Friday, 2 November 2012

The Cowardly Chicanery of the Treacherous Two-timer

                      True to his resolve, James Gray went to the police station, where he gave a statement to Sergeant-Major John Fisher, who was inclined to think that Gray simply wanted some sort of revenge on his former landlord with these outlandish claims but went to Burke’s house anyway. 

Burke bluffed and blustered – Gray and his wife were such bad tenants that he had been forced to evict them, he said, and the old woman had left early in the morning at around about seven or so, under a cloud, also guilty of bad conduct. The blood traces found in the room had, said McDougal, been left a fortnight ago by another tenant and she hadn’t cleaned to room since and as for the old Irishwoman, why she had been sent away in the early evening, maybe about sevenish. This twelve-hour discrepancy in their stories aroused Fisher’s instincts, and he arrested them, just to be on the safe side, although he still thought Gray was up to mischief. 

Plans of the Houses in West Port

Fisher, a superintendent and a police surgeon returned to Burke’s den later in the evening and found more blood in the straw and a bedgown apparently belonging to the missing Docherty. On the Sunday morning, Fisher went to Knox’s premises at Surgeon’s Square and discovered the body in the tea chest; Gray was fetched and identified it as that of Mary Docherty, so Fisher immediately had the Hares taken into police custody and placed in separate cells. Two police surgeons and an independent witness examined Docherty’s body and found that she had died by violent means. The initial statements of Burke and McDougal contained enough inconsistencies as to warrant further investigation. 

William Burke
Burke was re-examined by Sheriff Tate on November 10th and gave a different account of what had occurred, saying that Mrs Docherty had indeed been invited, to read some fortunes, and it being Hallowe’en had stayed for a drink but after he and Hare had started fighting she disappeared only to be found hiding in the straw pile by the bed. She had something like vomit coming from her mouth and was dead, so he and Hare thought to get rid of the body by taking it to Dr Knox’s school, and the stiffening body had had to be forced into the tea chest, causing a bit of damage to it. Helen McDougal was also re-examined on the same day, but this time she said Docherty had been invited round but started demanding tea be made, asking for salt, and other requests to the extent that she was such a nuisance as to be throw out by the shoulders. 

Edinburgh Sheriff Court House

The Lord Advocate was worried that the evidence was insufficient to make the case stick in court, and thought the Gray’s evidence was at best circumstantial, and other court officials feared that there could be a serious miscarriage of justice. Things changed when Hare, ever wily and cunning, offered to turn King’s Evidence, and provide all the information in return for freedom from prosecution for his wife and himself. The Edinburgh Evening Courant of December 6th reported that William Burke and his ‘wife’ (as she was called) were going to stand trial for the murders of Mary Docherty (also called Campbell), Daft Jamie Wilson and Mary Paterson. Two days later a citation was issued, requiring Burke and McDougal to appear before the High Court of Justiciary in Edinburgh at ten o’clock in the morning of December 24th 1828. 

Helen McDougal

Massed crowds of interested citizens gathered early in the morning in order to witness the trials, so many that three hundred police reinforcements were called in, and Burke and McDougal were moved from the city tollbooth to the cells below the High Court in Parliament Square. The doors of the courtroom were opened at nine o’clock and it was immediately filled to capacity. Forty minutes later, Burke and McDougal were brought up from the cells and placed in the dock, and at ten minutes past ten the four judges took their seats. 

Edinburgh - High Court - Parliament Square

The Crown and the defence were represented by the best men at the Scottish bar, and soon long and learned legal arguments were entered into. There were doubts about precedence, possible errors in the libels and problems with prejudice, but after sifting through the case law and whatever else it is that consumes so much of the time of lawyers, a plea of Not Guilty was entered for both prisoners and a jury of fifteen (as required in Scotland) was sworn in. The murder of Mary Docherty was examined first, with neighbours and friends called as witnesses, identifying her, her clothing and her whereabouts prior to her disappearance. The shop boy from Rymer’s remembered her and Burke together, and that Burke had returned later to buy a tea chest very like the one found at Dr Knox’s cellar. Mrs Connoway, a neighbour, had seen Docherty at Burke’s house and been present when the drinking and dancing had started, recalling that the old woman had hurt her feet while dancing. Mrs Law, another neighbour, remembered the noise of ‘shuffling or fighting’. All this was interesting enough, but then David Paterson, Knox’s porter, took the stand. 

He had, he said, gone to house of Burke at Hallowe’en and seen Burke and Hare and their wives there, and was shown a place where there would be a ‘subject’ ready for him. He had taken possession of a body in a chest, paid an instalment and promised the remainder at a later time. He often bought the bodies of the unclaimed poor, he said, and had thought Burke and Hare to be agents acting on behalf of others in this trade. That such a trade went on in Edinburgh came as a surprise to many of the Scottish public, but another class of persons was very familiar with it. 

William Hare

 Then the informer William Hare was sworn in, causing a sensation in court, and was reminded that if he answered truthfully and fully he would be immune to future prosecutions, but if he lied or prevaricated no such immunity would be offered. In answer to the Lord Advocate, Hare said he had met Burke on October 31st and taken a gill with him. Burke had told him about an old woman who he thought would be a good ‘shot’ for the doctors, by which he took him to mean he intended to murder her. He told how the woman had fallen over a stool and how Burke had sat astride her, one hand under her nose and the other under her chin, and had pressed down on her head with his breast for about ten or fifteen minutes, until she was dead. Hare had sat on a chair and watched, he said. Burke stripped the body, doubled it up and tied the feet to the head. 

Burke sat on a chair and watched

There was then some legal disputation and Hare was removed from the court for a while. On his return, he was reminded that he need not answer certain questions if those answers might incriminate him, and he refused to reply to questions about any other murders. Mrs Hare was called next, causing even more of a sensation when she arrived carrying an infant, which was suffering from whooping cough, its ‘kinks’ interrupting proceedings and happening at very opportune moments when ‘awkward’ questions were put to the mother. But when she was asked about what she thought had happened to Docherty when she was out of the room, she said she thought that she had been murdered, adding that, ‘I have seen such tricks before.’ The prosecution did not pick up on this hint at the time, and there followed medical evidence, which confirmed that Docherty had died from strangulation or suffocation and not from alcohol poisoning. 

Mrs Hare and Child

The Lord Advocate then addressed the jury, beginning by saying,
This is one of the most extra-ordinary and novel subjects of trial that has ever been brought before this or any other court, and has created in the public mind the greatest anxiety and alarm. I am not surprised at this excitement, because the offences charged are of so atrocious a description, that human nature shudders and revolts at it; and the belief that such crimes as are here charged have been committed among us, even in a single instance, is calculated to produce terror and dismay. This excitement naturally arises from the detestation of the assassins' deeds, and from veneration of the ashes of the dead.”
The Dean of Faculty made a more laboured speech, and Mr Henry Cockburn, counsel for McDougal, confined his summary largely to the behaviour of William Hare, who had sat idly by for over ten minutes and watched the murder, without intervention or alarm, and the testimony of Mrs Hare, who had ‘seen such tricks before’, and had stooped to bringing her own sick child into the courtroom,
“… till at length the infant was plainly used merely as an instrument of delaying or evading whatever question it was inconvenient for her to answer.”
The Lord Justice-Clerk finally summed up, giving guidance to the jurors, who then retired to consider their verdicts at half past eight on the morning of Christmas Day.

Tomorrow, the Verdict ...

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