George MacGregor.

The history of Burke and Hare and of the resurrectionist times : a fragment from the criminal annals of Scotland online

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THE HISTORY



BURKE AND HARE



Digitized by the Internet Archive

in 2010 with funding from

Open Knowledge Commons and Harvard Medical School



http://www.archive.org/details/historyofburkeha1884macg



THE HISTORY



OF



BURKE AND HARE

And of the Resurrectionist Times

A FRAGMENT FROM THE CRIMINAL ANNALS OF SCOTLAND



GEORGE MAC GREGOR, F.S.A. Scot.,

Author of " The, History of Glasgow,'^ and Editor of
"The Collected Writings of Doug al Graham."



CONTAINING SEVEN ILLUSTRATIONS



GLASGOW: THOMAS D. MORISON
LONDON: HAMILTON, ADAMS, & CO,

1884



HARVARD MEDICAL SCHOOL
LIBRARY DP LEGAL MEDICINit



PREFACE.



The history of the Scottish nation has, unfortunately, been
stained with many fonl crimes, perpetrated either to serve
personal ends and private ambition, or under the pretence of
effecting the increased welfare of the people. These have given
life to a large amount of literature, much of it from the pens of
some of the most distinguished legal and antiquarian authors the
country has produced, such as Arnot, Pitcairn, MacLaurin, Bur-
ton, and others. But of all the criminal events that have occurred
in Scotland, few have excited so deep, Avidespread, and lasting
an interest as those which took place during what have been
called the Resurrectionist Times, and notably, the dreadful
series of murders perpetrated in the name of anatomical science
by Burke and Hare. The universal interest excited at the
time of these occurrences, also, has called forth a great quantity
of fugitive Hterature ; and as no narrative of any considerable
size, detailing in a connected and chronological form the
events which bulk so largely in the history of the country, had
yet appeared, the Author considered a volume such as the
present was required to fill up an important hiatus in the
criminal annals of his country.

In the |)reparation of this work the Author has had a
double purpose before him. He has sought not only to record
faithfully the lives and crimes of Burke and Hare, and their
two female associates, but also to present a general view



vi. PREFACE.



of the Resurrectionist movement from its earliest incep-
tion until the passing of the Anatomy Act in 1832, when
the violation of the sepulchres of the dead for scientific pm -
poses was rendered unnecessary, and absolutely inexcusable.
He has, in carrying out this object, endeavoured to give due
prominence to the medical and legal aspects of the whole
subject ; and to the social effects produced by the movement
throughout the century and a half during which it flourished
in Scotland. In order to do this the Author has consulted
books, newspapers, and documents of all kinds, and has
sought, where that was possible, to supplement his infor-
mation by oral tradition. But in addition, he has, in the'
body of the work, and in the Appendix, brought together
stray ballads, and illustrative cases and notes, which help to
give a better and fuller understanding of the historical aspect
of the question, and of its influence on the minds of the great
bulk of the Scottish people.

The Author has to express his thanks to the many gentlemen
who have kindly allowed him access to their rare and valuable
collections, from which he derived great assistance in the
course of his investigations.



Glasgow, May, 1884.



CONTENTS



Page
INTRODUCTION.—

The Resurrectionist Movement — Its Contributing Causes and Results, 13

CHAPTER L—

Early Prohibition of Dissection — Shakespeare's Tomb — The Progress
of Anatomy— Curious Incident in Edinburgh — An Old Broadside
Ballad on Body-Snatching — Tumults in Edinburgh and Glasgoio
— Female " Burkers," ... ... ... ... ... 16

CHAPTER II.—

Tales of the Resurrectionists — The Students at Work, ... ... 25

CHAPTER HI.—

Tales of the Resurrectionists — What the Doctors did, ... ... 33

CHAPTER IV.—

Tales of the Resurrectionists — The Professional Body-Snatchers — A
Dundee Resurrectionist Ballad — A Strange Experiment in Glas-
gow, ... ... ... ... ... ... ... 3S

