Your favorite Scottish detective, retired chief constable Tom, brings us a gruesome case from the 1820s of how two depraved criminals went on a year-long killing spree while the rich and powerful of Edinburgh, Scotland all but turned a blind eye. Ultimately, the crimes of these two men brought about police reforms and social change but not before there were bodies everywhere.
Guest detective: Ret. Deputy Chief Constable Tom
Ret. Deputy Chief Constable Tom was one of Scotland’s most senior police officers. A graduate of Edinburgh University and The FBI Academy, his last role was as commander of a linked murder investigation, commonly known as The World’s End Murders. He writes a regular “Inside Justice” column for The Scotsman newspaper and has authored several books, including “The World’s End Murders: The Final Verdict” and a groundbreaking study of forensic science called “Ruxton: The First Modern Murder.” He is currently working on a new book examining the sex industry. He lives in Edinburgh.Read Transcript
Yeardley: [00:00:06] Hey, Small Town Fam. It’s Yeardley. How are you guys? I’m so glad you’re here. We have something special for you today. It’s a case about a series of murders that happened nearly two centuries ago. The timeframe makes this episode obviously a departure from our regular format, but to be honest, murder in the 1820s is shockingly similar to murder in the 2020s and so are the motives. As I was listening back to the final edit of this episode, it reminded me a little bit of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. I don’t know why. I mean, nobody’s headless in this story, at least not at first, but I could practically smell the squalor and the rot of dead bodies that turn up in droves in this case. It’s a tale of two low life’s named Burke and Hare who skulked around in the shadows in the slums of Edinburgh, Scotland, targeting anyone who stood still long enough.
[00:01:07] And to make it worse, the rich and powerful of Edinburgh at the time were in on it. What’s that saying? The more things change, the more they stay the same. Anyway, we’ve lucked out because who better to tell this tale than one of our favorite Scottish detectives, retired Chief Constable Tom. So, Small Town Fam, get comfortable and settle in for The Body Snatchers. How perfect for Halloween.[Small Town Dicks theme]
Yeardley: [00:01:44] Hi, there. I’m Yeardley.
Dan: [00:01:44] I’m Dan.
Dave: [00:01:45] I’m Dave.
Paul: [00:01:47] And I’m Paul.
Yeardley: [00:01:47] And this is Small Town Dicks.
Dan: [00:01:49] Dave and I are identical twins-
Dave: [00:01:52] -and retired detectives from Small Town, USA.
Paul: [00:01:54] I’m a veteran cold case investigator who helped catch the Golden State Killer using a revolutionary DNA tool.
Dan: [00:01:59] Between the three of us, we’ve investigated thousands of crimes, from petty theft, to sexual assault, child abuse to murder.
Dave: [00:02:07] Each case we cover is told by the detective who investigated it, offering a rare personal account of how they solved the crime.
Paul: [00:02:13] Names, places, and certain details have been changed to protect the privacy of victims and their families.
Dan: [00:02:18] And although we’re aware that some of our listeners may be familiar with these cases, we ask you to please join us in continuing to protect the true identities of those involved-
Dave: [00:02:27] -out of respect for what they’ve been through.
Unison: [00:02:28] Thank you.
Yeardley: [00:02:39] Today on Small Town Dicks, we have the usual suspects. We have Paul Holes.
Paul: [00:02:47] Hey, hey. [Yeardley laughs] You threw me for a loop [laughs]
Yeardley: [00:02:52] I’m here for the loop. Here for the loop. We have Detective Dan.
Dan: [00:02:57] Hello team.
Yeardley: [00:02:58] Dan totally unfazed by introducing Paul first. And we have Detective Dave.
Dave: [00:03:05] Third present [Yeardley laughs].
Paul: [00:03:08] Now you know my pain.[Laughter]
Yeardley: [00:03:11] You’re all first in my heart. Oh, wow. They are now all rolling their eyes at me. This is such a tough room.[laughter]
Yeardley: [00:03:20] And Small Town Fam, we are super excited to welcome back one of our all-time faves, really an OG, certainly one of yours as well. He comes to us all the way from Scotland, which is not next door, at least from where I’m sitting. We have retired Deputy Chief Constable Tom.
Tom: [00:03:40] Hi there, folks. Nice to see you again.
Yeardley: [00:03:41] Hello, Tom. It’s so great to see you. It’s been too long. We’re always so delighted when you’re willing to spend part of a day with us. It means the world. Thank you.
Tom: [00:03:52] Thank you very much.
Yeardley: [00:03:56] So, Tom, you have a long and storied career, but you also have a real fascination and pretty good grip on some historical cases. So, I’m going to hand it over to you.
Tom: [00:04:09] Yes, I have. I’m interested in historical cases from the point of view of how they influenced today, and I am fascinated by cases which are turning points or which have a link with the criminal investigation as we know it. We are and we investigate crime now because of what previous generations did, and we very much follow on from that. So, I’m interested in that. I’m also interested in historic cases which have been mythologized. And the one I’m going to talk about today is a classic of that genre. It’s the case of Burke and Hare, William Burke and William Hare, who have now been so mythologized that they take their place with fictional bogeymen like Dracula or Frankenstein’s monster. There’s been films made about them and there’s been all lurid stories about Burke and Hare and most of them are nonsense. So, I decided to take a look at the crimes of Burke and Hare and do a cold case investigation.
