Burke and Hare were two of Scotland’s most notorious murderers. Both hailed originally from Ireland, arriving in Scotland as adults. They met in Edinburgh – the scene of their crimes. There was a natural, organic progression in the way they became acquainted with murder. The two lived in the same boarding house in Tanner’s Close in Edinburgh – William Burke with a lady called Helen McDougal. After the landlord died William Hare took up with the landlady Margaret Laird; thus, when one of the tenants died without paying all of his rent between them they found a creative way to make up the income. They removed the body from the coffin, replaced it with bark and sealed the coffin once more. They then sold the body to a local doctor – bodies that could be used for dissection were of great benefit when training medical students. So began the slippery slope to murder...
The next time – the first murder – was almost easier; another tenant had not paid rent due to illness and was therefore a liability. The answer – smother him to death and transport the body to Surgeon’s Square for sale. The next victim – Abigail Simpson - they invited home, getting her drunk enough to ensure she stayed the night; she was murdered in her sleep and the body was successfully delivered to Dr Knox who was happy to buy bodies with no questions asked. Burke and Hare realised that if they targeted people who would not be missed their chances of success were highest, thus their next victim as a prostitute. The men’s partners were actively involved in attracting victims (a couple could seem less threatening than a man on his own) and encouraged Burke and Hare to greater heights of criminality.
So the body count rose – the true number of deaths Burke and Hare were responsible for will never be known. It was at times an unsettled alliance, Burke and McDougal at one point moving out to a new property. Yet the taste for killing remained for the quartet; the men, complacent in their success, began to make mistakes that would lead to their downfall. They targeted a victim – Daft Jamie who was known in the Edinburgh community; it is said he was recognised on the dissecting table. Burke’s final murderous act showed that he had thrown caution aside; his victim Mrs Docherty met a couple who lodged in his house – he asked the lodgers – Mr and Mrs Gray - to go to Hare’s house for the night. When they returned in the morning they found Widow Docherty’s body and although Helen McDougal tried to bribe them to keep quiet they went to the police. That evening a policeman found the four in the house together with enough evidence to indicate murder.
William Burke and Helen McDougal were tried on Christmas Eve 1928 – William Hare and his partner were among the witnesses for the prosecution. Burke was sentenced to death on Christmas Day and hanged just over a month later in front of an audience of thousands. Helen McDougal escaped with her life and freedom. Many felt William Hare should suffer the same fate as his partner in crime – he was quick to leave the city – his notoriety meant he was recognised by angry crowds – one story says he was thrown into a lime kit in England by men who saw who he was, causing permanent blindness.
A rhyme popular with children about the murders has survived to this day:
Up the close and down the stair,
In the house with Burke and Hare.
Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief,
Knox, the boy who buys the beef.