Monday, July 12, 2010
“Burke’s the murderer, Hare’s the thief, and Knox the boy who buys the beef.”
Trudging quickly through the darkened streets of Edinburgh, Scotland, there was a swift and brutal cold that dominated the air, making the two men struggling with a heavy bag shiver as they walked. The bag was stained with a dark unknown color, spreading slowly like a particularly evil bruise. With only a few streets to go, the two men could already feel the warmth of deserved money in their pockets. Both of them already knew they could make a living out of this, even if it meant tramping down the road every few weeks in the cold. When they reached their destination, a heavy brown door with no distinction about it, they knocked a slow three times. The man that answered was tall and wearing a dapper suit, his eyes swollen from lack of sleep. Seeing the large bag in the hands of these two strangers, the tall man smiled and invited them in.
Seven pounds and ten shillings was the price of the corpse in the bag, divided between the two men, William Hare and William Burke. It was said to be the best price in the city, according to locals who regarded Dr. Robert Knox as the best anatomist in the city. No. 10 Surgeon’s Square was well known by medical students as the one place they could learn the workings and uses of the human body. And the best way to learn about the body in its true form was to dissect the dead. In 1827, medical science in Europe was not even in its infancy, it was in the fetal position, waiting to be birthed. Medical doctors were more than happy to receive corpses at their offices, paying handsomely for anyone who could provide them. William Hare and William Burke would soon be his main suppliers.
The celebration of Christmas in 1827 was marked by the very first corpse Hare and Burke delivered to Dr. Knox. It was also the beginning of the union and partnership of the two men who decided to earn their living as corpse-sellers. As landlords of a small lodging house, Hare and Burke had discovered a tenant, Ole Donald, dead from a long illness. Hare was deeply saddened by the death, for Ole Donald had owed him several pounds, which he had never paid back. Hare and Burke declared the death to local authorities and waited for the body to be taken away. When the body was put in the casket and left for the next day, Burke and Hare exchanged the body with heavy rocks. They took the corpse, covered it in a bed sheet, and decided to sell it to Dr. Knox.
The meeting of William Hare and William Burke was thought to be around late 1827. Hare owned the lodging house and Burke arrived to stay for a short while until he could find a home of his own. Sharing a bottle of whiskey, the two men found they had quite a bit in common. Both were of Irish descent, had a love of alcohol, and an even greater affection for greed. The lodging home was abominable, rat infested, and a breeding ground for illness. But Hare, a heavy and jolly man, seemed to disregard the squalor around him. Burke, too, in his often drunken stupor found his new surroundings agreeable to his standards, and soon became a co-owner of the lodging house. The wives of Burke and Hare also seemed to get along well, sharing in the whiskey that was a constant indulgence in the home.
After the decision was settled that they would be selling corpses, Burke and Hare sat by the light of the fireplace plotting where they could find fresh corpses. It was indeed important to find a fresh corpse, for that was what paid the most. Doctors and medical students did not want to dissect the body of a rigid and decaying body. Grave robbing was out of the question. Graveyards were guarded closely because of the increasing number of criminals who wanted jewelry or precious goods belonging to the dead. Some had also had the same idea as Burke and Hare, intending to dig up a fresh grave and steal the corpse to sell to Dr. Knox. No, Burke and Hare needed fine corpses, fresh ones at that, which could be sold for more than the usual price. Killing someone became the ultimate decision.
An innocent victim could be killed quickly and brought to Dr. Knox even before rigor mortis set in. The price of a body only hours old had to be more than that of a corpse dead for days. By murdering their victims by suffocation, Burke and Hare could avoid murder charges instead of knifing or beating them to death. It was also an easier way to kill without too much guilt, which neither Burke nor Hare seemed to possess.
The second body that was sent to Dr. Knox was a lodger staying at Burke and Hare’s home. Joe, staying in one of the rooms, had fallen ill one night. In the darkness, Burke and Hare snuck into his room and put a pillow over his face. Without the strength to fight the two men off, Joe was suffocated to death, earning Burke and Hare ten pounds. Following Joe, were four women, mostly destitute prostitutes. They all met their fate by a thick pillow and a large amount of whiskey provided by Burke and Hare.
The most popular killing that took place in Burke and Hare’s home was that of Mary Paterson, a local prostitute inebriated beyond understanding where she was or what she was doing. Burke, taken by the young woman, had brought Mary and another prostitute, Janet Brown, to his room. Upon finding Burke with the two women, Burke’s wife became enraged. She had no issue with the murders, but she did not want her husband involving himself with any of the victims, especially sexually. The fight raged on throughout the night, and at the end, Mary and Janet were both dead.
Selling Mary Paterson and Janet Brown for the usual ten pounds each, Dr. Knox and his medical students found themselves morbidly obsessed with the body of Mary. Not only was she voluptuously beautiful, but there was a fondness in her strikingly stunning facial structure, attracting everyone that caught sight of her. Unable to dissect the attractive young woman, Dr. Knox preserved her body in whiskey for three weeks, allowing people to view her serene and peaceful face. Artists travelled to see the woman talked about, sketching the tranquility and grace of her body, believing her to be the classically perfect form of a woman. Mary was even featured in newspapers, drawing the interest of more people who wanted to see the popularity of the beauty of a copse.