CHAPTER y.—

The Early Life of Burlce and M'Dougal — Their Meeting ivith Hare

and Ms Wife — Some Notes Concerning the Latter, ... ... j^J

CHAPTER VI.—

Death of Donald the Pensioner — Hare's Debt — Negotiations loith the

Doctors — A Bargain Struck — Sale of Donald's Body, ... 54

CHAPTER VII.—

New Prospects — Description of Hare's House — The Murder of A bigail

Simpson, the Old Woman from Gilmerton — The Two Sick Men, 57

CHAPTER VIIL—

Qualms of Conscience — The Murder of Mary Pater son, and Escape

of Janet Broivn — Preservation of the Fallen Beauty, ... ... 63

CHAPTER IX.—

Unknoion Victims — The Two Old Women — Effy the Cinder Raker—
"A Good Character with the Police" — Burlce and Hare Separate
— The Murder of Mrs. Hostler, ... ... ... ... 69

CHAPTER X.—

Old Mary Haldane — The End of her Debauch — Peggy Haldane in

Search of her Mother — Mother and Daughter United in Death, 74



viii. CONTENTS.



Page
CHAPTER XI.—

A Narroio Escape — The Old Irishwoman and her Grandson — Their

Murder — Hare's Horse rising in Judgment, ... ... 79

CHAPTER XII.—

Jealousy — Ati Undeveloped Plot — Hare Cheats Burke, and they
Separate — The Foul WorTc Continued — Murder of Ann
M'Dougal, ... ... ... ... S2

CHAPTER XIII.—

James Wilson, " Daft Jamie" — Some Anecdotes concerning him —

Daft Jamie and Bohy Aiol, ... ... ... ... S8

CHAPTER Xiy.—

Daft Jamie Trapi^^d into Harems House — The Murder — The Body

Recognised on the Dissecting Table — Popidar Feeling, ... 94

CHAPTER XV.—

The End Approaches — Proposed Extension of Business — Mrs.
Docherty claimed as Burke's Relative — The Lodgers Dismissed
— The Murder of Mrs. Docherty, ... ... ... ... 99

CHAPTER XVI.—

An III Excuse — Strange Behaviour — Discovery — The Threat — Un-

availing Arguments — The Last Bargain, ... ... ... 103

CHAPTER XVII.—

The Arrest of Burke and M'Dougal — Discovery of the Body — Hare
and his Wife Apprehended — Public Intimation of the Tragedy —
Burke and M'Dougal give their Version of the Transaction, ... 107

CHAPTER XVIII.—

Public Excitement at the West Port Murder — The Neiospapers —
Doubts as to the Disappearance of Daft Jamie and Mary
Pater son — The Resurrectionists still at Work, ... ... 113

CHAPTER XIX.—

Burke and M'Dougal amend their Accoxmt of the Murder — The Pro-
secution in a, Dijflcidty — Hare turns King's Evidence — The In-
dictment against Burke and M'Dougal, ... ... ... lis

CHAPTER XX.—

Public Anticipation of the Trial — Appearance of Burke and
M'Dougal in the Dock — Opening of the Court — The Debate on
the Relevancy of the Indictment, ... ... ... ... 134-

CHAPTER XXI.—

The Trial of Burke and M'Dougal — Circumstantial Evidence —
Hare's Account of the Murder of Docherty — What he Declined
to Ansiuer — Mrs. Hare and her Child, ... ... ... 130

CHAPTER XXII.—

The Trial — -Speeches uf Counsel — Mr. Cockburn's Opinion of Hare —

The Verdict of the Jury, ... ... ... ... 136



CONTENTS. ix.



