MFDJ 04/03/24: Burke & Hare

Today’s Ghoulish Yet Truly Morbid Fact!

Dissecting cadavers has long been a critical part of medical training.  [As readers of this blog well know! – DeSpair]  Nowadays, thanks to the practice of voluntary body donation, there is a plentiful supply of corpses for med school anatomy classes. Things were different in eighteenth-century Britain, when the only corpses that could be legally used for teaching purposes were those of executed criminals. Despite the staggering number of crimes that could send a felon to the gallows then—everything from pickpocketing to poaching to writing a threatening letter—surgical instructors still found themselves with an acute shortage of freshly dead human specimens.

To meet the demand, a new breed of entrepreneurs sprang up, practitioners of what one scholar has called “the foulest trade in human history.” Commonly known as body snatchers or resurrectionists, these enterprising ghouls would sneak into a churchyard at night, dig up a recently buried coffin, pry open the lid, extract the corpse, and—after restoring the grave to its former condition—deliver their plunder to one of their regular medical school customers.

Though the names of virtually all these professional corpse thieves have been lost to history, two men have entered legend as the most infamous of British resurrectionists: William Burke and William Hare. As it happens, they weren’t grave robbers at all. They were what we now call serial killers.

Burke & Hare

A native of County Tyrone, Ireland, William Burke was born into a family of poor but respectable tenant farmers in 1792. At nineteen, he became a soldier, serving as a private in the Donegal militia for five years. At some point during that time, he married and had two children with a woman named Margaret Coleman, only to desert his wife and offspring a few years later after leaving the army.

Immigrating to Scotland, he found employment as a canal worker and took up with a part-time sex worker named Helen “Nelly” McDougal, who became his common-law wife. Not long afterward, the couple relocated to Edinburgh, where Burke soon made the acquaintance of the man whose name would forever be linked to his own in the annals of infamy.

Born in 1807 and raised (in the words of his earliest biographer) “without any education or proper moral training,” William Hare spent his early adulthood as a farm laborer in his native Ireland. In contrast to Burke—who impressed all who knew him with his easygoing charm—Hare, according to one contemporary, possessed “a ferocious, violent, quarrelsome” disposition and was given to particularly brutish behavior when he was drunk, as was often the case. Like Burke, he came to Scotland to work on the new canal linking Edinburgh to Glasgow and ended up boarding at a tenement lodging house run by a man named Logue and his wife, Margaret. When Logue died, Hare lost no time taking his place both in Margaret’s bed and as landlord of the squalid doss-house, where, in autumn of 1827, Burke and McDougal came to live.

The commercial partnership that would earn Burke and Hare everlasting notoriety began in November 1827 with the passing of an elderly lodge owner named Donald, who died owing Hare £4 of back rent. In those years, Edinburgh was the country’s leading center of medical education. To recover the debt, Hare hit upon the idea of selling the old man’s corpse to one of the city’s many anatomists. Promised a share of the proceeds, Burke helped his friend convey the cadaver to the school of celebrated surgeon, Dr. Robert Knox, where they received the handsome sum of £7 10s—more than $300 in today’s currency—and were told that they were always welcome to return “when they had another [body] to dispose of.”

Disinclined to engage in the difficult, dirty, and dangerous business of grave robbing, the two reprobates hit on another, less strenuous method of obtaining marketable human corpses: “wholesale murder.” Their first victim was an elderly lodger named Joseph who had fallen ill with typhus. Afraid that having the contagious old man on the premises might scare off potential customers, Hare once again enlisted Burke’s assistance. After feeding Joseph enough whiskey to put him in a stupor, the two made short work of him, one pressing a pillow to his face while the other lay across his chest. This time, Knox forked over £10 for the corpse. At no point, either then or thereafter, did the doctor inquire as to the provenance of the goods he was paying for.

Though the facts remain murky, another ailing inmate of the boardinghouse, an Englishman in his forties, appears to have been the next victim. Most historians of the case believe that, in dispatching this individual, the two murderers perfected the smothering technique that would come to known as “burking”: Hare would press his hands over the person’s mouth and nose while Burke lay across the upper body.

