Burke and Hare: Here is the story behind Edinburgh's most horrific and prolific serial killers

William Burke and William Hare were thought to have killed at least 16 people in the Capital in the early 1800s – and their legacy casts a long shadow over the city.

By Rachel Mackie
Wednesday, 4th May 2022, 12:17 pm
Updated Wednesday, 4th May 2022, 12:19 pm

“Up the close and down the stair, In the house with Burke and Hare, Burke's the butcher, Hare's the thief, Knox the man who buys the beef. Burke and Hare they were a pair, Killed a wife and didnae care."

After William Burke was hanged at the gallows in the Lawn Market, a death mask was made, leaving an exact replica of his face, and the rope marks round his neck.

This death mask can still be seen today, along with a pocketbook made with his skin, in Edinburgh’s Surgeons’ Hall Museum.

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Burke, and his friend Hare, were two of the Capital’s most infamous murderers, thought to have killed at least 16 people throughout the year 1828, and they have appeared in literature, theatre, movies, songs, and poems, with the truth taking a back seat to the macabre legend.

Edinburgh itself plays a huge part in their story.

Mass poverty and crime, the stench of the sewers giving the city the nickname Auld Reekie, all set against a backdrop of dark Gothic buildings and the cobbled streets of the Old Town.

The city’s revered medical college was leading the world in anatomical studies and to make these advances, they required cadavers. Lots of them.

Burke and Hare: Here is the story behind Edinburgh's most horrific and prolific serial killers

This led to the rise of "resurrection men" – those who dug up recently buried bodies to sell for a large profit.

Enter stage left, William Burke and William Hare.

William Burke was born in County Tyrone, Ireland, initially coming to Scotland to work on the building of the Union Canal, and eventually becoming a cobbler.

He was married to Helen McDougal, who was his second wife, and whom he lovingly nicknamed Nelly.

Robert Knox FRSE FRCSE (4 September 1791 – 20 December 1862) was a Scottish anatomist and ethnologist best known for his involvement the Burke and Hare murders.

It is not clear where William Hare was born, though it is thought to be County Armagh.

He too is thought to have worked on the Union Canal, before running a lodging house with his wife Margaret Laird.

After a lodger in the house of Hare died, a residence that could be found in Tanners Close, they sold them for a hefty fee to surgeon Robert Knox.

Not long after, they killed their first victim, again, successfully selling the body to Knox for a high price.

This picture of a spooky evening in Edinburgh’s mist-enshrouded Meadows was taken by reader Alex Orr. He says that there was a chill in the air and the ghosts of Burke and Hare lurking in the shadows.

From this point, they killed with out conscience, transporting the bodies in a tea chest to the medical college.

Their method of murder is now known as Burking, where the victim is smothered, a hand covering their nose and mouth, while weight is put on the chest.

It was only when one of their victims, Margaret Docherty, was recognised by fellow lodgers, who alerted the police, that things began to unravel.

Hare and his wife, who ran the lodging house, were arrested, and Hare later agreed to turn King’s evidence in return for immunity.

William Burke alone faced the noose, and was hanged in front of a huge crowd on January 28, 1829. His body was donated for dissection.

Hare, after serving his time in prison, was released and besieged by angry mobs.

Burke and Hare: Here is the story behind Edinburgh's most horrific and prolific serial killers

Eventually, using decoy carriages, police helped him reach the English border, and his fate is unknown.

The brutality of the crimes has left it’s mark on Edinburgh, a city whose history flows through every corner and stone, and Burke and Hare are now among many whose presence can be felt on every dark, cold misty night when the past comes alive.

Image of Burke, created by Dr Chris Rynn at the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification in Dundee, based on his skull, life and earth mask and descriptions in the court papers. Pic: supplied by Janet Philp