Page
CHAPTER XXm.—

The Last Stage of the Trial — Burke Sentenced to Death — The Scene

in Court — M'Dougal Discharged — Duration of the Trial, . . . 142

CHAPTER XXIV.—

The Interest in the Trial — Feeling as to the Result — Press Opinions —

Attack on Dr. Knox's House, ... ... ... ... 146

CHAPTER XXV.—

Burke's Behaviour in Prison — Liieration of M 'Dougal, and the Con-
sequent Riot — Visitors at Burke's House in the West Port —
Burke's Idea of the Obligations of Dr. Knox — His Confessions, 150

CHAPTER XXVI.—

' ' The Complicity of the Doctors " — Numerous Disappearances — Dr.
Knox and David Paterson — Paterson Defends Himself — " The
Echo of Surgeon's Square" — The Scapegoat, ... ... 155

CHA.PTER XXVIL—

The Legal Position of Hare and his Wife — Gossip about Burke —
Mrs. Hare and her Child — Constantine Burke — Anatomical In-
struction — Mrs. Docherty's Antecedents, ... ... ... 163

CHAPTER XXVIIL—

Burke's Spiritual Condition — The Erection of the Scaffold — The
Criminal's Last Hours — Scene at the Execution — Behaviour of
the People, ... ... ... ... ... ... 169

CHAPTER XXIX.—

Lecture on Burke's Body — Riot among the Students — Excitement in
Edinburgh — The Public Exhibition — Dissection of the Body of
the Murderer — Phrenological Developments of Burke and Hare, 174

CHAPTER XXX.—

Hare's Position after the Trial — Warrant for his Commitment With-
draivn — Daft Jamie's Relatives seek to Prosecute — The Case
before the Sheriff and the Lords of Justiciary — Burke's Confes-
sion and the "Courant" — The Lord Advocate's Reasons for
Declining to Proceed against Hare— Pleadings for the Parties, 182

CHAPTER XXXI.—

Hare's Case before the High Court of Justiciary— Speech by Mr.
Francis Jeffrey — Opinion of the Judges — A Divided Bench —
The Decision of the Court, ... ... ... ... 191

CHAPTER XXXII.—

Popular Feeling against Hare — His Behaviour in Prison — With-
drawal of the Warrant — His Liberation and Flight — Recognition
— Riot in Dumfries, and Na^^row Escape of Hare — Over the
Border— Ballad Version of the Flight, ... ... ... 198

CHAPTER XXXIII.—

The Confessions of Burke— The Interdicts against the "Edinburgh
Evening Courant "-Burke's Note on the " Courant " Confession
—Issue of the Offi,cial Document— Publication of both Confessions, 206



X.



CONTENTS.



CHAPTER XXXIV.—

Burke's Confession before the Sheriff — A Record of the Murders —
The Method — CompUcitij of the Women and the Doctors — Mur-
derers, but not Body-Snatchers,

CHAPTER XXXY.—

The "Cou7-ant" Confession of Bm-ke-



Account of his Life-



Details of the Crimes — Burke's
The Criminals and Dr. Knox, ...



CHAPTER XXXYI.—

The Fate of Hare — Mrs. Hare in Glasgow — Rescue from the Moh-



Her Escape to Ireland, and Subsequent Career-
-Burke's Wife in Ireland,



-Helen M'Dougal



CHAPTER XXXYIL—

Dr. Knox's Connection ivith Burke and Hare — His Egotism — Knox's
Criticism of Liston and his Assistants — Hanging Knox's Effigy —
Popular Twmidts — Demand that he should be put on Trial,



CHAPTER XXXVIII.—

Inquiry into Dr. Knox's Relations ivith Burke and Hare-
Committee,



-Report of



CHAPTER XXXIX.—

English Newspapers on the West Port Tragedies — The "Sun," and
its Idea of the Popidar Feeling — Gray and his Wife,

CHAPTER XL.—

The Relations of the Doctors and the Body-Snatchers — Need for a
Change in the Lav;— A Curious Case in London — Introduction
and Withdrawal of the Anatomy Bill,

CHAPTER XLL—

"Burking" in London — Apprehension of Bishop, Williams, and
May — Their Trial, Confession, and Execution — Re-introduction
and Passing of the A natomy Act, ...

