3rd January 1829

William Burke confesses to murder

Anatomy lecturer Robert Knox needed a steady supply of corpses for dissection. This was a problem since the supply of bodies couldn’t keep up with his demand. Fortunately for him – but not for the sixteen people they killed – William Burke and William Hare came up with a very simple plan by which they could supply him with all the corpses he could ever need: murder.

Hare’s lodger dies

Their first ‘victim’, a lodger called Donald who had been living in Hare’s home, had died of natural causes. The pair removed him from his coffin prior to his burial and sold him to Robert Knox for a little over £7. It was easy money, but lodgers tend not to die on a regular basis, so Burke and Hare were forced to adopt more drastic measures.

Although there is some doubt over the order in which they killed their victims, their first killing is most likely of another lodger who was ill with fever, which was likely to have put off other potential tenants from taking rooms. However, the others were seemingly healthy at the times of their deaths. Some of the victims were plied with alcohol prior to being killed, which was usually done by the two men together, with Hare holding a pillow over the mouth while Burke laid across their chest.

However, some of the later killings were conducted by Burke alone and, when Burke was out of the city, Hare also conducted a solo killing, from which he shared none of the profits with Burke. This caused them to briefly fall out, but they soon made up and continued their killing spree.

Remains discovered

This lasted for less than a year and came to an end when another set of lodgers discovered the remains of Margaret Docherty, which they reported to police. Burke, Hare and both of their wives were arrested and charged with murder, but they all denied any knowledge of the crimes. The police had little to go on, so they offered William Hare immunity if he testified against Burke, which he did.

Burke and his wife, Helen McDougal, stood trial on Christmas Eve 1828 in Edinburgh’s Parliament House, and proceedings ran right through the night and into Christmas Day. The judge summed up at half past eight on Christmas morning and, before long Burke had been found guilty and sentenced to death. The case against his wife was judged not proven.

Trial reports

The Scotsman of 27 September 1828 quoted extensively from the trial. After the jury had delivered its verdict, reported the paper, the judge commented,

“the necessity of repressing crimes of this nature precludes the possibility of mitigating your [death] sentence. The only doubt I have in my mind is, whether to satisfy the violated laws of your country, and the voice of public indignation, your body ought not to be exhibited in chains, to bleach in the window, in order to deter others from the commission of similar offences. But taking into consideration that the public eye would be offended by so dismal a spectacle, I am willing to accede to a more lenient execution of your sentence, and that your body should be publicly dissected. I trust that if it is ever customary to preserve skeletons, your skeleton will be preserved, in order that posterity may keep in remembrance your atrocious crimes.”

Prior to his execution, Burke made a full and frank confession on 3 January 1829, in which he put much of the blame on his accomplice, William Hare.

William Burke’s execution

Reporting his execution on 28 January, the following day’s Caledonian Mercury described Burke as an “atrocious murderer, whose hands were more deeply dyed in innocent blood than those of any other homicide ever recorded in the calendar of crimes”.

More than twenty thousand spectators gathered to watch his execution and, said the paper, they cheered and called for him to be choked when he appeared, yet “seemed to us perfectly cool and self-possessed” as he climbed the scaffold. He objected to having his head covered, as was custom, “and it was not without some little difficulty that this part of the fatal preparations was completed… his death struggle was brief, notwithstanding that, either from the unskilfulness of the executioner or the change of position on the part of the murderer himself, the knot of the noose had slipped from under his ear to behind his neck; and he evidently died, like his own victims, from suffocation alone.”

His body was appropriately dissected, and the term Burking was coined to describe the act of smothering someone to death. His skeleton is now kept at Edinburgh Medical School.

Hare heads for England

Hare was released in early February and was last seen heading for England. A news sheet published in Glasgow on 25 April 1829 reported that Burke’s wife, Helen McDougal, had been attacked at Deanstone Cotton Mills on the morning of 23 April by “a great number of individuals, most of them females” who “seized her by the hair of her head and strangled her, one of the woman [sic] dispatched her by putting her foot on her breast, and crushed her severely, she was then carried to a neighbouring house, where she expired in the course of a few minutes”.

Whether the report of McDougal’s killing is accurate is debatable.



Other events that occured in January

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