1828 - Trial of body-snatchers Burke and Hare

Resurrection Men

When science meets the slums, the results are not always happy. In 1828, Edinburgh University had one of the most renowned medical schools in Europe. It was lacking only one thing: bodies, a steady supply of the dead variety. Even among the most stricken sections of Edinburgh's poor, no inducement would persuade most people to sell a relation's body for medical research, or to donate their own. Dissection had been reserved in Scotland as a punishment, suitable for the body of a hanged man. Nobody wanted it to happen to them or to anyone they knew. However, in any big city, there are always those desperate enough to be bought, even to steal the bodies of the dead. Two such men were William Burke and William Hare - only they went one step further. Rather than howking about in graveyards, dodging the watch which was often put on a grave by relatives, they decided to kill to order, in a grisly series of killings which became known as the West Port murders. When caught, Hare turned king's evidence, exposing his partner William Burke and his wife Helen M'Dougal to the full force of the law. The case was sensational. All of the Edinburgh papers covered it heavily. Here, from the coverage of the Edinburgh Evening Courant, is the evidence of Ann Black, a near neighbour of Burke's, concerning the last of the killings, that of Margery Campbell, which led to Burke's arrest.

High Court of Justiciary trial of Burke, and M'Dougal, his wife

Yesterday the Court proceeded to the trial of W. Burke and Helen M'Dougal, indicted for murder. No trial that has taken place for a number of years past has excited such an unusual and intense interest; all the doors and passages to the Court were accordingly besieged at an early hour, even before daylight: and it was with the greatest difficulty, and by the utmost exertions of a large body of police that admission could be procured for those who were connected with the proceedings. At nine o'clock the court-room was completely filled by members of the Faculty and by the jury. Lord Macdonald and another noble Lord were seated on the bench. A few minutes before 10 o'clock, the prisoners were brought to the bar. Burke is of a short and rather stout figure, and was dressed in a shabby blue surtout. There is nothing in his physiognomy, except perhaps a dark lowering of the brow, to indicate any peculiar harshness or cruelty of disposition. His features outwardly appeared to be firm and determined; yet in his haggard and wandering eye, there was at times a deep expression of trouble, as he unconsciously surveyed the preparations which were going forward. The female prisoner appeared to be more disturbed; every now and then her breast heaved with a deep drawn sigh, and her looks were desponding. She was dressed in a dark gown, checked apron, cotton shawl, and a much worn brown silk bonnet.

[witnesses were called.] Ann Black, or Connaway, lived in Wester Portsburgh. Her house consisted of one room. In entering her house they went down a few steps and through a passage. The door to her house was the first you come to, and a little farther in there is a door on the same side - but led first into another passage, at the end of which there is another door that leads to a room - a room inclosed by two doors. Burke, the prisoner, occupied that inner room in October. The other prisoner, M'Dougal, lived with Burke. There was a house on the opposite of the first passage, occupied by a Mr Law. -- Had seen Hare and his wife coming about Burke. During that week of October a man named Grey and his wife lived a few days in Burke's house. On Friday the 31st October (Hallowe'en), about mid-day, witness saw Burke pass along the passage, going inward, with a woman following him. She was a stranger, whom witness had never before seen. Mrs Law was sitting with witness. In the afternoon, about three o'clock, witness went into Burke's house, and found the woman who she had seen go in with Burke, sitting at the fire supping porridge and milk. She had her head tied up in a handkerchief, and no gown; they said they had been washing. Was not sure of her having on any thing but a shift and the handkerchief. Witness said to M'Dougal, 'I see you have got a stranger?' and she replied, they had got a friend of her husband's, a Highland woman. Had no farther conversation at that time, and saw nothing to induce her to suppose that the woman was drunk . . . Some time after dark M'Dougal came and asked witness to take care of her door till she returned. As there was no person in the house, witness's husband, who was sitting at the fire, said he thought there was somebody gone into Burke's. She in consequence took a light, and went in, when she saw no one there but the woman, who came towards the door, being then the worse of drink. She said that she was going to St Mary's Wynd to meet a boy who had promised to bring her word from her son; and asked the name of the land of houses, that she might find her way back, for she had no money to pay for a bed. Witness told her not to go away, for should not get her way back; and she did not go. She told witness that Burke, whose name she called Docherty, had promised her a bed and her supper. She came into witness's house, and had good deal of conversation with witness's husband. She said, as Docherty had promised her a bed and supper, she was to stay for a fortnight. She was the worse of liquor; and insisted on calling Burke Docherty, for she said that was the name he called himself to her. She remained in the house for about an hour, and while there, prisoner (M'Dougal) and Mr and Mrs Hare came in; Mrs Hare had a bottle, and Hare insisted on drinking; they all tasted, and witness's husband gave them a dram. The stranger partook of it, and so did M'Dougal. They were merry. Hare, Campbell, and M'Dougal were dancing. The woman was quite well; she had hurt her foot, but otherwise she was in good health. Mrs Campbell remained in the house a long time, refusing to go until Burke came home; he had been out the most of the night. Witness insisted on her going out, but she would not, until Burke went in; and on witness observing Burke passing to his own house, between ten and eleven, she informed Mrs Campbell, who rose and followed him into his house. Witness slept none from the disturbance in Burke's house, which commenced after Mrs Campbell went in. The disturbance was as if Burke and Hare were fighting. Witness got up between three and four, to make her husband's breakfast, but again went to bed, and rose about eight o'clock. The first thing she then heard was Hare calling for Mrs Law, who did not answer him. A little while after, a girl, whose name she understood to be Paterson, came and asked for her husband; it turned out that it was Burke she wanted. Witness directed the girl into Burke's. M'Dougal came into witness's house, and William (Burke) wanted to speak to her. She went in accordingly, and found there M'Dougal, Burke, Mrs Law, and young Broggan. Burke had a bottle of spirits in his hand. He filled out a glass, and then dashed out the spirits upon a bed. Witness asked him, why he wasted the spirits? and he replied, he wanted to get more. Witness asked M'Dougal, what had become of the old woman? and she replied, that Burke and her had been too friendly together, and she had kicked her out of the house, asking, at the same time, 'Did you hear it?' Burke asked, if witness had heard the dispute between him and Hare? And she said no; he added, it was just a fit of drink, and they were friends enough now. They were all quiet before she got up to make her husband's breakfast, and she heard no more till after eight o'clock. Burke's wife sung a song while witness was in the house. Observed a bundle of straw at the bottom of the bed; it has lain there most of the summer. Witness left Burke's house a little after ten. Was there again in the afternoon; was asked in by Mrs Gray. Burke, Broggan, and M'Dougal were there. At a later hour, near eight o'clock, went in again with Gray's wife, to see what she had told her of; she saw nothing but was so frightened that she came out without seeing anything; the straw was turned. Before hearing of what took her in to see, Mrs M'Dougal said Gray's wife had stolen things, and wished witness to look after her door because it would not lock. Did not see Burke till far on in the night, till it was reported that he had murdered a woman. Mrs Burke laughed very loud, and he said he defied all Scotland, for he had done nothing he cared about, she said no one breathing could impeach them with any thing that was indifferent. Burke said he would go and see the man who said he had done amiss - and when he went to the passage the police apprehended him.

Edinburgh Evening Courant, 25 December 1828.

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