CHAPTER XLIL—

The Passing of the Anatomy Act — Its Terms and Provisions,

CHAPTER XLIII—

Conclusion — Revieio of the Effects Produced by the Resurrectionist
Movement — The Houses in Portshurgh — The Popular Idea of
the Method of Burke and Hare — Origin of the Words "Burker"
and "Burking,"

APPENDIX.—

The Case Against Torrence and Waldie,

Intervieiu toith Burke in Prison,

Confession of Bishop and Williams, the London ' ' Burhers, "

Songs and Ballads, ... ... ... ...



Page



Sll



21d



229



m



240



m



219



254.



260



267



275
278
281
288



LIST OF ILLUSTEATIONS.



Page

Portrait of William Burke, - - - 21

Portrait of Helen M'Dougal, - - - 53

Interior of Burke's House, _ _ _ 85

Plan of Houses in Wester Portsburgh, - - 133

Portrait of William Hare, - - - 173

Fac-Simile op Burke's Confession, - - - 229

Portrait op Mrs. Hare, - - - - 272



KEY TO ILLUSTRATIONS

APPEAKING OPPOSITE PAGES 85 AND 133 RESPECTIVELY.



References to View of the Interior of Burhes Room, as it appeared
upon the Day after the Trial.

1. The bed, or wooden frame, full of rags and filth.

1. Straw under it.

2. The straw under which the body of the old woman was hid.

3. A chair, on which Hare pretended that he sat during the murder.

4. Two wooden stools.

5. An iron pot, full of potatoes.

6. A cupboard, or wall-press.

7. A window, large for such a den, looking towards the Castle HUl.

8. Implements for shoe-making, old shoes, and rubbish.

A fac-simile of Burke's signature, carefully traced from his first declaration
of 3rd November, 1828.



References to Plan of Houses in Wester Portshurgh, and Places
adjacent, reduced from, the Plan drawn by Mr. James Braid-
loood, 22, Society, 20th November, 1828.

A. House possessed by William Burke.

B. Bed in Burke's house, filled with case straw, covered with a blanket.

C. The dark mark near C represents the appearance of blood on the floor

of Burke's house.

D. House possessed by Mrs. Connoway.

E. House possessed by Mrs. Law.

F F F F. The dotted line on which the four letters F are placed shows

the passage from the street and flat above, and corresponds with

the passage in the sunk floor.
G. Steps and door to back court.

H. Passage and stair leading from back court to Weaver's Close.
I. House possessed by William Hare.
K. Stable possessed by William Hare.
L. Shop possessed by Mr. Rymer.
M. The loose straw at the foot of the bed.
N. The dotted lines S S S S represent the direction of Paterson's house,

distant 208 feet from the point N.
0. Private passage to Burke's house.

P P P P. Common passage to all the houses and cellars on the sunk flat.
R R R R. The strong line marked with the letter R shows the diff"erent

entries to Burke's house.



THE HISTORY



BURKE AND HAEE



INTRODUCTION.



The Resurrectionist Movement — Its Contributing Causes and

Results.

There is perhaps no portion of the social history of Scotland
which possesses greater interest of a variety of kinds than that
which relates to the rise, development, and ultimate downfall
of the resurrectionist movement. To many persons now Hving,
but who are nearing the verge of the unseen world, the interest
is in a sense contemporary, for their younger days were spent
under the shadow which so long overspread our country ; to
those of a later generation the traditions — perhaps the events
are scarcely of sufficiently remote occurrence to call the stories
of them traditions — of that dreadful time served to make then-
young imaginations vivid, and render them more obedient to
behests of their parents or nurses. How many can remember
the time when they were frightened into good behaviour by the
threat that, if they did not do what they were told, " Burke
and Hare" would take them away; or who, passing by a
churchyard on a dark night, with the light of the moon casting
a gruesome glamour over the tombstones, recalled to mind the
tales of the doings of the terrible resurrectionists. How many
children — some of them old men and women now — in their
play chanted the lines —

