewolves and Mr Hydes, perhaps fit better in with the middle classes. The ghoul, on the other hand, since its importation from the Middle East is a monster of the common people. Ghouls eat dead corpses from graves and can be found in the masses. Just as the vampire has become a term used for people who sap the energy of others, as parasites, the ghoul is a term used to describe those who are associated with the macabre. Burke and Hare are the perfect examples of the human ghouls. Burke and Hare are unlikely icons for even the most morbid of aspirants. They were a pair of dirty, cowardly, parasitical alcoholics who exploited people of their own class in the most amoral way imaginable. Yet they are perfect icons of real-life horror and also representatives of the symptoms their time.
For further research I recommend Brian Bailey’s “Burke and Hare: The Year of the Ghouls”.
[i] From the sales blurb of Brian Bailey’s “Burke and Hare: The Year of the Ghouls”
[ii] Myths circulated that Burke had killed this boy by breaking his back over his knee. There is no evidence to support this and it would have been a very stupidly violent act for even an intoxicated Burke to carry out.
[iii] Line from the film “The Doctor and the Devils”
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