William Burke (1792 – 1829), William Hare (1804 – ??), and Dr Knox ( – 1862)
Details are quite scarce when it comes to the early life of William Burke and William Hare but what is known is William Burke was in the military, married twice and had two children with his first wife. There is far less known about William Hare. Until the murders, Burke and Hare led quiet lives with no prior police records nor anything of note.
William Hare was a cobbler and lived with a widow, Margaret Laird who ran lodgings, when a lodger in Hare house, an old army pensioner, died suddenly of dropsy Hare found himself with a bit of a conundrum as the pensioner owed him £4 in rent money. Hare turned to his friend, William Burke and asked if they should sell the body. The two went to great lengths to hide the fact they were selling a body – they hired a carpenter to make a coffin, and the three of them placed the body inside nailing it shut. Once the carpenter left, Hare and Burke opened the coffin to remove the body packed the coffin tightly and nailed it shut again, giving it a burial. The plan worked flawlessly – except it wasn’t actually necessary at the time as, under law, they were infact able to sell the body. They found Knox and decided to sell the body to him for medical research to recover their losses and received a princely sum of £7 10s – still a great profit for them at the time even considering the £4 rent owed.
As they were leaving, it was claimed one of the assistants commented the body was in such good condition they’d love to do more business in the future – if only they could get more bodies. A little over two months later the pair found themselves with further opportunity when another lodger fell ill. Hare was concerned other lodgers would be deterred from staying in the house and the pair set out for their first murder – one of sixteen in total – over the course of the next year. The deadly duo reasoned the lodger wouldn’t survive for long anyway so at worst case they would just be hurrying the process along and sparing him from misery. They plied him with whiskey and suffocated him – this had the added benefit of leaving the body undamaged and ready for dissection.
So well-known was their technique it later became known as “Burking”.
The third victim was an unknown English salesman, who likely came to Edinburgh to sell his wares. He fell in with jaundice while staying in Hare’s lodgings and once again Hare reasoned the sick lodger would deter other tennants. Like before, Dr Knox and his assistants paid for the body without asking too many questions.
Of course, as time went on the two found themselves reliant on the easy income and actively searched for their next victims. They lured a pensioner, Abagail Simpson in Feb 1828, to the house and once again plied their victim with alcohol. Burke and Hare murdered her by means of suffocation in the middle of the night and once again sold the body to Knox.
The fourth victim was fairly identical to the third later in the month, once again an old female pensioner.
From this point on Burke and Hare changed tact, targeting prostitutes and sex workers. In April 1828 Burke targeted two women, Mary Paterson and Janet Brown. He invited them to his brothers home for breakfast, plied them with alcohol where an argument broke out and Janet Brown left. On her return to pick up her friend she found Burke and Paterson had already left – unbeknownst to Brown, likely heading to Knox’s dissection table. Paterson’s body raised many red flags with Knox’s assistants – perhaps too many to turn a blind eye to. Many recognised her, she was well known for her services around town. She was young, with no signs of illness. Burke was questioned as to where he got the body and he replied he obtained it from an old lady. Knox was so delighted by the body they did not pursue the questioning further and ignored any of the details. Knox preserved the body in whiskey for three months and even brought in an artist to immortalise her.
Some of the other notable victims were a mother-daughter duo, and another two lodgers – an old woman, and her grandson who was mentally disabled. While the three women were murdered in Burke and Hare’s usual fashion, allegedly the grandson was murdered in another method – Burke lifted him up and snapped the boy’s back over his knee, breaking it.
Perhaps the first clear knowledge Knox had that these bodies weren’t exactly legal was a victim known as “daft jamie”. Jamie was well-known around Edinburgh, mentally disabled with a bum leg yet found himself a victim of Hare and Burke in much the same manner as the others. Knox’s assistants recognised the body which led to Knox bringing the dissection forwards to avoid scrutiny.
The final victim was a woman, Margaret Docherty. Burke and Hare had murdered Docherty while a young couple, James and Ann Gray stayed at Hare’s lodgings while Hare went over to Burke’s lodgings to assist with the murder. The next morning, while on a walk, the Gray’s found Docherty’s body hidden in a pile of straw. They went to the police but by the time the police came to the house Burke and Hare were already at surgeon square selling the body to Knox. What they did discover, however, was the blood stained clothes still at the house. They went to Surgeon Square where James Gray identified the body as the woman he saw. They were caught.
Initially, they were only charged with this single final murder. Authorities knew there were more victims but it was very difficult to prove – the bodies had all been dissected and there was very little evidence as most of the victims were targeted as those that society would not miss. They came up with a deal, full immunity to whoever turned Kings evidence with a full account of all the murders. For whatever reason, perhaps due to Burke’s military background, Hare was offered this deal first and instantly accepted. Burke was taken to trial and quickly realised only the gallows awaited him. He gave his full account of what happened and was sentenced to death and dissection.
“Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief, Knox the man that buys the beef.” a widely circulated rhyme at the time reflected public opinion on Knox’s involvement.
The fact that Knox had gone to such great lengths to preserve the body later saved him in trial. His defenders argued that had he known this was a murder victim he, of course, would not have gone and flaunted it as a prize. The case against Knox was that a medical man such as himself would notice that these bodies were not buried, many of them had zero illness and those should’ve been immediate red flags to him. Knox himself argued that he was under the understanding that Burke and Hare were in the business of keeping an eye on lodging houses and buying the deceased before they could get buried.
In the end no charges were brought against Knox, but he was still lampooned by society. He fled to Hackney, London where he had a medical practice and worked at the Brompton Cancer Hospital as a pathological anatomist until his death in 1862.
It is unknown what happened to William Hare, he was assisted in leaving Edinburgh in disguise by the mailcoach to the Dumfries where he was discovered by a fellow passenger. By local accounts 100 special constables arrived to restore order as the town descended on Hare, breaking street lamps and windows. He was taken out of town and told to find his own way to the English border. There were no subsequent sightings of Hare.