The true story of Burke and Hare was narrated to us in a most riveting way by Christopher Dorries and this precis does not do it justice. The title contains the word,”True” because there have been many stories about them which are largely inaccurate. Firstly they all say that Burke and Hare were grave robbers, which they weren’t. They just committed murder for a business. Secondly the stories do not include Dr Knox who played a key role in the whole sordid affair.
The story starts in Edinburgh in 1828, not among the fine buildings of Princess Street but in the slums around West Gate. Burke and Hare lived in a lodging house run by Mrs Hare, which was, in itself, a very seedy place. One night, a tenant known as ‘Old Donald’ died in bed owing Mrs Hare £4.00 which was most unfortunate.
Now Edinburgh was famous for the study of anatomy and eminent surgeons demonstrated their skills to students, who had paid the required fee, cash in hand in operating theatres at the university, using human corpses. As one can imagine these were hard to come by legitimately and surgeons would pay a high price for one,
‘Old Donald’ was an itinerant with no known relatives, so Burke and Hare decided to sell his body to the university to recoup some of the money. As it turned out a Dr Knox was very pleased to pay between £7.50 and £10.00 for the body and said that if they came across anymore lying about in the gutter he would gladly have them.
Burke and Hare saw this as a business opportunity and rather than go grave robbing and risk getting beaten up they decided to simply murder their victims without marking their bodies. They did this by getting their chosen prey drunk and then taking them back to the lodging house where they dispatched them by suffocation or burking as it became known.
Two of their victims were Mary Patterson, only 18 years old and James Wilson, again only 18 years old but known as being mentally subnormal and called ‘Daft Jamie’. Mary was strikingly beautiful and so initially Dr Knox preserved her body in whisky and kept her for artists and students as a model”for the best illustration of female form and muscular development”. Mary was recognised almost straight away by the male students because she earned her living by prostitution and doubtless several had used her services.
‘Daft Jamie’ was murdered in the usual way but when his body was unpacked at the university he also was recognised straight away so Dr Knox instructed one of his assistants to remove the head and feet to hide his identity, which was something unheard of.
By this time Dr Knox Knew that Burke and Hare weren’t just lucky in finding bodies but he turned a blind eye so that he could have a steady supply. They murdered between 16 and 20 people over a period of 10 months, February to November in 1828 but this has been exaggerated to 30. They finally came unstuck when they murdered an Irish beggar known as Mary Docherty.
A new coupled arrived at the lodging house and found her body under the bed. They went to the police but when they returned the body had gone. The police were suspicious of Dr Knox and so they went to his anatomy premises and found Dr Knox, Burke, Hare and the body of Mary Docherty.
Dr Knox denied that he had any knowledge that the body was a murder victim and the police accepted this but Burke, Hare and their wives were locked up. However suffocation in those days was difficult to prove and evidence was flimsy, so the police did a deal with Hare who turned King’s evidence for his freedom. Hare and his wife testified against Burke and his ‘wife’, Helen McDougal. Burke was found guilty and sentenced to the gallows but the verdict for Helen McDougal was ‘not proven’ and she was released.
He was hanged in public at the end of January 1829 when a crowd of many thousands watched. He had a slow death, whether by design or accident because the hangman moved the knot and his neck wasn’t broken, he just strangled on the rope.
Among the crowd was a woman called Maria Grotzholz, known to us as Madam Tussaud and a waxwork of Burke was on show in Liverpool within two weeks of his execution.
The members of Stumperlowe Probus were enthralled by the talk and asked many questions. Unfortunately some of detail has been left out but I hope you have been given an insight into the excellent presentation by Prof. Christopher Dorries OBE.