William Burke was born in his native Ireland in 1792 and, even though his parents were poor, they believed in educating their children. When he finished his schooling he joined the militia, though after seven years his unit was disbanded and he went back to his childhood home to be a servant for a land owner. Leaving his home town and abandoning his wife and two children in 1817, he travelled to Scotland to work on the construction of the Union Canal.
Burke met Helen McDougal, a Scots woman, while working on the Union Canal and after they met he gave up construction work to work variously as a laborer, weaver, baker, and cobbler. By 1827, Burke and McDougal had been cohabiting together as common law spouses for a number of years and were generally perceived to be a respectable, married couple who had settled down with Burke finally opting for a career as a shoe maker. He was able to read and write and was charming and outgoing.
In late 1827 Burke and McDougal moved to Tanner’s Close in the West Port area of Edinburgh. It was here that William Burke would meet William Hare, a man with which he would become infamously linked in history, when he and McDougal moved into the lodging house run by Hare’s wife Margaret. The two couples became friendly but no-one could have suspected that the friendship would eventually lead to murder.
When a tenant at the lodging house died of natural causes owing Hare £4 in rent Burke helped Hare to dispose of the man’s body. Instead of burying him, they took the body to Edinburgh University Medical School searching for a buyer for the corpse in order to attempt to recoup the money owed to Hare. After little success, they happened upon a student of an anatomist named Dr. Robert Knox, who told them that Knox would pay good money for a cadaver and they sold the body for £7.10, the equivalent of $1,130.00 today.
Burke and Hare realized they could make a large amount of money supplying cadavers to medical schools and when the next opportunity presented itself to do this, their murder spree began. Burke and Hare’s first murder victim was a sick tenant named Joe the miller. They plied him with whisky before suffocating him. Joe was to be the first of sixteen victims who would lose their lives at the hands of Burke and Hare. For the most part, Burke and Hare targeted people who were unlikely to be missed, such as beggars and prostitutes, as their victims but they were not above murdering their own acquaintances. A cousin of Helen McDougal, Burke’s common law wife, lost her life at his hands.
Burke and Hare’s murder spree lasted for twelve months but it came to an abrupt end in October 1828 when a woman named Ann Gray became suspicious of them and discovered a body hidden under a bed in their house. Despite being offered the sum of huge sum of £10 to keep quiet, Mrs Gray refused and alerted the authorities. However, by the time police arrived at the scene the body had been transported to the medical school. Items belonging to other victims were discovered at the house but the evidence that the two men had actually committed murder was largely circumstantial. In order to secure a conviction, therefore, and satisfy a public that was baying for blood, the Lord Advocate Sir William Rae offered Hare immunity from prosecution if he testified against his friend, William Burke.
Burke was sentenced to death in December 1828 and hanged on January 28, 1829. Immediately after his death Burke’s death mask was cast and some of his skin was tanned and preserved. After wards, in a fitting act of posthumous punishment, his body was dissected at the Edinburgh University Medical School. His skeleton was preserved as an exhibit.
Hare was released along with McDougal, though they did not escape lightly. McDougal was attacked by an angry mob and just escaped being hanged herself, before fleeing Edinburgh, never to be heard of again. Hare was released from prison in February 1829 and also disappeared into history.
William Burke’s decision to enter into a murderous partnership with William Hare is puzzling. Why would a skilled man who seemed to have a good, stable, home life resort to such disturbing criminality? It is highly unusual for the criminal acts of a serial murderer to be driven purely by profit. It is unlikely that we will ever find an answer for William Burke’s choice. However, his name and that of William Hare will never be forgotten and we can only hope their descendants were able to escape their torrid history.
Leona Tyrie is the producer of “The Body Merchants: The Shocking Truth about Anatomy Murder”, a documentary which recounts the horrifying true story of the serial killers Burke and Hare, examines the socio-legal problems of Georgian Britain which not only spawned the body trade, but also gave rise to murder… and culminates by exposing the terrible truth that such crimes are not confined to history.