[00:05:11] The crimes of Burke and Hare took place in the year 1828 in Edinburgh, in Scotland. But luckily, because of our legal system, there is a complete record of the trial and a complete transcript of the whole investigation that still exists. So, I was able to go back to the source documents from 1828 and actually look back into the crimes of Burke and Hare.
Yeardley: [00:05:37] So, the records they kept were that good?
Tom: [00:05:40] The records they kept were that good.
Yeardley: [00:05:43] Amazing. So set the scene for us.
Tom: [00:05:47] It’s 1828 in Scotland, it’s right at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, that’s important to say, because when you look at these cases, you’ve also got to look at the social context in which they took place. And in 1828, the city of Edinburgh was a very divided city because the New Town had just been built, and the Old Town, as a consequence, had fallen to decay, because all the money and all the middle and upper classes had gone from the Old Town to these fabulous new residences in the New Town. Nobody could blame them. But that, of course, meant that the Old Town fell into disrepair. When you read descriptions of it, there was filthy, dirty, there was no rubbish collection, there was no proper sanitation, the sewage system broke down, there was disease, there was abject poverty, and, of course, there was crime.
[00:06:41] The Old Town became literally a den of thieves. Now, at the same time as you had this New Town, which was full of the good and the great of Edinburgh, and you had the Old Town abject poverty. You had another player in the city and that was Edinburgh University. Edinburgh University is an ancient University. I’m proud to say, I was a student there at one time in my life. One of the most eminent universities in the United Kingdom with a worldwide reputation, particularly for medicine. The medical faculty at Edinburgh University was preeminent, and people came from across Europe to study at Edinburgh University Medical School, so much so that by the 1820s there were no less than five professors of surgery giving daily lectures at Edinburgh University. And one of the stars of the medical faculty was a man called Dr. Robert Knox.
[00:07:42] Dr. Knox was a local prodigy. He’d been a star at the local Edinburgh high school. He’d been a surgeon in the army during the Napoleonic Wars. He’d been a surgeon at the Battle of Waterloo. And it was said of Dr. Knox that nobody had cut off more arms than legs than Knox. But he was also a charismatic lecturer, and he was only in his 40s by that time, at the very height of his powers. And in 1828, he had 400 paying students who came to his lectures and he put on lectures in his own lecture theater, morning, noon, and night. So, literally, he had packed auditoriums to listen to his lectures on surgery and anatomy. And what they all wanted to see, of course, was the dissection of human bodies.
Yeardley: [00:08:35] So Dr. Knox, when he gives these lectures, there’s a dead body in the middle of the stage or wherever he’s doing the thing and people are watching him do an autopsy essentially.
Tom: [00:08:47] Exactly, do a dissection. Dr. Knox was very, very, very good. He was a great lecturer and he was an expert in human anatomy. But of course, he had a problem, and that was that he didn’t have enough bodies. Now, the only legitimate source of bodies at that time were what they called foundlings. These were human bodies which had been found dead without families and with nobody to claim the bodies. And the other source were bodies of executed prisoners who’d been hanged, and their bodies were given for dissection. But, of course, there was nowhere near enough. Dr. Knox wasn’t alone. There were four or five other surgeons operating at that time. There was a huge demand, but there was a limited supply. They all needed human bodies and simply weren’t enough bodies to go around. And, of course, as we know, in all matters of crime, where there’s a demand, there will be a supply. It’s basic economics. And so, the bodies of these people became a commodity because the surgeons would buy bodies from anybody and it was good money.
Yeardley: [00:09:58] So, just to be absolutely clear, the surgeons paid people to find them bodies?
Tom: [00:10:03] That’s right.
Yeardley: [00:10:04] For how much?
Tom: [00:10:06] It was 10 pounds for a fresh human body. That was more than a month’s wages for most people in Scotland at that time.
Yeardley: [00:10:17] Wow.
Tom: [00:10:18] And then to fill the gap came William Burke and William Hare. And Burke and Hare are a famous, famous name in Scotland. You talk about Burke and Hare; everybody instantly knows what you’re talking about or thinks they know what you’re talking about. [Yeardley laughs] Burke and Hare were Irish laborers and they were there to help build infrastructure of the industrial revolution. But the work was too hard for them, so they drifted into the city and they lived in abject poverty in an old part of Edinburgh’s old town. William Hare married a young woman called Margaret. And William Hare and Margaret Hare, they’re a couple who are made in hell for each other. They’re both drunken, they’re both violent. And Margaret is as violent, if not more violent than he is. She’s described contemporaneously as being usually intoxicated, always with two black eyes from fighting with other people. It’s said that Margaret and William Hare had a tempestuous, violent relationship.
[00:11:24] And in the frequent fights that they had, she always ended up with the last word and the last blow. So, she’s obviously quite a character in a fearsome kind of way. So, they meet up with another Irish couple, William Burke and Helen McDougal, Burke came to Edinburgh as well to take up life as a laborer, but again, it’s too hard for him. So, Burke and Hare meet up and made their money through petty theft and they bought and sold secondhand clothes. Now, William Burke and William Hare came across the body business scam by accident because Margaret Hare had a boarding house of sort and an old man who was lodging with William Hare died owing rent. Now, of course, no sentiment with these guys and they thought, “Well, you know, this fellow’s dead. He’s owed us so much money. He’s got no personal possessions.” So, Burke and Hare then sought out the surgeon’s agents.
