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Burke an Hare murthers

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William Burke an William Hare, picturt at Burke's trial

The Burke an Hare murthers (or the West Port murthers) war serial murthers committit in Edinburgh frae November 1827 tae 31st October 1828. The killins wur attributit tae Erse immigrants William Burke an William Hare, who sauld the corpse o thair 16 victims tae provide material for dissection. Thair purchaser wis Doctor Robert Knox, a private anatomy lecturer whose students wur drawn frae Edinburgh Medical College. Thair accomplices includit Burke's mistress, Helen McDougal, an Hare's wife, Margaret Laird.[1] Frae thair infamous method o killin thair victims haes come the wird "burkin", meanin tae purposefully smother an compress the chest o a victim, an a derivit meanin, tae quietly suppress.[2][3]

Historical backgrund

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Afore 1832, thare wur insufficient cadavers legitimately available for the study an teachin of anatomy in Breetish medical schools. The University o Edinburgh wis an institution universally renouned for medical sciences. As medical science began tae flourish in the early nineteent century, demand rose shairply, but at the same time, the anerlie legal supply o cadavers—the bodies o executit creeminals—haed fawen due tae a shairp reduction in the execution rate in the early nineteent century. Anerlie aboot twa or three corpse per year wur available for a lairge nummer o students. This situation attractit creeminal elements who wur willin tae obtain specimens bi ony means. The activities o body-snatchers (cried resurrectionists an aw) gae rise tae pairticular public fear an revulsion. It wis a short step frae grave-robbin tae anatomy murther.

Burke an Hare

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Old Surgeons' Hall, Edinburgh

Burke (1792 – 28 Januar 1829) wis born in Urney, near Stràbane, in the vera wast o Coonty Tyrone, pairt o the Province o Ulster in the north o Ireland. Urney, a sma destrict whaur the veelage o Clady is locatit, lees on the eastren bank o the River Finn, juist athort frae Coonty Dunnygal. Efter tryin his haund at a variety o trades an servin as an officer's servant in the Dunnygal Militia, he left his wife an twa childer in Ireland an emigratit tae Scotland aboit 1817, wirkin as a navvy for the Union Canal. Thare he met Helen McDougal. Burke efterwairds wirkit as a labourer, weaver, baker an a cobbler.

Hare's (born 1792 or 1804) birthplace is variously gien as Poyntzpass near Newry, or Derry, baith o which are in the Province o Ulster in Ireland an aw. Lik Burke, he emigratit tae Scotland an wirkit as a Union Canal labourer. He then muivit tae Edinburgh, whaur he met a man namit Logue, who ran a lodgin-hoose in the West Port. When Logue dee'd in 1826, Hare marriet Margaret Laird, Logue's widae. Margaret Hare continued tae run the lodgin hoose, an Hare wirkit on the canal.


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In late 1828, Burke an McDougal muivit intae Tanner's Close, in the West Port aurie o Edinburgh, whaur Margaret Hare kept a lodgin-hoose. Burke haed met Margaret on previous trips tae Edinburgh, but it is no kent whether he wis previously acquaintit wi Hare. Ance Burke arrivit in Tanner's Corner, thay became guid friends.[4] Accordin tae Hare's later testimony, the first body thay sauld wis that o a tenant who haed dee'd o naitural causes, an auld airmy pensioner who awed Hare £4 rent. Instead o buryin the body, thay filled the coffin wi bark an brocht the cadaver tae Edinburgh University, leukin for a purchaser. Accordin tae Burke's later testimony, a student directit them tae Surgeon's Square whaur thay sauld the body for £7.10s (2010:£731 US$1,130) tae Dr. Robert Knox, a local anatomist.[5]

Burke an Hare's first murther victim wis a sick tenant, Joseph the Miller, whom thay plied wi whisky an then suffocatit. When thare wur nae ither sickly tenants, thay decidit tae lur a victim frae the street. In Februar 1828, thay invitit pensioner Abigail Simpson tae spend the nicht afore her return tae home. Uisin the same modus operandi, thay servit Simpson alcohol wi the intention o intoxicatin her, an then smothered her. Thay wur peyed £10.[5]

Hare's wife, Margaret, invitit a wumman tae the inn, plied her wi drink, an then sent for her husband. Next, Burke encoontered twa weemen in the section o Edinburgh kent as the Canongate, Mary Patterson an Janet Broun. He invitit them tae breakfast, but Broun left when an argument broke oot atween McDougal an Burke. When she returned, she wis tauld that Patterson haed left wi Burke; in fact, she, too, haed been taken tae Dr. Knox's dissectin ruims.[5] The twa weemen wur describit as prostitutes in contemporary accoonts.[6][7] The story later arose that some o Knox's students recognisit the dead Patterson.[8]

The next victim wis an acquaintance o Burke, a bigger wumman cried Effie. Thay wur peyed £10 for her body. Then Burke "savit" a wumman frae polis bi claimin that he knew her. He delivered her body tae the medical schuil juist oors later. The next twa victims wur an auld wumman an her blind grandson. While the grandmither dee'd frae an owerdose on painkillers, Hare teuk the young boy an stretched him ower his knee, then proceedit tae break his back. Baith bodies wur ultimately sauld for £8 each. The next twa victims wur Burke's acquaintance "Mrs. Ostler" an ane o McDougal's relatives, Ann Dougal.

