Forensic Case Files: West Port Murders

It’s been a while since we did a Forensic Case Files post, so I thought it was time to delve back into history to look at a fascinating case, one that I was unfamiliar with until one of our amazing street team readers made a comment in a blog post a few months back. When she read the blurb for LAMENT THE COMMON BONES, she commented that it was like shades of Burke and Hare, to which I said Who? I have no idea why I’d never heard this story because it’s a doozy.

Back in the early nineteenth century, medical science was advancing in leaps and bounds. But one aspect that held this burgeoning science back was the lack of autopsy specimens to use for dissections, both to explore the human body and to teach new medical students. Edinburgh, Scotland was a European hotbed of medical advances. Doctors were using cadavers from convict executions, but due to changes in the legal system of the time, fewer executions were occurring, leaving doctors shorthanded. One particular doctor, Robert Knox, took to paying for cadavers that were acquired for him outside the usual system. Many of these cadavers came from grave robbing, giving rise to the name for these body snatchers as ‘resurrectionists’. It got so bad in the 1820s that loved ones of the recently deceased took to hiring guards to watch over the newly buried dead until they had decomposed to an extent that they would not be useful in a dissection.

William Burke and William Hare found another way around this problem. Burke and Hare met as labourers working at the Union Canal. However, the lynchpin in what would become a significant killing spree was that Hare’s wife, Margaret, ran a lodging house for beggars in Edinburgh. It was owned by Margaret and her first husband, Logue, but when Logue died, and she married Hare, Margaret continued as landlady.

Burke and Hare’s life of crime started innocently enough. One of the lodgers died of natural causes while living at the house and still owning rent to Margaret. So Burke and Hare sold his body to Dr. Knox to recoup some of the lost monies. Dr. Knox, a surgeon from the Battle of Waterloo, gave public lectures, charging each of the up to four hundred attendees to attend. So Dr. Knox had a vested interest in ensuring he had sufficient cadavers to sustain his lecture series and his livelihood. It was well worth his seven pounds, ten shillings for a fresh cadaver. At a current value of approximately $1300, Burke and Hare were hooked.

At first they started murdering ill tenants in the boarding house by intoxicating and then suffocating them, a tactic later termed ‘burking’. When they ran out of tenants, they moved onto the homeless, the destitute and prostitutes, luring them into the lodging house, killing them and removing them from the premises in a tea chest. If it was not immediately convenient to move the body to the tea chest, they would often leave the victim under a bed in the room in which the murder took place. In the end, it was this practice that was their undoing.

A couple returned to the lodging house, the wife claiming to have left a pair of stockings behind. When she returned to her old room, she found the body of Mary Docherty, the final victim, under the bed. A ten pound bribe was offered to silence the couple, but they refused and reported the incident to the police. In all, sixteen victims died at the hands of Burke and Hare before they were caught.

Burke and Hare were imprisoned and the case went to trial on shaky grounds. For starters, only one body was recovered, the rest were all lost to medical dissections. And examiners could not definitively determine the cause of Mary Docherty’s cause of death. But Burke had made a fatal mistake—while they usually discarded the victims’ clothes into the Union Canal, Burke took the clothes of a young male victim and passed them onto his nephews, leaving later evidence for the prosecution. But the trial turned when Hare gave evidence against Burke in exchange for immunity from prosecution, leading to Burke’s conviction and eventual execution.

William Burke was hanged on January 28, 1829, and then his body was publically dissected. His skeleton still hangs today in the Anatomy Museum of the Edinburgh Medical School, and a book cover, a number of wallets, and a calling card case were made from his tanned skin. The book now resides in the Surgeon’s Museum, along with Burke’s death mask and a live cast of Hare’s face.

William Hare was released from prison in February of 1829 and made his way to Dumfries where he was instantly recognized, which started a riot. He was removed from town and left on a major road with instructions to strike out for the English border. He was seen two days later two miles south of Carlisle. There is no dependable record of his existence after that.

Dr. Knox, the medical doctor whose need for cadavers started Burke and Hare down the road to murder, was found guilty in the public eye of inciting the murders. This resulted in a Scottish mob throwing stones at his house, and then hanging and burning him in effigy. Knox remained in Edinburgh, giving his lecture series until the 1840s, before moving to London to finish out his life’s working as an anatomist at Brompton Hospital.