[00:12:25] These were the middlemen. These were the guys who procured the bodies for the surgeons. Dr. Knox’s agent who was a man called William Patterson and William Patterson, really, is the key. He’s the linchpin in this trade. He lived in the Old Town himself, and so he knew everybody. And he, of course, had substantial sums of money to splash about. So, Burke and Hare made the connection and that’s important. They now know William Patterson and they know William Patterson has got cash, and they know what William Patterson’s looking for. And Burke and Hare got good money for this old guy who had died in the lodging house. And William Patterson says to them, “Thanks very much. I hope we see you boys again.”
Yeardley: [00:13:09] Oh, the old man who died, he’s in Margaret’s lodging house, the one she inherited from her deceased first husband.
Tom: [00:13:17] Yes, he died there. He had the temerity to die while owing rent. So, Burke and Hare sold his body, and I think for that body, because he was so old and in poor health. They only got seven pounds, 10 shillings for him. But even so, it was a king’s ransom to these guys and, of course kept them in booze for days. So, they cottoned onto this as being a very easy way to make a good living. Thereafter, Burke and Hare developed a technique spotting for likely people who they would befriend and who they would lure back to their house and give them into the company of their two delightful partners, Margaret and Helen McDougall. And they would be plied with drink and sometimes also opiates. There was a mixture very common then called laudanum which is actually an opiate morphine suspension. Burke and Hare would ply people with this laudanum because it was very, very important that there were no marks of violence on the bodies.
[00:14:23] So, what Burke and Hare did was they developed a system of killing people, which is now known throughout the UK legally as burking. And burking is when you lie on someone’s chest and you seal their mouth and nose. In other words, suffocating them, but without leaving any marks of violence. So, Burke and Hare did this successfully and they were usually quite good at spotting targets. So, they would go for people who had no connection. They would go with strangers, waifs and strays, the flotsam and jetsam of society who came through Edinburgh. They would lure them into their boarding house and then they would kill them and they would go straight up and sell them to William Patterson. And gradually, because Burke and Hare were supplying such frequency of bodies in such good condition, the price rose and at the end they were getting 10 pounds, sometimes 10 guineas.
Yeardley: [00:15:18] What’s the difference, pounds and guineas?
Tom: [00:15:20] A guinea is a pound and a shilling.
Paul: [00:15:22] And who’s the source of the money? Is it the doctors? Are they the ones that are paying this? Is it the medical institution?
Tom: [00:15:29] The doctors are paying it. The doctors are self-employed. They are associated with the university, but not employed with the university. So, they’re very much free operators. Dr. Knox, for instance, lives very well. He’s got a lecture theater, which is a huge lecture theater. He’s also got a large, substantial townhouse and 400 paying students, and they’re paying him to come to these lectures, so money’s not a problem. And the deal is that you take the body to the agent and the agent gives you half, and then when the doctor has examined the body and it’s satisfied, you get the other half, then you go straight to the pub.
Paul: [00:16:07] And is the doctor aware where these bodies are coming from? Or is it middlemen, like in this case, with Dr. Knox is William Patterson? Is he really the launderer of the source of the bodies?
Tom: [00:16:20] Yes, he is. But, I mean, Dr. Knox is very well aware that most of these bodies have not died of natural causes. I mean, he was a very, very, very clever man. He must have been very well aware, but he turned a blind eye because, of course, he needs these bodies.
Paul: [00:16:36] This is just like you got your drug dealers, you got the kingpins, and then you have the middlemen, and then you have the ones that are actually slinging the dope on the streets or providing the supply that gives the kingpins that distance from the actual commission of the street level crime that law enforcement is pretty good at catching.
Tom: [00:16:55] That’s right.
Yeardley: [00:16:56] And so, Tom, I’m assuming that the students of Dr. Knox who are paying for these lectures are also basically turning a blind eye. They can’t be totally in the dark about whether or not these bodies are being robbed basically.
Tom: [00:17:10] The thing is, there was no commonality in the victims. There’s nothing to draw the victims together. Burke and Hare killed men, they killed women, they killed children, they killed anybody who was vulnerable, either through frailty or through drink or drugs. So, they did not discriminate at all.
Dan: [00:17:27] From our travels, Yeardley and I use travels to Edinburgh, we did an underground tour up by the Royal Mile.
Tom: [00:17:34] Queen Mary’s Close, Bloody Mary’s Close, yeah.
Dan: [00:17:36] Yeah, I know that there was a lot of human trafficking in and out of the pubs, so someone would have a little too much to drink, they would pass out and all of a sudden, they’d end up subsurface and they’d be whisked away somewhere. Is there any indication that some of that was going on with the surgeons at the university?