Anither victim wis Elizabeth Haldane, a umwhile lodger who, doun on her luck, askit tae sleep in Hare's stable. Burke an Hare murthert her dochter Peggy Haldane a few months later an aw.

Burke an Hare's next victim wis an even better-kent person, a mentally retardit young man wi a limp, namit James Wilson, cried "Daft Jamie", who wis 18 at the time o his murther. The boy resistit, an the pair haed tae kill him thegither, tho later each blamit the ither for takkin the main pairt in the creeme. His mither began tae ask for her boy. When Dr. Knox uncovered the body the next fore-nuin, several students recognisit Jamie. His heid an feet wur cut aff efter Knox haed shawn his students the body. Knox denied that it wis Jamie, but he apparently began tae dissect the cadaver's face first.

The last victim wis Marjory Campbell Docherty. Burke lured her intae the lodgin hoose bi claimin that his mither wis a Docherty an aw, but he haed tae wait tae complete his murtherous task acause o the presence o lodgers James an Ann Gray. The Grays left for the nicht an neebours heard the soonds o a struggle.


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The next day, Ann Gray, who haed returned, became suspicious when Burke wad no let her approach a bed whaur she haed left her stockins. When the Grays wur left alane in the hoose in the early fore-nicht, thay checkit the be an foond Docherty's body unner it. On thair wey tae alert the polis, thay ran intae McDougal who tree'd tae bribe them wi an affer o £10 a week. Thay refused.

Burke an Hare haed remuivit the body frae the hoose afore the polis arrivit. Housomeivver, unner questionin, Burke claimit that Docherty haed left at 7:00 a.m., while McDougal claimit that she haed left in the fore-nicht. The polis arrestit them. An anonymous tip-aff led them tae Knox's classruim whaur thay foond Docherty's body, which James Gray identifee'd. William an Margaret Hare wur arrestit suin thareefter. The murther spree haed lastit twal months.

When an Edinburgh paper wrote aboot the disappearances on 6 November 1828, Janet Broun went tae the polis an identifee'd her friend Mary Patterson's clothin.

The evidence against the pair wis no owerwhelmin, sae Lord Advocate Sir William Rae affered Hare immunity frae prosecution if he confessed an greit tae testifee against Burke. Hare's testimony led tae Burke's daith sentence in December 1828. He wis hanged on 28 Januar 1829, efter which he wis publicly dissectit at the Edinburgh Medical College.[9]

The dissectin professor, Alexander Monro, dippit his quill pen intae Burke's bluid an wrote "This is written with the blood of Wm Burke, who was hanged at Edinburgh. This blood was taken from his head."[10] His skelet an daith mask are displayed at the University o Edinburgh's Anatomical Museum.[11] Items made frae his tanned skin are displayed at Surgeon's Hall. A cawin caird case made oot o Willliam Burke's skin is on display at The Police Information Centre in Edinburgh's Royal Mile.[12][13]

Wallets supposedly made frae Burke's skin wur affered for sale on the streets.[14]

McDougal wis released, syne her complicity tae the murthers wis no pruivable. Knox wis no prosecutit, despite public ootrage at his role in providin an incentive for the 16 murthers. Burke swore in his confession that Knox haed kent nothin o the oreegin o the cadavers.[5]

  1. "William Burke & William Hare". Archived frae the original on 15 Apryle 2008. Retrieved 19 September 2012.
  2. "Definition at dictionary.com".
  3. "Definition at Merriam Webster".
  4. Howard, Amanda; Martin Smith (2004). "William Burke and William Hare". River of Blood: Serial Killers and Their Victims. Universal[disambiguation needit]. p. 50. ISBN 1-58112-518-6. freemit airtin in |publisher= (help); |access-date= requires |url= (help)
  5. a b c d "William Burke, Confessions". West Port Murders. Edinburgh: Thomas Ireland. 1829.
  6. West Port Murders. Edinburgh: Thomas Ireland. 1829.
  7. "Preface". Trial of William Burke and Helen McDougal. Edinburgh: Robert Buchanan. 1829.
  8. Lonsdale, Henry (1870). A Sketch of the Life and Writings of Robert Knox, the Anatomist. London: MacMillan.
  9. Howard, Amanda; Martin Smith (2004). "William Burke and William Hare". River of Blood: Serial Killers and Their Victims. Universal. p. 54. ISBN 1-58112-518-6. |access-date= requires |url= (help)
  10. Rosner, Lisa (2009). The Anatomy Murders. Penn Press. ISBN 978-0-8122-4191-4.
  11. "Anatomical Museum". Edinburgh University. Retrieved 2 Mairch 2012.
  12. "Burke's skin pocket book". Scotland Medicine. Archived frae the original on 11 October 2008. Retrieved 11 October 2008."Archived copy". Archived frae the original on 11 October 2008. Retrieved 7 December 2012.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  13. "William Burke". Gazetteer for Scotland. Archived frae the original on 11 October 2008. Retrieved 11 October 2008.
  14. David H. Freedman, "20 Things you didn't know about autopsies," Discover September 2012.