Burke and Hare, slightly irked by the attention Mary was getting, sought out more victims that year, finding intoxicated men and women wandering the streets of Edinburgh who wouldn’t mind a bit of whiskey at the lodging home. They were able to attain many victims, bringing them to Dr. Knox often before they had even reached the stage of rigor mortis. Possibly the worst and most evil crime they committed was when they discovered a woman leading a deaf and blind boy. Burke and Hare took them directly to the lodge, promising them directions to where the boy needed to go. Instead, they suffocated the helpful woman and laid her on dusted ground. They could have let the boy go, for he had no reason to believe anything wrong had occurred, but Burke and Hare’s greed was enormous. Burke grabbed the boy, taking him over the knee, and broke his spine. As an afterthought, he was also suffocated. That night, both bodies were brought to Dr. Knox.
As with most co-killers, one got greedier and decided to kill on his own. Burke caught Hare committing his own murders and earning money without sharing. Burke was livid with Hare, drunkenly shattering empty bottles in his room and demanding his fair allowance of money. Hare, also drunk, claimed that he deserved more, that he had committed more crimes than Burke. He shouted that not only had he suffocated more of the victims, but always seemed to be carrying the heavier part of the bodies to Dr. Knox. Whiskey, being the mutual friend of both Hare and Burke, eventually brought the two back together, with ferociousness.
To celebrate their reunion, Burke brought his cousin to the lodge, a small woman who could only handle a couple drinks of whiskey. While Hare and Burke talked and mused, the woman slowly and surely began losing consciousness from the whiskey. After suffocating her, Hare and Burke shared a toast to their renewed partnership. Three more women met their death at the company of the two men, now dressed in fine clothing and smoking expensive cigars.
The provider of these new and fashionable things, Dr. Knox, never once asked where the bodies were coming from, even when the fifteenth corpse appeared in less than a year. If he did have the slightest suspicion, he said nothing. Knox had been almost completely without bodies before Hare and Burke had come visiting, and Knox had medical students to teach. Knox had a career to think about, and no one need know where the fresh cadavers were coming from.
What would bring down the entire scheme Burke and Hare had devised was the presence of a young female lodger, accompanied by her husband in one small room. After smelling something terrible coming from near the bed, the young lady peeled back the straw mattress. Recoiling in horror, the woman begged her husband to look at what she had seen. Her husband, believing a dead rat was scaring his wife, looked under the mattress. What he found was the corpse of an old woman, decomposing and her face stained with blood. Preparing their clothes and personal belongings, the couple then went to Helen Burke, explaining what they had seen. Helen begged the couple to keep quiet, even bribing them with money, but the couple refused. They went straight to the local police.
Burke, Hare, and their wives were taken into custody, all of them denying involvement in murders. Without the help of medical evidence, only the testimony of one of them could find them guilty. The authorities believed they could break one if not all of them down by interrogating them for as long as possible. When the police offered William Hare immunity by The King’s Evidence, Hare finally confessed that William Burke was the true and only murderer. He also disclosed that Burke had been taking corpses to Dr. Knox at Surgeon’s Square. Hare, admitting that he was aware of the crimes being committed, said he and his wife were totally innocent.
Condemned by his own best friend and accomplice, William Burke found himself about to face a trial with which he would probably be found guilty and hanged. On December 24, 1828, the trial began and ended in the early hours of Christmas day. Burke was found guilty, his wife Helen freed because she had never been seen committing murder. While detained, Burke, in his infinite greed, demanded the five pounds he was owed by Dr. Knox. If Burke was to be sent to the gallows, he would go in style, as it were, for he wanted to purchase a pair of proper and finely tailored pants before being sent out into the public. Dr. Knox had his last cadaver taken away by police, so he wasn’t able to give Burke his money. Burke had to be given a borrowed pair of pants from a dead inmate for his hanging. Burke never showed any remorse for the killings.
In the abysmal pouring rain in Edinburgh, Scotland, William Burke was led to the wooden gallows on January 28, 1828. Gathered to view the event were around 25,000 people, among them poet Sir Walter Scott, sitting near the front. William Burke at 37, was tall, distinguished looking, and handsome even in tattered pants. He was hanged that cold, grey, and rainy afternoon. As his body swung in the brisk wind, the crowd rushed forward to snatch pieces of the rope Burke hung from, demanding a souvenir from the monster who claimed the lives of sixteen innocent people.
As for William Hare, the stocky and cheerful counterpart, he quickly left Edinburgh during the trial to avoid an angry mob. Leaving his wife to find her own hiding spot in Belfast, Hare lived on the streets in London, eventually dying a blind beggar. Helen Burke fought off angry mobs, but was able to change her name and move to the West Country. The Burke case ruined the career of Dr. Knox, leaving him a disgrace to medical science and society’s decency.
William Burke’s body was taken to a medical room where interested parties were allowed to watch it being dissected. It was reported that nearly 30,000 people filed past his corpse to view the man that ironically was now part of medical science. His body was used for medical experiments after being salted and preserved.