Tom: [00:17:58] Yes, very much so. Because, remember, Dr. Robert Knox was the top of the pile. He was the most charismatic surgeon and he had 400 paying students and he had an agent, William Patterson, looking for bodies. But so did all the others. So, did all the others. So, if you were unfortunate enough to fall ill in one of these lodging houses or fall down drunk in the streets, there’s a good chance you’d end up on a dissecting table at Edinburgh University. Life was short, violent, and cheap. There was no value to the life of these itinerant people, none whatsoever.
[00:18:59] So Burke and Hare carried on like this for a year and they’re getting sloppy, they’re basically drunks and they’re getting complacent. Burke and Hare make a couple of mistakes. They murder two local people, both of whom are very well known for different reasons. They murder a young Irish woman called Mary Patterson, who is apparently beautiful, absolutely beautiful. Mary Patterson frequents a lot of the pubs in the old town. She’s certainly very well-known because of her looks. So, when she appears on the lecturer’s slab, a lot of the students actually know her-
Yeardley: [00:19:39] Oh, oh.
Tom: [00:19:40] -because Edinburgh’s a small town, they go “that’s Mary,” and they challenge Burke. And Burke simply says, “Well, she died of alcohol intoxication.”
Yeardley: [00:19:49] And who challenges Burke on the origin of getting Mary’s body?
Tom: [00:19:53] Some of the students themselves.
Yeardley: [00:19:54] Oh, so they know who Burke is?
Tom: [00:19:57] Yes.
Yeardley: [00:19:57] But I thought that Burke would be operating under the radar, so the students wouldn’t know of Burke himself. They just know the connection to Dr. Knox.
Tom: [00:20:07] They knew well enough that Burke was supplying the bodies. And they say to Dr. Knox, “Where is William Burke? And they challenge Burke. And Burke says, “Yeah, she died of drinking alcohol.” People tend to believe it because that happens a lot. So, the second mistake Burke and Hare make, they overpower and kill a very young man called Jamie Wilson. And he’s got a withered leg and so he’s very well known. He’s also something of a simpleton, but he’s a very pleasant lad. He does a lot of physical fetching and carrying for people in the New Town. And the thing about Jamie was, regardless of the weather, he never wore shoes. He always went barefoot. And he also had a lovely singing voice. So, he’d always be singing when he was going about his duties. His nickname was Daft Jamie. Daft means stupid in Scots.
[00:20:55] But, he was very popular. He was a nice boy, and he had a large family. And so, when Jamie ended up on the dissecting table, there were real problems because not only had he obviously been in full health but also, he had a family. So, why was he on the dissecting table? And again, questions were asked, and again, Burke managed to get out of it by saying Jamie must have died of drinking.
Paul: [00:21:18] Which is interesting to me because typically this burking technique where you have somebody who’s frail, who’s been plied with alcohol and opiates, they’re able to gently smother them. Now you have a younger 18-year-old who is capable of fighting back and has to be overpowered. There would be signs of violence on Jamie’s body. Somebody dropped the ball in terms of saying there’s something wrong here.
Tom: [00:21:42] Yeah, you’re absolutely right, Paul. I mean, I think in case of Mary Patterson and Jamie Wilson, I think they believed what they wanted to believe. But I think you’re right. I’m sure that Jamie Wilson’s body would have shown signs of violence. It had to. But you see it so often in criminals, they get away with things for so long, they become sloppy. And especially Burke and Hare, they would be drunk for most of the 24-hour period and their wives too. I mean, they drank a ferocious amount of what is termed in the day whiskey and what we would now call Moonshine because there was no regulation about the strength and the alcohol content of spirits. Of course, that came in with the licensing laws in the 1850s as well.
Dave: [00:22:25] Is that when you guys figured out how to put peat moss in scotch and make it beautiful and perfect?[laughter]
Tom: [00:22:32] I can tell that you’re a Lagavulin man.
Yeardley: [00:22:34] He is.
Tom: [00:22:36] So burke and Hare have operated together for almost a year, and finally They get it horribly wrong. On Halloween, 31st October, 1828, they really make a mistake. They pick on a woman called Margery Campbell. Now, Margery Campbell is described by everybody as being an old woman in fact, we don’t know at a precise age, but she’s probably in her 50s or 60s, which for that time was an old woman. They give her drink and they all get drunk together that night. They overpowered her and they kill her. But they are so lackadaisical now, they’ve done this so often, they decide to just carry on having the party and they shove Margery body under the bed in the house. Burke sprinkles some whiskey over the body to hide any smells that may come from poor Margery, and they carry on drinking and the body is still lying under the bed.
[00:23:32] And the next morning, they wake up late in the morning and the Hares go out to see if they can scrounge some food, because they live hand to mouth day to day. Burke’s partner, Helen McDougal, she also leaves to go and see if she can get some food. And when they’re all out of the house, the door’s unlocked. Two lodgers, Mr. and Mrs. Gray come to the house because Mr. and Mrs. Gray were lodging with Burke very temporarily, and can’t understand why they were excluded from the party the night before. [Yeardley laughs] He suspects something’s wrong. So, Mr. and Mrs. Gray go then to the room and they find the body of Margery Campbell under the bed.
Yeardley: [00:24:12] Oh, oh.
