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The deeds of the murdering quartette—William Burke, William Hare, and their two women—brought about several important results beyond the death of their victims. Law, medicine, and literature were affected. The story itself is one of the curiosities of capitalist enterprise, and to these interests is also added that of a perfect setting—Edinburgh at the beginning of the nineteenth century, ten years before Queen Victoria.
That the crimes took place in that picturesque but austere city should cause no wonder. Edinburgh was a great medical center. For nearly a hundred years students had come there from distant places to learn from rival teachers the truth of the systems in vogue—Cullen's and Brown's. Besides the university medical school, still run by a third-generation Monro descended from the founder, there were half a dozen proprietary colleges. Even Dr. Benjamin Rush, the self-assured American patriot, went to Edinburgh in the 1760s so that his medical education might be complete.
Now the most flourishing course in anatomy and physiology at Edinburgh in 1827 was Dr. Robert Knox's. It was consequently the largest market of bodies. His young assistants did all they could to publicize their need, as well as the generous prices that would be paid by the janitor at 10 Surgeon's Square.
In another part of town, outside the West gate, an alley called Tanner's Close was a site of a hostel for vagrants, which offered the comfort of seven beds (three to a bed) for thruppence. It was run by a widow named Log, who who cohabited with one of her lodgers, William Hare. He was an Irish navvy, originally a worker on the Union Canal, but now a hawker. As a navvy he had come to know a fellow-country-man, one William Burke, an ex-soldier with a wife in Ireland but living with a woman named Helen MacDougal. He worked as a cobbler and seller of old shoes. All four shared a taste of whiskey, a radical improvidence, and a disinclination to hard work.
It was chance that inspired them with the idea for which they became famous. One of the lodgers at Log's died of natural causes, but owing the management £7.10 and the expressed wish of the young students to see the entrepreneurs again seemed an open gateway to affluence. It was clear that deliveries were not met with awkward questions.
But neither were the materials readily procured. Yet in keeping with the new science of political economy, demand must create supply. Burke at first tried to find waifs who could be dispatched without fear of inquiry. He failed, but the new year 1828 brought fresh resolution and the partners managed not so much to find as to produce sixteen bodies in the next nine months. Prices fluctuated, as in a commodity market, from £8 to £14. Possibly a few more sales went unrecorded.
The first victim very likely, was Joe the miller, or else it was an old woman from Gilmerton, both ailing. Though Burke always acted under liquor, he at first preferred prospects who were ill, or at least feeble. For them too, drink was the preliminary anesthetic to simple smothering. The system had been created. With a regular income in sight, Log's became a center of feasting and fighting among the four riders of the Apocalypse.
Other victims followed: a "cinder woman," who raked through old trash for salables; a sturdy Irishwoman and her deaf-and-dumb grandson; a washerwoman serving the Hares; two more prostitutes, mother and daughter. Even before these achievements, success had become so inspiring that deliveries to Surgeons' Square were made openly by day, usually in the same capacious tea-chest, which urchins came to recognize and proclaim as the vehicle of the dead body.
In the mist of this prosperity, after a short trip the Burkes took to Ireland, dissension overtook the firm; Hare had indulged in separate trading behind the others' back. And earlier he had annoyed his partner by suggesting that Helen would make a good victim, especially as, being a Scotswoman, she was not to be trusted. A fierce quarrel took place and the Burkes moved to another tenement nearby. Reconciliation came only when a chance arose to kill again. This time it was a young Irish girl, married, and visiting Helen, her relative by marriage. Whether young Ann was invited on purpose or was merely found suitable when she appeared is not known. But we do know that out of delicate feelings for kinship, Burke declined to open the proceedings; he helped Hare only at the end.
Before the next and last victim, a frail beggarwoman who met her end on October 31, 1828, the combine had been planning an expansion of trade, possibly with the help of Dr. Knox's janitor Paterson. The idea was to open up branches in Glasgow and Ireland and really make the business pay. Unfortunately, Mrs. Docherty, the beggarwoman, had been befriended by a couple name Gray, who where temporarily in close touch with the evil foursome. When the Grays discovered her body on their host's premises, they made an outcry, and though penniless themselves, were unmoved by promises of money for their silence . They notified the police, but sounded unconvincing until a discrepancy in the culprits' remarks gave everything away. All was over, bar the vast public excitement—and the hanging.
The trial began early on Christmas Eve and lasted uninterrupted through Christmas morning, a full 24 hours. It brought into the overcrowded court the town's highest talent in all professions. To prevent general (and mutual) suffocation à la Burke, the windows of the room were opened to the cold blast. Soon everybody's head was muffled up in one of big colored handkerchiefs of the time, and the grim scene opened in front of what resembled a carnival.
Only Burke and Helen were tried, for the necessary evidence could only come from Hare, who had to be promised immunity. Moreover, of the three murders named in the indictment only the last was prosecuted. This indirectly saved Dr. Knox and his assistants from appearing as witnesses, for none of them had seen the last body. Burke was found guilty in fifty minutes' deliberation. MacDougal was let off under the rubric of Not Proven.
Burke was publicly hanged, his skin tanned and sold in strips, and his body dissected by Dr. Monro, who lectured upon it for two hours before a huge throng. Those left outside rioted until arrangements were made that allowed some 30,000 to file through the dissecting room and see the remains.
At his next inaugural in Surgeons' Square, Dr. Knox proclaimed that he would "do just as I have done heretofore." The students cheered, but he was later burnt in effigy and his house was destroyed. He sought and won exoneration by a committee, but the odium persisted. His following gradually dwindled. He moved to another college, then to Glasgow, and finally to London, where he is said to have ended his days as a cheep obstetrician, or again as a demonstrator in raree show.
