01/06/2010

THE MURDERERS BURKE AND HARE...


Up the Close and doun the stair;
But and ben wi’ Burke and Hare:
Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief,
And Knox the boy who buys the beef.

It is often and wrongly assumed that the murderers Burke and Hare were Resurrectionists, or grave robbers, for although it is true that they supplied corpses for the use of Dr Knox, a famed anatomist in Edinburgh, they did not rob any graves. Their bodies were cleaner and fresher than that!
A killing spree began in 1827 and lasted just under a year, during which sixteen victims were murdered and then sold on to the medical school. But, the first transaction came about more by chance when an elderly man who lodged with Mr and Mrs Hare died of natural causes, and without having paid his bills. Burke and Hare took his body to Surgeons’ Square and offered it to Dr Knox who in turn paid them £7 10 shillings. A very tidy profit indeed, after which the two Irish immigrants realised there was easy money to make – if only they knew how to find a regular supply of corpses.
The use of the term /Burking' in a contemporary cartoon
Few questions were asked at the college regarding the source of cadavers, of which there were never enough for the purposes of dissection and study. The use of hanged criminals was legally allowed but executions had been in decline – hence the trade with the Resurrectionists who dug fresh corpses up from their graves. And then, there was the arrangement forged with Burke and Hare, who took to preying on the old and infirm, luring them back to Hare’s lodging house where they plied them with whiskey and then used a method of killing that has since become known as ‘Burking’ – a practice involving the compression of a victim’s chest while smothering them to death.
There were undoubted risks. When two prostitutes appeared on the dissection slab, one of them was soon recognised by some of the medical students. Another victim also proved to be a little too familiar. Daft Jamie, a mentally impaired teenage  boy who had suffered with a severe limp was once again recognised by some of the dissection students. However, Knox responded to their alarm, not by giving the body up, but by cutting off its face and feet – obliterating the features and any proof of deformity.
The Execution of William Burke: 28th January 1829
The murders only came to an end when some of Hare’s neighbours became suspicious after hearing the sounds of a violent struggle. And then, two lodgers returned to the house, only to find an old woman's body hidden beneath their bed. The police were rapidly informed and yet, without sufficient evidence, only Burke was found guilty and hanged - but not before swearing that Dr Knox had never known the true source of the bodies that happened to come his way. Ironically, Burke's body was taken to the Edinburgh Medical College and there dissected in public. His skeleton and death mask are now on display at the Royal College of Surgeons' Museum.
                                             Dr Robert Knox                                        
Nevertheless, Knox was deeply tainted by the scandal and when effigies of the doctor were burned he was forced to leave his post, eventually taking a new one in London where he worked at the Cancer Hospital.
 William Hare
And, as to the fate of Hare, in one story he is also said to have travelled to London, after first giving the evidence to incriminate his friend. In London, he was rumoured to have been attacked by violent mobs who threw him into a pit of lime which left him blind, forced to live out his days as a beggar – which, some would say, was a fitting fate, having murdered so many beggars himself.
Although, strictly speaking, the Burke and Hare murders occurred a decade before Victoria even came to the throne, she was alive during their murderous campaign, and the affects of their hideous crimes went on to haunt the century.
Robert Louis Stevenson referred to them in his short story entitled The Body Snatcher, which you can read in an ebook. And, in the twentieth century countless books, comics, films and TV programmes have depicted the murderous pair's gruesome deeds. The VV feels sure that there will be more stories yet to come.

7 comments:

  1. Another fascinating post, thank you.

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  2. Great images! And you're right about more stories: John Landis has a Burke and Hare movie in production, starring Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis. It's scheduled to be released on Halloween, appropriately enough the anniversary of the final victim.

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  3. Burke and Hare were hideous, weren't they? And I am not surprised that they did their grisly work in Edinburgh, the city with the best medical education anywhere.

    Since medical students needed lots of corpses to cut up, why did the hospitals not use the bodies of people who died from natural causes or accidents? Grave robbing, and worse, only happened because a "market niche" needed filling.

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  4. I love it when the evil-doers suffer the best possible fate!
    I found your site quite by happy accident, and have enjoyed what you've written.
    Good luck with your book. It looks like a great read.

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  5. Thank you for the comments!

    Very much looking forward to the production with Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis.

    And Hels, I think the loved ones and relatives of any who died in those days would have been reluctant to allow their bodies to be used for dissection. But, I confess it's not a subject that I know a great deal about - something to look into in the future...

    Essie

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  6. I just read about a mother-daughter team who put ads in papers starting they had room to share in their house and home for babies who needed their care and attention. Back then women gave up unwanted babies hoping they'd go to someone with funds to bring them up. These poor children were murdered by psychos sending them by quick death to Gods' loving arms. In fact, while the mother was hung, the daughter kept murdering. Showing an enjoyment of doing it. So sick was the Victorian days!

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  7. Thank you...yes, I should do a post on that !

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