Burke and Hare: The grisly tale of Edinburgh serial killers

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Burke and Hare's heinous crimes are to get a new lease of life on the big screen, reliving the atrocities they committed

THEY are perhaps the most infamous serial killers in history. Their names are a byword for medical malpractice, skullduggery and premeditated murder. And their crimes shocked even a public which relished the hangman's noose and the macabre punishments of the day.

The crimes of Burke and Hare are expected to get a new lease of life later this year when the forthcoming Hollywood movie with Simon "Hot Fuzz" Pegg and Andy "Gollum" Serkis as the predators hits the big screen.

So after two centuries and numerous serial killer tales, both fact and fiction, why is it that the bodysnatchers can still capture the imagination of a mass audience?

According to Lisa Rosner, author of The Anatomy Murders, and professor of history at Stockton College in New Jersey, it is because of their conniving and betrayal in an era where, despite extreme poverty, charity and goodwill were commonplace.

"In a time where people would invite each other into their houses for food and drink and a night's sleep, and Christian charities would be very involved in the poor communities, Burke and Hare were preying on those who would trust them," she said.

"Burke and Hare were predators and that is what shocked people and still does. They targeted the weakest, and they targeted the transient people – travellers and migrants that wouldn't be missed. It was very thought-out.

"What also shocked people is that, except for a few rumours, especially towards the end, they had no idea what had been going on. And the authorities could not possibly comprehend what had been going on when they were caught."

Much like the rickety tumbrils which carried aristocrats to the guillotine of the French Revolution while the great unwashed jeered, Burke and Hare wheeled their victims through the most heavily-thronged streets of the city.

The difference was that the citizens on their final journey were already dead, and were passed off under canvas as any old load of firewood or vegetables.

Professor Rosner added that the sheer audacity of the body- snatchers catches the imagination.

"I can see why people might see their activities as comic, and the movie may reflect that," she said.

"I think Burke and Hare figured out that the best place to hide was in plain sight.

"There were so many carts being wheeled through the city that they could just take the bodies through the Grassmarket, along the Cowgate and straight up to Knox's laboratory.

"There were no laws that allowed carts to be searched, so they were safer during the day than at night.

"However, towards the end they began to get very careless, and there is even the suggestion that Burke had had enough and wanted to be caught.

"They allowed themselves to be seen drinking with the victims, they had to beat Daft Jamie into submission, because he refused to drink anything, and people went into their house and never came out."

The route along which Burke and Hare dragged their bodies through the streets of Edinburgh in broad daylight, complete with crumpled cadavers in a tea chest, can still be seen today.

Now the Grassmarket is bustling with tourists, stag and hen parties and students, few of whom will realise that one of the area's historic drinking dens was also where the two former militiamen often found their prey.

The White Hart Inn claims to be the last surviving hunting ground of the bodysnatchers, where they would entice those who wanted nothing more than to eat and get drunk.

John Baxter, who owns Edinburgh's West Port Tours, said: "As far as we know they began their spree just weeks after meeting in the Grassmarket.

"Burke and his wife moved into the house owned by Hare and his wife and it wasn't long before the first death.

"That was in November 1827, when a man staying at the house called Donald passed away. He owed 4 in rent, and so Burke and Hare carried the body through the streets of the Old Town to the house of Dr Robert Knox, and were given 7 for the body. It is thought that the next one was a pillow over the face of a man called Old Joe, who was ill and staying in the house.

"But it wasn't long before they had established a modus operandi and they were picking out their victims in the Grassmarket, taking them back to the house, and plying them with whisky and beer.

"Even back then doctors would have to report any injuries on a corpse, but Burke and Hare had figured out they could compress the chest and cover the nose and mouth and suffocate the victim, leaving no obvious signs of foul play. This later became known as burking."

The pair grew rich from their dodgy dealings with Dr Robert Knox, and began to push their success. He added: "Towards the end they began to get very sloppy, allowing neighbours to see them with some of their victims in the Grassmarket and actually nearly being caught on at least one occasion."

For all the theories and myths surrounding Burke and Hare, historians agree the only motive to their crimes was greed.

The pair sold 16 bodies to Dr Robert Knox in the space of around 12 months in 1828, dragging the corpses often up to the front door of his anatomy theatre on Surgeons' Square, now the University of Edinburgh's geography department

In today's money, they were paid 600 each for the 16 bodies they sold, and historians have pointed out that the extreme poverty in which many Old Town residents lived that would have left the pair living in luxury.

Earlier this year, Martin Conaghan released a comic book version of the murders of that year. He said that the subject is so popular as so few individuals had ever carried out murders like that of Burke and Hare. He noted that their particular method of killing, "burking" only added to the public's morbid fascination.

Martin said: "People have always been fascinated by the macabre, and it was certainly no different at the time.

"But part of the fascination of Burke and Hare is that they had nothing in their pasts to explain the reasons for their actions, except that they were just greedy.

"They had both been in the militia in Ireland and they had perhaps seen some pretty unpleasant things but nothing to lead them to carry out these subtle and passionless crimes where they would literally squeeze the air from their victims."

After the death of Daft Jamie, people began to suspect their activities, and Burke and Hare's last murder was on Hallowe'en, killing Marjory Docherty.

Her body was never sold because it was found underneath a bed in their house, leading to murder charges and the horrifying truth of their deeds being made public knowledge. The pair carried out 11 murders at the house in West Port, while the rest took place in Burke's flat nearby. They were nearly caught on one occasion when several children exclaimed that they thought Burke and Hare were carrying a body.

William Burke was hanged on 28 January, 1829 for murdering 16 men, women and children. William Hare, said to be the more sinister of the two by historians, was given immunity from prosecution after testifying against his partner in crime.

Burke's body is said to have been smuggled along a narrow tunnel underneath the university's Old College, before ironically being publicly dissected.

Dr Knox escaped prosecution and was even one of the 55 witnesses at the trial, although he was never called to the stand.

His reputation was tarnished however, and he left his Edinburgh home at 14 Newington Street, in an attempt to shake off the black spot that had been left on him, settling at the Cancer Hospital in London and peacefully passing away in 1862.

Hare, however, disappeared shortly after being released from prison in February 1829. His body was never found.