" Burke an' Hare

Fell doun the stair,
Wi' a body in a box,
Gaun to Doctor Knox " ;
B



14 HISTORY OF BURKE AND HARE.

who trembled, even during the day, when they passed the houses
occupied by these two men in the West Port of Edinburgh, re-
membering the fearful deeds that were enacted there. But in
addition to the extraordinary impression which the resun-ec-
tionist movement made on the minds of the people of Scotland,
it must be admitted to have had one good result. In the face
of restrictive laws it gave an impetus to anatomical study,
which was in the first instance beneficial to humanity ; and in
the second to the medical schools of this country, notably to
the Edinburgh medical school, which attained great reputation
at the period when the majority of the subjects for dissection
were obtained in a manner revolting to the best feelings of
humanity.

This practice of violating sepulchres, which must ever be
regarded as one of the foulest blots on Scottish civilization,
may be said to have had several contributing causes. The
principal of these is admitted on all hands to have been the
discovery on the part of the medical faculty that the knowledge
they possessed of the human frame was founded rather upon
uncertain tradition than upon empirical science ; that they
were practically ignorant of anatomy ; and that if they hoped
to make any advance in the art of healing human diseases
they must devote more attention to a minute study of the dead
subject. Having arrived at this conclusion — and it is a wonder
they did not do so earlier — they were met by a difficulby
brought about by prejudice. The people of Scotland, even in
the most lawless ages, had an almost superstitious reverence
for the dead ; a reverence, indeed, which they did not always
pay to the living. In this they only showed their human
nature, and exhibited those instincts which seem to characterise
men of all countries and all times. The " something beyond "
the mortal sphere caused a peculiar regard for the dead ; their
belief in a resurrection was rather material, and it was thought
impossible by many that when the last trump should sound the
dead could rise if the bodies were cut up in dissection. The
bodies of the dead, therefore, were carefully entombed to await
the last call. The almost insurmountable difficulty, then,
that presented itself to the doctors when they awoke out of
their dream of ignorance, was where to obtain those subjects



SCIENCE AND SUPERSTITION. 15

upon wliicli they could experiment, and gain that knowledge
of which they stood so much in need. The prejudice of the
people, it has been stated, was against the subjection of the
bodies of their deceased friends to such sacrilegious treatment,
even though they were wilKng, for the most part, to admit
that benefit was to be derived from it. As a consequence,
science and prejudice came into violent conflict, and the war
was carried on by the representatives of the former with a
determined persistency that led more or less directly to shock-
ing crime, but ultimately to a modus vivendi that was for the
interests of all concerned. These were the two main causes of
the trafSc ; but there were others which, while not bearing so
directly upon it, greatly aided its development. It received
considerable assistance from the remarkable superstitions long
attached to graveyards, the stories of ghosts and of wandering
spirits

" Doom'd for a certain time to walk the night " ;

of spiteful goblins and playful " brownies, " or of the
uncanny dabblers in the forbidden art, whose dominion
over the world was only during the midnight hour. It
was then that the witches met in solemn conclave with
the "father of lies" to plot against the peace of humanity,
and that the denizens of the nether hell breathed the
free air of earth, away from the choking fumes of the in-
fernal brimstone. Such were the beliefs, and it therefore
behoved every well-conducted person to keep the house after
night-fall ; and when any ventured abroad during the magic
hours the working of superstition on minds either naturally
credulous, or muddled with deep potations at the village
tavern, or both, was sm-e to produce all kinds of apparitions,
more or less fearful. Through this means the men employed
by the surgeons to obtain bodies for dissection, — men, gener-
ally, whose utter absence of moral principle gave them the
power to discredit the fears of their more conscientious
countrymen, — were enabled for a time to go about their dread-
ful work with great immunity. Gradually the people threw off
then- superstitious feelings about chui'ch-yards, and considering



16 HISTORY OF BURKE AND HARE.

themselves safe from unhallowed influences by the presence
of numbers, they took guard in the protection of the bodies of
their friends. Many skirmishes ensued between these watchers
and the resmrectionists, and these have given to Scottish litera-
ture a large collection of anecdotes of rather a unique descrip-
tion. Then the large iron cages, or railings, placed over
graves, give our churchyards an aspect peculiarly their own.
All these matters have made an impression on the Scottish
mind which it will yet take generations to efface.

