JULY 2018

JULY 2018
One Hundred Years Later, Same Message. 1916 - 2017


Wednesday, March 05, 2014


I confess that my favorite nursery rhyme might be considered a bit morbid. Of course there is nothing unusual in that. Consider the harmless "Pop goes the Weasel” - "All around the mulberry bush, the monkey chased the weasel, the monkey stops to pull up his socks, and pops goes the weasel". Actually it tells the story of a gin addict, or a weasel. And gin is a product of the mulberry bush.  But my favorite is the rhyme known as “Burke and Hare”. It 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 (above) was an Irish immigrant to Scotland who worked as a “Navvy” on the Union Canal. In other words he was a digger with a pick and shovel. William married Margaret Laird, who ran a boarding house called "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 (above), 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 of the run down establishment (above, ) known to history only as Donald, died of “natural causes” – probably 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. After the funeral 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 to 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 (above) 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 an experienced 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 sophisticated capitalists (think, Bain Capital for the dead) who found a way to undercut their competition in both overhead and the 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 were the Irish transplants to Scotland, Msrs. Hare and Burke
In 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 (above) and then a woman beggar 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 (above) would be an easy profit. But the boy actually was evidently a socialist,  who did not appreciate the virtues of Burke and Hare's business model. 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 and remove his deformed feet, to calm those few squeamish students and to disguise the evidence. Things were now getting frustrating even for Dr. Knox. 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 (above). The Grays called the police. By the time the officers arrived, Ms Douchety had moved on. But a tip led the lawmen to Dr. Knox’s dissection class where the product (i.e. Ms. Douchety)  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 lucky lady was the last of 16 known victims of Burke and Hare. As best it can be figured, the business model produced about one hundred thirty pounds income. Not a bad return for the modest investment.
There was an added profit, in that the invention of "Burking" which had given rise to the company, had also so disguised the method of death that it might be impossible for the authorities to prove any murder had even occurred. And, amazingly enough, the corporation was not accused of robbing a single grave. The Authorities realized that if anybody was going to be punished for this crime spree the cops needed at least one of the conspirators to turn on their fellows.
The prosecutors  went to the smartest members of the corporation, offering them immunity in exchange for a full confession and testimony against their fellow. And that is why William Burke went up the stairs of the gallows in a downpour all by himself on January 28, 1829, in front of 25,000 people.  Everybody else, Helen McDougal, Margaret and William Hare, got a walk - or a run, actually. Mobs chased all of them out of Scotland. Rumor was that Helen eventually took ship for Australia. And William Hare was last seen being chased through a field near Loughbrickland, Ireland -  having abandoned his wife Margaret and their child in the road   And Dr. Knox, who financed the entire operation, escaped the angry mobs by moving to London, where he earned a good living as an lecturer in anatomy. He died in 1862. 
As part of his punishment, William Burkes’ corpse was cut down and removed to the Old College anatomy theater, where it was publicly dissected, as an abject lesson in sin and immoral behavior – not a very productive example when the profession was still seeking bodies to use in educating doctors. His skin was tanned and turned into, among other things,  a "business card" case for one of the doctors.

And to drive that pointless point home even stronger, Burke’s skeleton (above) remains at the University of Edinburgh's Anatomy Museum to this day, in a glass case, labeled as a "notorious 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 portrayed as "the thief". In fact, William Burke was the man who paid the price, of being remembered as a fiend, but whose real crime seems to have been that he was just not very nice.
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