Saturday, 3 November 2012

The Frantic Flight of the Monstrous Mistress

          It took the jury just fifty minutes to reach their decision then they returned  to the courtroom and the foreman Mr John McFie, a Leith merchant, declared that,
The jury find the pannel, William Burke, guilty of the third charge in the indictment; and find the indictment not proven against the pannel, Helen McDougal.”
There was applause in the courtroom and when the verdict reached the crowds in the streets, there were cheers. Burke remained composed, “Nellie, you’re out of the scrape,” he was heard to whisper. The Lord Advocate moved for the judgment of the court, and the Lord Justice-Clerk called upon Lord Meadowbank to propose sentence. He proceeded to point to the enormity and depravity of the crime, cited Biblical law ‘Thou shalt not Kill’, and that the sentence for murder under Scottish law was the death penalty. 

William Burke

His suggestion to the court was that Burke be held in the Edinburgh tollbooth until January 28th 1829,
“… when he shall suffer death on a gibbet by the hands of the common executioner, and his body thereafter given for dissection.
The Right Honourable David Boyle, the Lord Justice-Clerk, donned the black cap and addressed Burke directly. He was to be executed for the crime of murder and rather than hang his body in chains as a deterrent, as was normal, it was to be publicly dissected and anatomised, his skeleton to be preserved forever, so that posterity might be reminded of his crimes. The sentence was recorded in the court register, the place of execution was placed at the Lawnmarket, and provision was made to deliver the body to Dr  Alexander Monro, Professor of Anatomy at the University of Edinburgh, who was to publicly dissected and anatomise it. 

Boyle then turned to McDougal, who had broken down in tears. Her verdict, he reminded her, was found ‘not proven’, which was something entirely different from ‘not guilty.’ Helen McDougal was eventually released, after having been held for her own safety, and returned home to West Port, but things turned nasty for her when she went to a local shop to buy whisky. The shopkeeper recognised her and refused her service, and on her way back home again, a group of boys also recognised her and the hue and cry went up. A lynch mob quickly formed and McDougal would have been torn limb from limb if the police had not arrived to save her. Beating the horde off with staves, the officers took McDougal to the watch-house at Wester Portsburgh, but the by now enormous crowd besieged it, hurling anything they could get their hands on at the building and baying for her blood. 

I Predict a Riot

The police dressed McDougal in men’s clothing and smuggled her away out of a back window, and a stand was made to give her time to escape. An announcement was made that she was being held in order to give evidence against Hare, and that prospect placated the rabble, which then peacefully dispersed. Under police protection, McDougal was escorted to Stirlingshire, where she had relatives, but they would have nothing to do with her and drove her away. She escaped being lynched in Newbiggin and in Carnworth, and when she arrived at Newcastle, the police there refused to let her into the city and escorted her to the Tyne Bridge, where the people of Gateshead tried to stone her. One rumour was that she had fled to Australia, where she lived out the rest of her life.

Public interest in the case, fuelled by the newspapers, turned on Hare who, by turning informer, had, it was felt, literally got away with murder. Burke had been found guilty on the third charge (the murder of Mary Docherty) but questions were asked in the press about the first and second charges (the murders of Daft Jamie and Mary Paterson). Janet Brown, the whore who had made a lucky escape, went to the police and identified the clothing found at Burke’s house as belonging to Mary Paterson. A curious snuffbox and snuff spoon had also been found in his possession, with six holes spaced around a larger central opening. There was no sympathy for Burke, but it was posited that he was being made the scapegoat.

Where were the Doctors?

And the cry went up, “Where were the Doctors?” On the evening of Sunday December 28th a band of young men descended on Dr Knox’s house in Minto St and set about stoning it, breaking almost all of the house glass before they were dispersed by a strong force of the police. In the condemned cell, William Burke began to talk freely to the gaolers and policemen; he was condemned and had nothing left to lose, but Hare was still at liberty and had committed the same crimes and far worse. It was Hare and his wife who had slain Daft Jamie, although he had lured the good-natured idiot to them, helped deliver his corpse and taken a share of the price.

Tomorrow - the sentence ...

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