I confess that my favorite nursery rhyme might be considered a bit morbid. Of course there is nothing unusual in that. The harmless "Pop goes the Weasel” tells the story of a gin addict, gin being a product of the mulberry bush. And the rhyme known as “Burke and Hare” has a similar history, just a bit more bloody.
Try to imagine little red headed girls playing jump rope, keeping time by chanting this Scottish ditty, “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. Then they put her in a box, and sent her off to Doctor Knox. Burkes the Butcher, Hares the thief, Knox’s the yin that buys the beef!” Of course it didn’t quite happen that way, but it is still catchy, isn’t?William Hare was an Irish immigrant to Scotland who worked as a “Navvy” on the Union Canal. He was a digger with a pick and shovel. William married Margaret Laird, who ran a boarding house, "Logs Lodging". She had inherited the business, in the West Port section of Edinburgh, when her first husband died.
In 1827 Margaret renewed her acquaintance with William Burke, another Irish emigrant, who was returning to Edinburgh after working as a weaver, a baker and a shoe maker. Burke had abandoned a wife and two children in Ireland, but in Scotland he had picked up a common-law wife, Helen M'Dougal. They became two more lodgers of Margaret Hare’s.In December yet another lodger known to history only as Donald, died of “natural causes” – alcoholism – leaving an unpaid bill of four pounds. Hare was so angry over the debt that he decided to take action. Enlisting Burke’s aid, a weight was substituted for the deceased in his coffin. And after dark Burke and Hare lugged the corpse down Infirmary Street to Surgeons Square, where the old man’s remains were sold to Dr. Robert Knox, a lecturer at Barclay's Anatomy School. The value of Donald’s corpse was set by Dr. Knox at 7 pounds 10 shillings, for a profit to Hare of three pounds ten shillings – a small fortune for men such as Burke and Hare.The market for selling dead bodies had been fairly steady in Edinburgh since the school of Surgeons had combined with the Royal College of Physicians to form the world famous University Faculty of Medicine in 1726.Dr. Robert Knox was not a member of the University, but since the University’s lecturer in anatomy was dull enough to bore students to death, the popular Dr. Knox made a nice living displaying brains freshly removed from skulls and explaining how the corpses’ medulla oblongata was just as highly developed as that of the Bishop of Edinburgh, or discoursing upon the ways an alcoholic liver reminded him of the Lord Mayor of Edinburgh. And all the students laughed. But besides a cutting sense of social humor, to remain in business Dr. Knox required a steady source of corpses. And there was one small problem with that.It was well known that the dissection of human corpses was essential for the training of doctors. People who were sick wanted a trained knowledgeable doctor to save their lives. But the family of the deceased wanted their loved ones to rest in peace, in one piece, pending the resurrection. The conflict between those two desires could get very nasty.In 1742 an angry mob whipped one John Samuel through the streets of Edinburgh after he was caught transporting the corpse of a young girl. The authorities banished Samuel from Scotland for seven years. The mob wanted him lynched. Unable to achieve that, they burned his house to the ground and attacked his family.In part this social rejection of "resurectionists" accounted for the high price required to attract entrepreneurs to the profession of grave robbing. But the principles of finance being what they are, it was inevitable that eventually the field would attract capitalists (think, a WalMart for the dead) who found a way to undercut their competition in both overhead and supply of fresh corpses.Instead of expending the effort required to unearth their raw material, these savvy investors simply harvested the wheat while it was still able to deliver itself to the reaper. And rather than waiting until the fruit ripened and fell into their arms, these master cultivators forced the crop into early maturity. And who were these agrarian managers of such foresight that they would have impressed Scotsmen like Adam Smith and David Hume? Those two Irish transplants to Scotland, Msrs. Hare and BurkeIn December (the off season for bodies, with the ground too frozen for excavations) another lodger named Joseph Miller fell ill. Burke put his hands over Miller’s nose and mouth while Hare sat on his chest. Afterward this technique, which left no visible wounds or bruises, would be called “Burking”. And the first product of the method produced a ten pound profit. Our new venture capitalists now had capital.In February of 1828 Abigail Simpson was “burked”; ten more pounds. Then Margaret Hare got into the act, finding investment number three, another old alcoholic woman; ten pounds more. Next, a prostitute named Mary Paterson and a woman begger named Effie made their contributions; ten pounds apiece. Business was booming!Not that there weren’t problems. College students of today are no more given to sexual escapades than those in 1829, and several of Dr. Knox’s 1829 students had been customers of Mary Paterson – some of them recently. They didn’t remember her coughing or showing signs of illness. So her sudden appearance in the dissecting theatre of Dr. Knox was troubling. But none of the students felt comfortable enough with their suspicions to raise the accusation against the eminent Dr. Knox.With the approach of the spring thaw however, competition drove the price down to eight pounds per corpse. To offset this fluctuation Hare and Burke simply increased production. An old woman and her grandson produced sixteen pounds. Then there was a Mrs. Ostler, followed quickly by one of Helen M'Dougal’s aunts, Ann. And then our budding business moguls made their first big mistake.They figured a mentally retarded 18 year old with a game leg named Daft Jamie would be an easy profit. But the boy actually was evidently a socialist, who did not appreciate the virtues of Burke and Hare's capitalism. He fought back. It turned out to be a lot of work for a mere eight pounds. And on top of that Jamie’s mother came looking for him. Now it was embarrassing.There was worse to come. In the morning, when Dr. Knox unveiled his new corpse for his dissection class, several of the students recognized Jamie, having seen him quite recently - and in good health at that. Dr Knox was forced to dissect Jamie’s face first to calm those few squeamish students and to disguise the evidence. Things were now getting frustrating even for Dr. Knox. In an abundance of caution, he immediately removed the boys deformed feet, to avoid being accused of being a heel.There was no doubt, success had caused the stockholders and employees of Hare and Burke to put their foot in it. Shortly thereafter a couple named Gray came back to their rented room at Logs Lodging to find some of the inventory stored under their bed. It was an Irishwoman named Doucherty. The Grays called the police. By the time the officers arrived, the body was gone. But a tip led the lawmen to Dr. Knox’s dissection class where the product was found, waiting to do her service for the medical profession. And at this point the corpses hit the fan. All four members of the corporation were arrested.The invention of "Burking" which had given rise to the company, had also so disguised the method of death that it might prove impossible for the authorities to prove any murder had even occurred. And, amazingly enough, the corporation was not accused of robbing a single grave. If anybody was going to be punished for this crime spree the cops needed one of the conspirators to turn on their fellow conspirators.
The Lord Advocate went to the smartest member of the corporation, offering him immunity in exchange for a full confession. And that is why William Burke went up the stairs of the gallows all by himself in January of 1829. Everybody else, Helen M'Dougal, Margaret and William Hare, got a walk. And Dr. Knox, who financed the entire operation, was never even charged.William Burkes’ real crime may have been that he was always arguing with his business partners. In the end it was a capital offense. William Burke danced at the end of a rope, alone. His corpse was removed to the University anatomy theatre, carved up and used as an abject lesson in sin and immoral behavior – not a very productive example when the profession was seeking to encourage others to donate their bodies to medical science.And to drive their pointless point home even stronger, Burke’s skeleton remains in Edinburgh to this day, in a glass case, labeled as a notorious fiend and a serial murderer. His public image remains as a villain in films, plays, history books and a child’s nursery rhyme. He was William Burke the butcher, while William Hare, the brains behind the outfit, is usually protrayed as "the thief". In fact, William Burke was
the man who paid the price, of being remembered as a fiend, but whose real crime was just not being very nice.
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