Though not an endearing character—and certainly the connived at Burke and Hare's system—Knox was a remarkably gifted man. From early days as a traveler and a student, then a surgeon at Waterloo, later a frequent contributor to learned journals, and also the founder of the museum of Comparative Anatomy (where Burke's skeleton may still be seen), Robert Knox in his late thirties had the energy to lecture three times a day to some 500 students, larding his instruction with scurrilous attacks on other practitioners. With only one eye he had more insight into the body's workings than most of his colleagues. To his students, he was "first and incomparable."
It remains to say a word about a few of the unlooked-for by-products of the care. One is struck first by the excellence of Dr. Christison's medicolegal report on the body of the final victim. Forensic medicine had been and has remained a great specialty of Scottish science. In this case, the differentiation of pre- and post-mortem bruising and lividity was important, as it so often is, and Christison took pains to makes "express trial" to demonstrate effects. He could not prove that murder had been done, but he raised a strong presumption that proved sufficient, and his example encouraged further research.
Nor were men of science done with Burke after the trial. They kept up a fierce polemic—it is exemplified in the present volume—over the significance of his cranial configuration. Phrenology was a lively new discipline and criminologists had things to prove, by statistics as well as argument. Fortunately for science, though not for phrenology, Burke's bumps refused to conform to prediction.
The original difficulty of getting subjects for dissection was of course not settled by the murders, either in theory of in practice. Two of Dr. Knox's fellow-anatomists had risen to his defense by citing the "inevitable and necessary" measures used to obtain bodies. They did not mean murder; they meant the deviousness that tempted to it. Here indeed is a prime instance of the way bad laws and confused public sentiment incite to crime. The remedy at law came three years after Burke's trial, in Lord Warburton's Anatomy Act of 1832 (2nd & 3rd William IV, Cap. 75), which authorized the legal custodians of the dead body to allow its delivery to a medical school. These custodians are usually the relatives of the deceased; but failing them, various public officials are named in the Act as having the power. Yet late as 1921 the state of feeling among officials and laity still denied an adequate supply of subjects for dissection; for the Act of 1832 was only permissive and not mandatory as to the disposal of unclaimed bodies .
In the history of law, the trial about Hare's immunity is important as a review of the law governing the liability of a participant in crime who testifies against his accomplices. Both the Edinburgh trials display in full the scrupulous fair play of British criminal law at its best, to say nothing of the intellectual powers of the lawyers and judges involved.
Up the Close and doun the stair;
But and ben wi' Burke and Hare:
Burke's the butcher, Hare's the thief,
And Knox the boy who buys the beef .
Meantime, Sir Walter Scott had produced a first-rate paragraph of armchair detection to prove that Joe the miller was Burke's first victim, a point in which the witnesses disagreed . More important still, Thomas De Quincey, at the very time Burke and Hare were joining forces, was composing 'Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts," an epoch-making essay that lifted the tale of crime out of the street vendor's hands to deposit it in the more manicured but not less feverish ones of the novelist, the psychologist, and the criminologist.
From the words of DeQuincey's twice-revised thesis that murder deserves to be judged and admired by connoisseurs, one gathers that the Edinburgh killings did not fulfill his definition of art. He cheers "the Burke-and-hare revolution," no doubt for its attention-getting value which benefited his views, but he disapproves the taking advantage of the sick and feeble—they are not really able to stand murder. Besides, he wants one performer, whose risk is always the greater, surrounded as he is by honest men. Hence our critic prefers the Williams murders of 1812.His sardonic mirth and fanciful point are but a mask for the horror he expresses at the end.
Still, DeQuincey's root idea helped create a new literary genre. It begins with Poe and has end by filling libraries with accounts true and fictional of great crimes and great trials. On Burke and Hare themselves you may read Stevenson's Body-Snatcher, you may consult William Roughead in Classic Crimes, or you may chance to see James Bridie's The Anatomist, where all our character play out their parts. The vulgar pruriency which impelled 30,000 to see Burke dissected has been transmuted into an informed intellectual interest which explains, no doubt, the presence of this book, at this moment in the reader's hands.
Jacques Barzun's "Murder for Profit and for Science" originally appeared as the introduction to the New York Academy of Medicine's History of Medicine Series No. 43, Burke and Hare: The Resurrection Men; A Collection of Contemporary Documents Including Broadsides, Occasional Verses, Illustrations, Polemics, and a Complete Transcript of the Testimony at Trial. Metuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1974.
1. This familiar phrase is a misnomer. Under the common law there is no property in dead bodies, which makes it impossible to bequeath one's body to a hospital: the executor would lack the power to make delivery. By the same reasoning, body-snatching from the cemeteries could only be prosecuted as a trespass. The dangers to the body-snatchers came altogether from the violent anger of the deceased's relatives and friends.
2. Without the Grays' integrity, the criminals might have escaped. They were ready to fight. They had moreover a kind of hold on the Grays' feelings, for Helen MacDougal had borne children to Mrs. Gray's father. A public subscription for Gray, ex-soldier and unemployed, netted less than £10, that is, less than a fresh body at Surgeons' Square.
3. See the letter from Professor Arthur Robinson in William Roughead, Burke and Hare, Edinburgh 1921, 279-81. The shortage of bodies for medical study continues in the United States today, an indirect result of welfare programs that defray burial expenses. See the P & S Quarterly, Columbia University Medical School, Fall 1973, p.26.
4. "But and ben": in and out. The English language was also enriched, at least for a time, with the new verb to burke, meaning to murder by strangling or suffocation. According to report, when the crowd caught sight of Hare after his release, the shout went up: "Burke, the b_____"! The word in blank offers two choices to the philohgist.
5. See below, Chapter 5