Sunday, 21 November 2010

William Burke 1792 - 1829 by Carmel Parkes (H.E. Assignment)

William Burke was born in Urney near Strabane in 1792. After trying his hand at a variety of trades, and serving as an officer's servant in the Donegal militia, he left his wife and children and went to Scotland around 1817, working as a navvy for the Union Canal. There he met Helen McDougal and they lived as man and wife. They traveled around the country and eventually ended up in Edinburgh and found lodgings at Tanners close at a lodging house run by Margaret Hare. Her husband was called William and he came from Ulster. They soon all became friends.

This was the start of the infamous partnership between Burke and Hare. In December 1827 a lodger died in the house, owing £4 to Hare. He mentioned this to Burke who said he could get money from a doctor for the body.

Over the next nine months, sixteen people were murdered and their bodies sold to a Dr Knox, an Edinburgh surgeon, at £7 each. Today that would be around £600 each.

However they got careless when they murdered Mrs Docherty, a recent arrival from Edinburgh and also from Ireland, whom Burke had befriended and offered her breakfast at his lodgings. Later on that day Burke had asked fellow lodgers Mr and Mrs Gray to move out and stay elsewhere at his expense. The following morning however, Mr and Mrs Gray returned to the lodgings asking for Mrs Docherty as they were suspicious of the goings on at the lodging house.

They found Docherty's body under a straw mattress that Burke had told them to stay away from and even after a large bribe of £10 from McDougal to keep quiet, they reported the matter to the police, and Burke and Hare were caught.

The Trial

On Monday November 3rd 1828 Edinburgh awoke to the horrifying news that the most atrocious murders of the century had been committed in the West Port district of the town. William Burke and William Hare together with Helen McDougal and Margaret Hare, were accused of killing sixteen people over the course of twelve months in order to sell their cadavers as subjects for dissection.

Burke, McDougal, William and Margaret Hare were arrested for Docherty's murder. William and Margaret Hare turned Kings witnesses (witnesses for the prosecution) in return for immunity. Burke and McDougal were tried for the murder on December 24th 1828. McDougal was acquitted with the Scots verdict (not proven). Burke was convicted and sentenced to death. He was executed on January 28th 1829.

His body was displayed to the public before being handed over to the doctors to be dissected. His skeleton, death masks and items made from his tanned skin are displayed at Edinburgh Medical College museum. Hare was allowed to travel to England where he disappeared and was never heard of again.

This is an example of social and legal history.

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