Tom: [00:24:13] Mr. and Mrs. Gray got a huge dilemma because William Burke and William Hare were not people to be trifled with. William Hare had such a violent temper. It’s reputed that he once got so angry with his horse that he shot the horse dead. Now, it’s hard to imagine a more self-harming act than that, [laughs] but it just shows you the violent and temperate nature of these men. And everybody knew it. So, Mr. and Mrs. Gray didn’t want to cross Burke and Hare, and so the best thing to do would just be to keep silence and go about your business. However, Mr. and Mrs. Gray thought about it, thought about it, and they thought, “No, this isn’t right, that poor old Irish woman. We’re going to have to go and tell the police.”
Yeardley: [00:24:58] So, they’re talking about Margery?
Tom: [00:25:00] Yes, Margery Campbell. Now, in the interim, Burke had got himself an old tea chest, had bundled up Margery Campbell’s body into the tea chest, and had got a porter to take it up to Patterson’s house. Burke got his 5 pounds, then he’d gone to see Knox, he’d given them the other half, and so they’d all return to the pub happily ever after. Mr. and Mrs. Gray, they eventually went to the police office, the central office, which is up in the high street of the New Edinburgh Police. Now, you’ve got to set the context of the police as well. The City of Edinburgh Police was formed in 1805, but it was on pretty shaky grounds. It was very, very new. They were not thought to be capable of very much. They’d had some very, very difficult times trying to keep order in the old town of Edinburgh. They’d more or less withdrawn from parts of the old town, so it wasn’t thought they were up to much.
[00:25:56] Most people distrusted the police and that was a generally held opinion in the people who were ruling the city as well. In every one of these investigations, you know, there’s ought to be a wee stroke of luck. There was a stroke of luck here because the man Mr. and Mrs. Gray spoke to was not some old cop who would brush them off. They came across a man called Serjeant Major Charles Fisher. It’s a strange rank. It’s not a rank that’s now used in the police force, but it was at that time, and he was a Serjeant Major of Criminal Police. In other words, Fisher was as close they come to a senior detective. It was completely by happenstance that he was on duty that night at the headquarters. Mr. and Mrs. Gray came in and they told Fisher their story and Fisher took immediate action.
[00:26:47] Fisher got one of the biggest, toughest cops he could and together they went down into this den of thieves, which is the old town of Edinburgh. By the time they marched into Burke’s house, the body’s up at Dr. Knox’s. So, the body wasn’t there, but they saw clothes lying about, they saw traces of blood upon straw, which was lying on the floor. And Fisher immediately arrested Burke and his common law wife, Helen. So, Burke’s in custody and then Fisher, good cop that he was, decides to do a house-to-house inquiry. So, he knocks on doors of neighbors and he learns that earlier that afternoon, a porter was seen carrying a tea chest from Burke’s house. Fisher knows all the local porters, so he makes investigations. He finds out who the porter was, he gets the porter out of his bed, but this time it’s midnight, and interrogates him and finds out that the porter has carried a tea chest with what he thinks is a body from Burke’s house to Patterson’s house, which is Dr. Knox’s storeroom.
[00:27:56] Hot on the heels, Fisher, but this time with reinforcements and a member of their challenging, a member of the establishment. Dr. Robert Knox, famous man, very prominent citizen, Edinburgh, but nothing daunted. They go up there, they get access to the house, they get Patterson out of his bed, they search the house and they find the body of Margery Campbell in the tea chest, exactly where Burke had left it. He sees the body and they go back to the police headquarters. So, within a few hours, Fisher has received a complaint, he’s recovered possessions, he’s got blood spattered straw, he’s got the dead body of Margery Campbell. And, of course, Patterson, by this time, seeing which way the wind’s blowing, is saying, “Yeah, I bought it from William Burke.” So that’s what they’ve got. This is where the problem comes in, because there is no cause of death. There are no marks of violence at all on the body of Margery Campbell because she has been smothered, she’s been burked. And they get in all medical experts to have a look and see how she’s died. And nobody can actually give a definitive cause of death.
Paul: [00:29:05] This is an important aspect like we do with our coroner system. You need to have that manner of death in order to proceed with some criminal aspects. So, if this is overdose, Margery drank herself to death, overdosed on the laudanum. Now it’s just I’ve got a body, maybe this is an illegal, this is a crime. But over here we might just call it a misdemeanor, desecration of a human corpse versus an actual homicide. So, this burking, this is fascinating in terms of how they develop this process in order to kill these typically frailer individuals, in order to hide the act of violence during this time frame. I bet there are probably few pathologists, if they even did an autopsy, that would be able to detect this cause of death.
Tom: [00:29:53] That’s right and that was exactly the problem they faced. They could not prove a violent death. And there was every likelihood that she had drunk herself to death because she had been drinking. So, by this time they had Burke and his wife in custody and they had also gone out and arrested William Hare and Margaret Hare because they knew that Burke and Hare were associated. Reading the transcript of it, they pulled the old trick of good cop, bad cop in interviewing the Burkes and the Hares. Now, William Hare was every bit as violent and horrible and murderous as Burke. Margaret Hare was every bit as bad as all of them. But Hare saw the chance to save his neck and decided to give evidence against William Burke.
Yeardley: [00:30:40] Was that unusual back then?
