Thursday, 1 November 2012

The Dreadful Discovery of the Soldier's Spouse

               The crimes of the resurrectionists drew nothing but disgust from the ordinary, honest citizenry but taking bodies from the churchyard was one thing whilst slaughtering the living was quite another. 

Burke and Hare found their work perhaps a little too easy, far easier than digging canals, mending boots and shoes or peddling this and that around the capital, and certainly much, much better paid. They were even considering widening their business base, with Burke going to Glasgow, or maybe even Ireland, in search of more victims, which would be transported back to Hare in Edinburgh and thence to Knox. 


Before this venture got off the ground however, Burke was in Rymer’s grocery shop on the morning of Hallowe’en 1828, taking a drink and chatting to the shop boy, when a frail old lady entered. From the very second she opened her mouth her fate was sealed. She was, she told the proprietor, Mary Docherty over from Innisowen   searching for her son who was, so she was told, living at Edinburgh. Well, wouldn’t you know it now, wasn’t me own dear mammy’s name Docherty and her from Innisowen too, says the man bantering with the shop boy. Burke had become a Docherty in that instant, a long-lost kinsman to be sure, and right here in Edinburgh, be gob. Come to breakfast, won’t you now, and let’s be hearing your tales of the Emerald Isle. 

Mary Docherty

So, off went another innocent with Burke to his place, where McDougal made a fine breakfast but Mrs Docherty, good Catholic as she was, could not eat until after noon, it being a Friday and all. Burke went away to find Hare and the two of them returned to find the old lady had finally finished eating and the things were being tidied neatly away. 

There was a problem though, as an old soldier, James Gray and his wife Ann had been lodging with the Burkes for the past week. Gray was a Grassmarket man, who had served with the Elgin Fencibles and the 72nd Regiment, and was back home after seventeen years away serving the King. Would it be possible for these good souls maybe to find alternative accommodation with my good friend Mr Hare for a couple of days, so as to give old Mrs Docherty a room with her kinsfolk, asked Burke, and the cooperative couple agreed to move out. 

Three fine fellows of the 72nd Regiment

So, out came the bottle and Burke got his tin whistle out, and the old songs were sung, and slip jigs and reels were played, and a step or two was measured, and Mrs Docherty hurt her foot at the dancing because she wasn’t nearly as young as she’d once been, but it was all great craic and a grand old time was had by all. And, as at any good shindig, fisticuffs finally broke out, with Burke and Hare slugging away at each other in fine style, which brought the neighbours round to see the fun and someone, peeping through the keyhole, swore they saw McDougal pouring whisky down the old lady’s throat, straight from the bottle. 

Old Mary Docherty tried to settle the scrapping down but a soused Hare knocked her over a stool by accident and she fell heavily, too full of drink to rise again. McDougal and Mary Hare then left the room and Burke and Hare dropped on the old woman like a pair of vultures, throttling her where she lay, stripping the body and hiding it in a pile of straw next to the bed. Paterson, Knox’s porter, was brought and shown the place where his ‘subject’ would be ready in the morning, then the women returned and at about four in the morning, the murderous brood went to sleep. 

Doing Docherty to Death

The following morning, Burke went to Hare’s house and invited the Grays back for breakfast, and when they all got back, they found Hare acting very oddly, splashing whisky on himself and the furniture, and visibly agitated. Mrs Gray dressed her child but when she started looking for a lost stocking, Hare ordered her away from the straw pile near the bed. Then, when she made to get some potatoes that she had stored under the bed, Hare again became jumpy, only heightening Mrs Gray’s suspicions that something was seriously amiss. Where was that little old lady that they’d given up their room for, she asked, simply to be told that she started abusing Burke when she was the worse for drink, so they had thrown her out into the night. Eventually, circumstances left Mrs Gray alone in the room so went over to the straw pile to satisfy her curiosity. 

Burke's Room

The first thing she lifted from the pile was the arm of the dead, naked, elderly Irishwoman. She called her husband in, who lifted up the corpse’s head, finding blood all about the mouth and ears. The Grays packed what belongings they could together and made to leave as quickly as they could but Helen McDougal met them on the stair. Ann Gray confronted her and McDougal broke down, sobbing that the old lady had drunk herself to death and such a thing could happen in any house. 

She offered the Grays money to keep quiet about this terrible thing and promised to give them another ten pounds every week to keep their mouths shut, but James Gray was having none of it. McDougal and Mrs Hare took the Grays to a tavern over the road and tried again to persuade them to hold their tongues, blaming their husbands for the whole sorry mess. Gray remained obdurate, and his wife supported him, so seeing the game was up, the women took flight to warn their menfolk. 

Burke and Hare meanwhile made arrangements to dispose of the body; Burke bought an empty tea chest from Rymer’s grocery and the body was wrapped in a sheet, placed inside and covered with straw, and the lid roped down. A street porter was hired and the box carried to Knox, who gave Paterson £5 which, in turn, was passed on, five shillings for the street porter, and two pounds seven shillings and sixpence each to Burke and Hare, with the promise of another £5 to be paid later.

Is it the end of the road for Burke and Hare? Tomorrow will tell...

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