There is, however, another aspect in which the resurrectionist
movement can be regarded. It gave rise to a series of the
most shocking crimes, committed in Edinburgh by Burke and
Hare and their female confederates; and the discovery of
these, again, brought about a trial occupying a most prominent
and curious place in the annals of Scottish criminal law. In
that trial legal points of the utmost importance were involved;
and in connection with it the most eminent lawyers of the
time were engaged. Were it only because of the great trial
with which the movement may be said to have terminated it is
deservingthe attention of all interested in the history of Scotland.
Further than that, it brought about the passing of a measure
which reheved the medical faculty of the restrictions to
inquiry and investigation under which they had so long
laboured, and tended towards the development of a science
in which humanity is too deeply interested to neglect.



CHAPTER I.



Early Prohibition of Dissection — Shakespeare s Tomb — Tlie Pro-
gress of Anatomy — Curious Incident in EcUnbnrgh — An Old
Broadside Ballad on Body -Snatching — Tumults in Edin-
burgh and Glasgow — Female ^^Burhers."

At the first blush one is apt to think that the resurrectionist
movement, culminating in Scotland by the apprehension of
Burke and Hare, and the execution of the former, is of modern



REVIVAL OF LEARNING. 17

growth. That this, however, is not the case, is shown by a Httle
investigation into the records of the past. There are numerous
instances, in all civilised countries, if not of active body-
snatching, at least of prohibitions of it or anything akin. The
early Christians put epitaphs on the tombs of deceased relatives
calling the curses of heaven upon the sacrilegious hand that
dared disturb the ashes of the dead; Pope Boniface VIII.
issued a bull condemning even the profane perforation of a
skeleton ; and who knows but the well-known inscription on
Shakespeare's tomb, written long before the great poet had
become the object of a world's regard, may have been dictated
by a similar feeling : —



' Good friend, for Jesus' sake forbear
To dig the dust inclosed here :
Blest be the man that spares these stones,
And curst be he that moves my bones."



Then, again, the desire expressed by the dying Bruce that his
heart should be cut from his body and taken to Jerusalem by
the faithful Douglas, called forth the malediction of Pope
Benedict XII. Mahomet, also, in the pages of the Koran, has
forbidden dissection. All these instances show a most
pronounced antipathy to the mutilation of the human body after
death ; and argue two things, first, that it was instinctive, and
not a trait in the character of any particular nation or type of
civilization; and, second, that unless a molesting cause existed,
there would have been no need for the prohibitions. But the
advancement of science was not to be bound down by this
superstitious reverence for the dead ; and, ultimately, in the
sixteenth century, with the revival of learning, the bodies of
criminals and unclaimed paupers were granted to surgeons for
dissection, but then so sparingly that little progress in anatomy
was made. The ignorance of the functions of the human body
was so great, that the most haphazard methods of cure were
adopted. If a sick person recovered it was more by chance
than science, and if he died there is little doubt that death was
hastened by the ignorance of his so called medical attendant,



18 HISTORY OF BURKE AND HARE.

who clung tenaciously to the traditions of his profession, be the
result kill or cure.

The first indication of anything approaching body-snatching
in Scotland is to be found in the Fountainhall MS., in the
Library of the Faculty of Advocates in Edinburgh. As the
entry is of more than ordinary interest it may be quoted in
extenso : —

" 6 Februarii 1678. — Four ^Egyptians [Gypsies] of the name of Shaw
were this day hanged, the father and three sones, for a slaughter committed
by them upon one of the Faws (another tribe of these vagabonds, worse



Online LibraryGeorge MacGregorThe history of Burke and Hare and of the resurrectionist times : a fragment from the criminal annals of Scotland → online text (page 1 of 27)