Tom: [00:30:43] It had not been done in such a notorious case. Everybody knew that Hare was just as guilty as Burke. So, the decision to use Hare as a witness against Burke and his partner was extremely controversial. And the mob, particularly the people who knew Jamie and who knew Mary Patterson, didn’t like this at all. And there was a real threat of public disorder.
Paul: [00:31:13] Now, Chief, during this timeframe you talk about their interview, interrogation, this good cop, bad cop, would they go physical with the suspects that they’re interviewing or was that off limits?
Tom: [00:31:26] No, that wasn’t off limits, but there was no real point. I mean, these guys, William Burke and William Hare were both as hard as nails. You’d have a job getting anything out of them. The biggest lever they had on the Hares was to promise them immunity because, of course, they knew that if they were found guilty, they would be publicly hanged and that their bodies would be given to the surgeons for dissection. So, there was a real incentive for the Hares to get out of this.
[00:31:56] In these days, we had a system of voluntary statements. So, in other words, if you were arrested for a crime, you were given an opportunity to give an explanation and you were interviewed under caution by a junior judge that we call a sheriff. Not the same understanding of the sheriffs that you’ve got. This is a sheriff as a judge. And so the sheriff interviewed both Burke and Hare. And Burke gave a cock and bull story about how this strange person had come to his door that night and had a tea chest and he didn’t know what was in it, but asked Burke to keep the tea chest and he didn’t never look in it. And he didn’t think any suspicious. And then in the morning, he’d found out it was a body and thought, “Oh, well, it’s a body, I’ll sell it and I’ll get some money.” Of course, this was a harebrained statement, because by that time witnesses were speaking to the fact that Burke had met Margery Campbell and they had been seen together. So, it was a complete cockamamie story. Then Burke changed his account. Obviously, when he had access to legal advice, he came up with a much more cogent story about how Margery Campbell had been in their company, had been drinking heavily and had succumbed to alcohol.
[00:33:09] Just exactly the point you were making there, Paul, about get-out clause. You can’t prove violent death, therefore give a plausible explanation for a natural death and you might get away with it. But the Hares, of course, by that time turned king’s evidence, which is to say they’d become prosecution witnesses and they could speak to the assault on Margery Campbell.
Paul: [00:33:34] I think, obviously, that when you have a suspect that gives initial statement and then makes some minor tweaks to the statement, that’s one thing. But when you see completely opposite accounting of how he got Margery’s body, that’s big red flag. That’s when the internal lie detector is going off.
Tom: [00:33:55] I mean, Burke starts his second statement by saying, “I wish to change my recollections.”[laughter]
Paul: [00:34:02] To put myself in a better position.
Tom: [00:34:04] Yeah, that’s right. But actually, reading the two statements and I’ve read them both word for word, reading the two statements is very obvious. In the second statement, he’s been coached by his legal advisor.
Dave: [00:34:15] Right, you start amending the statement so you can now fit the facts that are known that weren’t known to you two days ago when you gave your first statement.
Tom: [00:34:24] Yeah, that’s right. Now, fortunately, all the prisoners had been kept separate, Burke and his wife had been kept separate, Hare and his wife had been kept separate and the Hares were kept in custody as well. So, Burke gives his second version of events, but of course, when his partner, Helen McDougal is interviewed, she doesn’t know anything. She gives a completely different version of events. So, the whole thing is starting to break down. But within Edinburgh, there’s a real feeling of discontent. Riot is threatened and the public authorities are very, very concerned about this because there was a history of public unrest in the city of Edinburgh and in a lot of cities, actually, in the UK. Remember, in the immediate aftermath of the French Revolution and the overthrow of the Bourbon kings, there was a real fear of the mob. So, the prosecuting authorities decided that they had to bring this case to trial and they had to do it quickly and they had to diffuse the mob anger, which was abroad in the streets of Edinburgh.
[00:35:32] The mob have got to be satisfied and the mob have got to be frightened equally. “This is what’s going to happen to you if you step out of line.” I’ve got a great respect for the judgment of the public. There was a very, very famous street song which came out just about the time of the murders. The poem goes like this “Up the close and doon the stair,” the close is a passageway. “Up the close and doon the stair, But and ben’” but and Ben is a small house. “But and Ben wi’ Burke and Hare. Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief, Knox the boy who buys the beef.”
Yeardley: [00:36:12] Eww, you guys have some incredible little nursery rhyme-type things going on over there.[laughter]
Tom: [00:36:21] I suppose they were the equivalent of new media sayings or headlines or whatnot. Word traveled fast in the streets and people made up these little rhymes and couplets which very often got right to the heart of the case.
Tom: [00:37:02] So, the trial of William Burke and Helen McDougal for the murder of Margery Campbell took place on Christmas Eve 1828.
Yeardley: [00:37:11] Did they think it would be a one-day trial?
Tom: [00:37:15] Remember, it’s only in the 1960s that Christmas was a public holiday in Scotland.
Yeardley: [00:37:19] Oh.
Tom: [00:37:21] We always had New Year as the public holiday.
Yeardley: [00:37:24] Oh.