Having exhausted their supply of sick lodgers, the pair went out trawling for victims. The first to fall into their clutches as an elderly peddler, Abigail Simpson. Encountering her in a pub, Hare lured her back to his premises, where he and Burke plied her with whiskey. Once fallen into a stupor, she was smothered, stripped, stuffed into a tea chest, and carted off to the offices of the uninquiring Dr. Knox.

Over the next six months—between April and October 1828—the two fiends (as they would soon be branded in newspapers throughout the United Kingdom) would murder an additional thirteen people.

The atrocities of the ghoulish pair climaxed, appropriately enough, on Halloween 1828. By then, Burke and McDougal were residing at a different lodging house, run by a couple named Broggan. That morning, burke was enjoying his morning dram of whisky in a neighborhood pub when an elderly beggar-woman wandered in, asking for alms. Sizing her up as easy prey, Burke treated her to a drink and struck up a conversation. Before long, the old lady happily accepted his invitation to come stay at his lodgings.

Leaving her in the company of his wife, Burke sought out Hare at a nearby tavern and informed him that he had found fresh meat for Dr. Knox’s dissection table. He then returned to his rooms, where, in preparation for the murder, he persuaded the other lodgers, a couple named Gray and their child, to spend the night elsewhere. Once the Grays were gone and Hare was on the scene, the two dispatched the old lady by their usual method and stuffed her corpse beneath a heap of straw at the foot of a bed.

The following morning, Mrs. Gray returned to the rooms to fetch a pair of her child’s stockings, looked under the straw, and was horrified to see the old lady’s dead body, stripped of its clothing, blood leaking from her mouth. By the time officers arrived at the Broggans’ boardinghouse, however, the two serial murderers had already delivered the corpse to Dr. Knox, where it was later found by police. Burke and Hare were promptly taken into custody.

Betrayed by Hare—who, to save his own skin, agreed to turn King’s evidence and testify against his accomplice—Burke was tried for murder, convicted, and condemned to the gallows. Upon his sentencing, it was clear to Burke that his ultimate fate would be nothing less than an act of poetic justice. His hanged body, the presiding judge declared, would “be publicly dissected and anatomized.”

An estimated twenty-five thousand people turned out for his hanging on January 28, 1829. It took Burke about ten minutes to die. In accordance with the court’s wishes, his body was then dissected before a standing-room-only audience of medical students. The following morning, the corpse was placed on public exhibition. By the end of the day, thirty thousand eager citizens had filed through the anatomy hall for a glimpse of ghastly remains. The cadaver was then stripped of its flesh and the skeleton given to the University of Edinburgh. Some of the skin was tanned and fashioned into various ghoulish artifacts, including a wallet, a calling-card case, and the binding of a book.

Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover!

Granted immunity from prosecution, William Hare was set free, much to the outrage of the public. With an infuriated mob clamoring for his blood, he slipped out of Edinburgh, made his way south to Carlisle, and vanished from the historical record.

Death mask of Burke, Life mask of Hare

Culled from: Murderabilia


Post-Mortem Portrait Du Jour!

Circa 1845-1855

Culled from: Sleeping Beauty I

Andersonville Prisoner Diary Entry Du Jour!

This is the continuation of the 1864 diary of Andersonville prisoner Private George A. Hitchcock (see the archived version for all entries up until now).

Here’s today’s entry:

November 29th. I bought some straw with a borrowed $5 confederate scrip; and mended my clothes, which are in a miserable condition: the sleeves of my blouse and shirt are almost entirely gone, showing some skeleton arms, the backs of both garments are as thin as gauze, while my pants are worn from the knees down, entirely away, and my cap is two simple pieces of cloth sewed together. I was detailed to go out for wood. Rations of a pint and a half of flour and a splinter of green gum-wood. More prisoners came from Millen.

Culled from: Andersonville: Giving Up the Ghost

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