Monday, 29 October 2012

The Early Exploits of the Edinburgh Executioners

                      Burke and Hare. A right pair of wrong ’uns and no doubt, and although Burke might well have been the lesser of these two particular evils, it’s true that the lesser of two evils is still evil. And William Burke was trouble from the start – that feckless Irish wanderer who left a wife and two children behind when he skipped to Scotland following a family row, and threw his lot in with Helen McDougal (who already had a couple of husbands somewhere about the place), he worked as a navvy on the Union Canal, where it’s likely he first met William Hare, another Irish immigrant navvy. 

William Burke

Hare was married to the widow of a lodging house keeper, Mary (or Maggie) Logue, and she invited Burke and McDougal to move into her house in Tanner’s Close, Edinburgh, from where Burke then worked as a cobbler. At about Christmas 1827, an old army pensioner named Donald died at the lodging house, owing Hare £4 in rent and loans, and Hare doubted that Donald’s relations would honour the debt. Burke and Hare devised a plan to raise the money to cover the arrears; when the coffin was closed, they surreptitiously unscrewed the lid, removed Donald’s corpse, replaced it with oak bark and screwed the lid back into place. The coffin was taken off and buried with due ceremony, with Donald’s relatives none the wiser; Burke and Hare put the body in a sack and took it to Surgeon’s Square, where they met with some medical students and Dr Robert Knox, an anatomy teacher. 

William Hare

One of the students, Thomas Wharton Jones (who would later become a very eminent physiologist), paid Burke and Hare £7 10s for Donald’s mortal remains, with Hare receiving £4 5s and Burke £3 5s. The prospect of ready money so easily made tempted the pair to repeat the transaction, but as the fresh cadavers of those who had died from natural causes were a bit thin on the ground in Tanner’s Close, Burke and Hare commenced making corpses of their own. 

The first was Abigail Simpson, an old woman whom Hare found drunkenly wandering in the Edinburgh Grassmarket and easily convinced that they were former acquaintances. They went back to the lodging house, drank copious drams and sang the old songs, before the whole party passed out, drunk. In the following morning, the old soak said she was making for home but whisky and porter soon changed her mind and she passed out again. Hare put his hands over her mouth whilst Burke laid over her body, to prevent her from moving, until she was suffocated. The corpse was stripped and put in a chest and Burke and Hare delivered it to Dr Knox that evening, for which they were paid £10. 

Dr Robert Knox

Next came an unfortunate known only as ‘Joseph’, a miller from a good family who had fallen on hard times and was reduced to dossing at Hare’s flophouse. Joseph took ill with a fever and Hare and his wife feared that if word of an infection got out, business would suffer, so Burke forced a pillow to Joseph’s mouth whilst Hare held him down, and another £10 body went over to Surgeon’s Square. 

An almost identical murder followed next – a forty-year-old matchseller from Cheshire became ill with jaundice in the lodging house, so Burke and Hare smothered him for the customary ten quid from Dr Knox, no questions asked.

Two ladies who are no better than they should be

Early in the morning of April 9th 1828, Burke went to a pub in Canongate and picked up a pair of prostitutes, Mary Paterson and Janet Brown, who had spent the night in the Canongate police cells for being drunk and disorderly, and had been set free at about four or five that morning. Burke began pouring drink into the girls before inviting them back to his house for breakfast. In fact, they went to Burke’s brother Constantine’s house, where he pretended to be a lodger, and after tea, bread, eggs and haddock, the whisky bottles were produced and more drinking followed. Paterson passed out and Burke and Brown went for a walk, came back again with more booze when Helen McDougal turned up, intent on a fight with just about anyone present. Burke and McDougal began throwing the crockery at each other and Janet Brown staggered off home, glad (and unbelievably lucky) to be out of it. 

Mary Paterson (or Patterson or Mitchell)

Then Hare arrived on the scene and he and Burke murdered the still comatose Paterson, stripped her body and made for Surgeon’s Square with it. This time however, questions were asked. Some of the students recognized Bonny Mary, who had been a particular beauty with very distinctive red tresses, indeed one of them was sure he had seen this girl, or one very like her, in Canongate that very morning, and the body, although cold, was suspiciously flexible. Bodies were ordinarily procured from graves by resurrection men but this one had not come out of any burial ground – she still had her curling papers in her hair, for crying out loud! Nevertheless, Dr Knox gave his suppliers £8 for their trouble and was so taken with the body that he preserved it in spirits for three months, at one time inviting an unnamed painter to come over and see it (like many good looking strumpets, Mary had occasionally been an artist’s model). 

Mary Paterson posing as Venus

Maybe we should not speculate too much on what may have occurred between the Doctor and his cadavre exquis during those three months.

More murders by Burke and Hare tomorrow

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