Tom: [00:37:27] So they started the trial on Christmas Eve at 10 o’clock in the morning. And there were immediate objections, a lot of legal argument about the status of Hare as a witness. In other words, he was a co-accused. There was a lot of legal argument which still today, the stated cases and the decisions of the judges in the case of William Burke are still read today by legal students. The laws laid down at that trial still holds sway today. So, anyway, the trial started, the [unintelligible 00:37:59] and everybody who was anybody, the top legal officers were all there. The Lord Advocate was there prosecuting the Dean of the Faculty of Advocates. So, he’s the senior lawyer in Scotland, out with the Lord, he’s there for the defense, you’ve got a full bench of judges, you’ve got three High Court judges sitting. So, it’s a dramatic thing. And, of course, the court is packed with members of the public wanting to hear all the lurid details about Burke and his activities. And the trial goes on without interruption for 23 hours.
Paul: [00:38:32] Wow.
Yeardley: [00:38:34] No lunch break.
Tom: [00:38:36] No. And it ends at 9 o’clock in the morning on Christmas morning, 1828. The jury come back and they say that Burke is guilty and his partner, Helen McDougal is not proven.
Yeardley: [00:38:50] What does that mean, not proven?
Tom: [00:38:52] At the moment, there are three verdicts for a court in Scotland. There is guilty, not guilty, and not proven. And not proven is always reckoned to mean, we know you did it, but we can’t prove it, but it counts as a not guilty verdict.
Yeardley: [00:39:11] Meanwhile, though, you’ve potentially ruined that person’s life by everybody saying, we know you did it, we just can’t prove it.
Tom: [00:39:16] Yeah, that’s right. Anyway, Burke is convicted and he is sentenced to death. And at that time, we had public executions. But there’s a huge problem with public unrest. And they really worry that the prison in which Burke is going to be kept is going to be stormed by the mob and that Burke is going to be seized and he’s going to be torn limb from limb. And there’s huge public order problems throughout the city of Edinburgh right up until the 29th of January the next year when Burke is publicly executed. Now, they didn’t hang about then. Back then, if you were convicted of a murder, you were hanged the next month.
Dave: [00:39:54] Swift, certain and severe.
Tom: [00:39:55] Yes, indeed. So, anyway, there’s the public execution, and it’s a very, very bitterly cold day. But the police take possession of the site round about the gallows, and they cordon all off and they get in reinforcements from other places. It’s a very close-run thing because there’s a crowd of about 25,000 gather to see Burke executed, and they know that William Hare is just as guilty, and they know that Dr. Robert Knox plays a big part in it. So, they’re shouting for Knox. “Hang Knox. Where’s Knox? Hang here.” Burke is hanged in the traditional way, and just after he drops through the trap door on the rope in the gallows, the crowd surge forward. This has happened before and in several cases the crowd have surged forward, actually managed to take the body and run off with the body. However, the police are expecting this and they put up a staunch and they manage to retain the body.
[00:40:53] The body is then taken up to Edinburgh University, where it is publicly dissected. Hundreds of people show up to watch the public dissection of William Burke.
Dan: [00:41:06] Did Robert Knox do the dissection?
Tom: [00:41:10] No, Robert Knox did not do the dissection. Robert Knox was in something of a professional disgrace, not because he’d bought all the murdered bodies, but because he had brought the reputation and profession of surgeon into disrepute.
Yeardley: [00:41:23] There is an extraordinary irony, though, that Burke’s body is being dissected as part of Edinburgh University’s medical program, when, of course, he was murdering people and supplying bodies for that very program. It’s a kind of street justice, I feel like.
Tom: [00:41:39] Yeah, there’s a sort of a poetic irony to it. But there were all sorts of problems during the dissection. The crowd swarmed forward. The police had to be called to batten charges to get the people away from the door. During the times of the distraction, various medical students stepped forward, trying to take souvenirs from the body of William Burke, stripped pieces of skin from him. And even now, in one of the university’s museums, there’s a wallet which is made from the skin of William Burke.
Yeardley: [00:42:09] Yuck.
Tom: [00:42:10] You still think Edinburgh is a quaint old town.[laughter]
Paul: [00:42:15] So, what was the purpose of this public dissection? Was this technically an autopsy?
Tom: [00:42:19] No, no, no, no. It was a horrible warning is what it was.
Paul: [00:42:22] So, this was akin to pirate’s heads being stuck on the stake. If you do this again, this is going to happen to you.
Tom: [00:42:29] Precisely so, precisely so. It was exactly that. Here’s what happens to you if you break the law, you don’t just get hanged, your body is torn apart. And of course, a lot of people still believed that if their body was not intact, they couldn’t go on to heaven. Finally, they managed to carry out the dissection of the body and eventually under the instructions of the judges, the skeleton of William Burke is rendered down and mounted and given to Edinburgh University as an anatomical specimen and you can still see it to this day. And when you visit Edinburgh next time, I’ll take you to the Edinburgh University School of Anatomy and I’ll introduce you to Mr. William Burke-[laughter]
Tom: [00:43:18] -who is missing one of his toes, but apart from that is intact. We think that the tour was taken as a souvenir. [Yeardley laughs]
Dave: [00:43:55] Tom, so thinking back to all of these other players, William Patterson, Dr Robert Knox, the Hares, I imagine life would have been fairly uncomfortable in the days after this conviction that now everyone’s looking for another pound of flesh from other folks.
