EDINBURGH flourished in the early 19th century. Basking in the afterglow of the Scottish Enlightenment, the city’s reputation as a centre of science and progress was assured. The Industrial Revolution was generating wealth and improving the city.
Even as Edinburgh could justly claim to be one of the lights of the newly modern world, these splendours concealed a darker side. Scotland’s most notorious serial killers - Burke and Hare - were born in the shadows of Edinburgh’s achievements.
Burke and Hare murdered 16 victims over the course of a year – neither man ever robbed a grave. Both were hard-working, industrious Ulster Catholics who came to work in Scotland.
William Burke was a short, handsome and likeable man, born around 1792 in Urney, County Tyrone. Less is known about William Hare. Both continued working as they murdered. They met in 1827 when Burke and his mistress became tenants of the Hares’ boarding house. Both enjoyed a drink, but Hare was a taciturn man apparently prone to violence when drunk. He may already have been a murderer before he met Burke. His wife's first husband disappeared mysteriously, conveniently leaving her the boarding house and William Hare a wealthier man.
Both men came upon the business of murder by chance, as Burke later confessed to the police. His gruesome descriptions of how their victims died, and were sold, were used as evidence against him. On 29 November 1827, an old man called "Donald" died at the boarding house owing the Hares 4. Only after the old man was in his coffin did the pair see a way of paying his debt.
The duo substituted tanners’ bark for the body and carried it to the Royal College of Surgeons after the funeral. Edinburgh had earned a world-wide reputation in medicine, but this demanded a constant supply of bodies for the operating theatre. After making enquiries, Burke and Hare sold the old man to a Dr Knox, who, according to Burke, "did not ask how they had obtained it."
Their first murder also happened by chance. Another old lodger, Joseph the Miller, was dying of a fever in January or February 1828. Hare was worried the illness would drive away customers and so decided to end matters early. They contacted Dr Knox and received the price of 10 for their troubles. The second victim, an English lodger, was also ill. They were again paid 10.
So began their business. The third victim was an old woman murdered on 12 February 1828 after a night drinking with the pair. They gave the corpse to the doctor who, Burke told police, "approved of its being so fresh, but did not ask any questions" and paid them 10.
Two victims turned Burke and Hare into monsters of literary legend. A woman from Glasgow and her 12-year-old grandson, who Burke said "seemed to be weak in his mind," stayed at the boarding house. According to Burke, Hare suffocated the old woman as she lay in bed drunk and then murdered her son. But public obsession with the murders fuelled artistic licence, and in these stories Burke is said to have broken the boy’s back with his hands. The men received 16 for the grandmother and grandson.
Burke took one victim out of the hands of the police, a drunk who was being escorted away until Burke volunteered to take her to the lodging house. Dr Knox paid 10 for this act of charity. Hare murdered another drunken woman for 8 while Burke was visiting family.
One of the last victims, Ann McDougal, was a cousin of Burke’s mistress. Burke asked Hare to do the deed "as she being a distant friend, he did not like to begin first on her."
Their 15th victim, known as "Daft Jamie", was known on Edinburgh’s streets, but Jamie did not like to drink and so he became the first conscious victim they killed. He got them 10 but also some unwanted questions. The final person to die at the hands of this murderous duo, Mrs Docherty, came on 31 October 1828, but her body was discovered by two tenants who had seen her drinking with the pair the night before.
Burke and Hare were finally caught. The authorities persuaded Hare to blame Burke in return for his freedom. Dr Knox was eventually cleared as the pair left no evidence of murder on the corpses.
The trial captured the attention of people everywhere. After his conviction, Burke was taken to the gallows where a crowed of 30,000 gathered at the top of Edinburgh's High Street. As he met his end the crowd shouted abuse, some crying, "You’ll see Daft Jamie in a minute."
Burke's body was dissected at the Royal College of Surgeons in the city. A riot forced the authorities to grant public access and an estimated 30,000 viewed his corpse. Pieces of Burke’s skin were later made into trinkets.
While Burke was punished for his crimes, Hare escaped Scotland - the only serial killer ever to have left custody with police consent. Many believe he escaped the justice he deserved.