Tom: [00:44:13] You’re absolutely right, that’s exactly what happened. Once Burke was out of the way, the Hares were released, but this time, for reasons which you might understand, their marriage was on the rocks and so they split up and Margaret Hare makes off back to Ireland and William Hare is literally chased out of town. Now, the problem for William Hare is that everybody knows what he looks like because the newspapers all over Scotland are carrying pictures, pen sketches of William Hare taken at the court. So, William Hare is recognized, he’s chased down across the border and he’s last seen heading south. Nobody knows what happened to William Hare. He disappears out of history and there’s all sorts of folk stories about him being drowned in a canal and meeting a brutal end, but the truth is that nobody knows. But the problems still aren’t over because the Edinburgh mob are still furious that people have escaped justice.
[00:45:13] And so, for the next three or four months, there are continuous attacks. Mobs of people attacking Dr Knox’s house, trying to burn it down, trying to lynch him. And Edinburgh City Police have to fight this incredible action to try and prevent this disorder. And this is really where the Edinburgh City Police prove themselves, 20 years after they have been formed, they are put to the supreme test and this is where they prove their competence. And never after that, did they ever lose control of the streets. Now, there is an inquiry because the judges who have sentenced William Burke know for well that something’s not right, that this body trade and they don’t say anything because of course, the university is a very powerful institution and Dr. Knox is a very powerful man. But the judges tell the university authorities. “You better get your act together here. You’ve got to have an inquiry and find out what exactly has been going on.” And Dr. Knox is hauled before a medical committee of his peers. They find him not guilty of any impropriety, but they do comment on the fact that perhaps he should have shown more diligence in finding the sources of the bodies he dissected.
Yeardley: [00:46:30] I mean that’s barely a slap on the wrist for a man who was instrumental in creating this demand for illegal corpses.
Tom: [00:46:38] That’s right.
Yeardley: [00:46:40] Hooray for the rich and powerful. Ugh.
Tom: [00:46:44] [laughs] Yes. Now many people have asked how many victims did Burke and Hare have? Burke was convicted of killing one woman, Margery Campbell. Hare reckoned in his statement that they had killed between 12 and 15 people. But later on, Hare changed his mind and said it was closer to 50. And actually, that adds up because they were operating together for a year and Dr. Robert Knox needed a fresh body every week. However, the other thing to say is that there were four other surgeons working at the same time. They too needed a supply of bodies. So, how many people were sacrificed to the medical profession in the Edinburgh of the 1820s? I couldn’t hazard a guess. It may have run into hundreds. And such was the structure of our society at that time that nobody knew and nobody cared. In the history of the justice system of Scotland, Helen McDougal, William Hare, and Margaret Hare are the luckiest serial killers in history because they were caught and they got away with it.
[00:47:59] At a supreme irony, the crimes of Burke and Hare, some of the most British crimes in history brought social and regulatory improvements. First of all, it was recognized that underlying all these problems was the issue of alcohol and of slum conditions. And in the mid-Victorian period, which is about 1840 to 1850, all the houses roundabout where Burke and Hare had operated were flattened and new modern houses were built with good drainage and running water and better sanitation. In the 1850s, the first acts regulating the sale of alcohol were brought in as well. And crucially, in 1840 the Anatomy Act was passed. The Anatomy Act still today regulates the way that the medical profession can deal with human remains. And so, as a direct consequence of Burke and Hare, all these social changes took place and society was hugely improved. Two drunken, violent Irishmen and their reign of terror through that period and the greed of the surgeons led to huge improvements on social change. They tested the Scottish justice system and proved the concept of the new Edinburgh City Police. Not in their wildest drunken dreams could Burke and Hare have imagined.
Yeardley: [00:49:27] You always bring us the most interesting things, whether they happened yesterday or they happened in 1827. Thank you so much for joining us today. I’m really glad that out of this extraordinarily brutal, tragic spree that Burke and Hare went on, as you say, some real policy changes came out of it, so at least there’re a few bits of some good rising from the fucking clusterfuck they left you with.
Tom: [00:49:56] The funny thing is, Yeardley, that I’ve been involved in a lot of murder investigations and usually nothing good comes out of them at all. And it’s bizarre that in the case of Burke and Hare, you can actually see the direct traces to real societal change and improvement.
Yeardley: [00:50:14] Yeah, that’s incredible. Thank you so much for sitting down with us today. We always love seeing you.
Paul: [00:50:21] Even though, it’s 1800s, it really underscores that the primary reason that people commit crimes today is no different than what they were doing back then. Humans are humans. [Yeardley laughs]
Tom: [00:50:33] Paul, there’s not much change about human nature.
Paul: [00:50:36] No, that is very true.
Dan: [00:50:38] Thanks, Tom.
Tom: [00:50:38] Thank you.
Yeardley: Small Town Dicks is produced by Gary Scott and me Yeardley Smith and coproduced by Detectives Dan and Dave. Our production manager is Logan Heftel. Our senior editor is Soren Begin, and our editor is Christina Bracamontes. Our associate producers are Erin Gaynor and the Real Nick Smitty. Our social media is run by the one and only Monika Scott, our music is composed by John Forrest and our books are cooked and cats wrangled by Ben Cornwell.
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