AUGUST   2020


Saturday, December 15, 2018


I think to truly understand the programmer's axiom, “garbage in, garbage out”, you have to go back to 1933, when two British chemists, Reginald Gibson and Eric Fawcett, were trying to do two things at the same time - get rich by inventing a substitute for rubber, and avoid blowing up their lab.
See, natural rubber comes from ParĂ¡ rubber trees which grow in hot , humid places like Malaysia, Vietnam and Burma, which are also places that grow malaria infested mosquitoes, and which tended to be politically unstable, because of all the Europeans bribing locals who would then sell them the rubber for cheap.  Lots of chemists were looking to make a molecule that would act like rubber but avoid the bugs and the angry locals. But it was dangerous and expensive work
Dangerous because Gibson and Fawcett were working with a hydrocarbon, meaning it contained combinations of carbon and hydrogen atoms. The hydrogen makes all hydrocarbons flammable, and this particular one, ethylene, or C2H4, was made from either alcohol or petroleum, and was more flammable than most. But Gibson and Fawcett figured if they heated the ethylene in a pressure cooker, to prevent it from burning, that would break the bonds binding the ethylene atoms together, and when they cooled the atoms would recombine in a way that would imitate rubber.  Most of the time, the experiments ended with an explosion, which is why it was expensive.  They had to keep rebuilding their lab.  But in 1933, somehow they avoided the boom and got, instead, what looked like a lump of coffee colored sugar but which behaved like rubber. So they tried it again, and this time got nothing – no explosion and no “lump”. Now they were confused.. They wanted to try it a third time, but the Imperial Chemical Company, which employed them, decided it was too expensive, and even if it did work, it would never show a profit until long after the current executives had retired. So they told Gibson and Fawcett to move on.
Well, Fawcett figured he was being cheated out of a Nobel Prize, and in 1935, this ambitious, bitter chemist started telling anybody who would listen what he and Gibson had done. Two other ICC chemists, Michael Perrin and John Paton, decided to duplicate the experiment without telling their bosses, and got the same lump.  But in checking their data, Perin and Paton discovered their pressure cooker had leaked, which is what must have happened to Fawcett and Gibson. When they fixed the leak, Perrin and Paton got no “lump”.  So, figuring the missing element was the oxygen in the air that had leaked in, they added a drop of almond oil, or benzaldehyde, which has seven carbon atoms, six hydrogen atoms and a single oxygen atom. They heated up the ethylene and benzalheyde in the pressure cooker and they got the “lump”.  They could now make artificial rubber anytime they wanted. They called their artificial rubber polyethylene, or PE for short.
Now, PE is better than rubber because it is a thermoplastic polymer, meaning it is a chain of chemically stable molecules, each exactly like the others, like rubber. But when PE is re-heated under normal pressure, it can be easily injected or extruded into molds. The first idea ICC had was to use PE to insulate underwater telegraph cables. They had been using the sap drained from Gutta-percha trees, native to northern Australia and many of the same unpleasant places (for Englishmen) that rubber came from. Now they had a way to avoid those places. So they built a plant on Wallerscote Island in the middle of the Weaver River, just upstream from the Liverpool docks. They planned to produce 100 tons of PE a year. But on the day the Wallerstcote plant opened, September 1, 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland, setting off World War Two.  And nobody could think of anything to do with PE to aide the war effort, so they did nothing with it.  Flash forward five years.
Britain won the Second World War, but they went $50 billion in debt doing it – the equivalent of $500 billion today. To repay that debt British corporations held industrial yard sales, including selling the formula for polyethylene (above) to the American company Dow Chemical. And this is where Harry Wasylyk comes into our story. He was born on the Canadian prairies of Manitoba to Ukrainian immigrants, and was just as ambitious as Eric Fawcettt.  After the war Harry was living in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and he knew the Winnipeg General Hospital was facing a big problem. Their admissions had increased by 50% in the previous ten years, and the post war baby boom was promising even bigger growth in the near future. What were they going to do with their swelling medical wastes?. It was an increasingly important question, and an old one.
It is an evolutionary artifact that before humans came down from the trees, our thinking was strictly “out of sight out of mind”. Thanks to gravity, anything we dropped, from our hands or our butts, magically disappeared. And we continue to suffer from this elevated view.  In 1887, when the Prefect of Paris tried to require all citizens to use “sanitary” metal garbage cans, libertarian landlords justified blocking the measure not because of the expense, but - so they said - because their “right” to throw garbage in the street was being infringed. The argument that living surrounded by garbage was unhealthy did not impress this early Tea Party logic.  As John Ralston Saul pointed out in his 1993 book “Voltair's Bastards”, “The free market opposed sanitation. The rich opposed it...That is why it took a century to finish what could have been done in ten years” In short, public hygiene remained stubbornly “out of sight” because that was where the rich and powerful did not think they should pay for it. 
Six years after Parisians had rejected metal garbage cans, the Boston Sanitary Commission reported, “The means resorted to by a large number of citizens to get rid of their garbage and avoid paying for its collection would be very amusing were it not such a menace to public health. Some burn it, while others wrap it up in paper and carry it on their way to work and drop it when unobserved, or throw it into vacant lots or into the river.” About the same time a visitor described New York City as a “nasal disaster, where some streets smell like bad eggs dissolved in ammonia.” City dumps were established to allow rag and bone men to simplify their jobs, and usually next to pig farms (below), as 75 pigs were able to dispose of a ton of human produced garbage a day.  None of this, of course, solved the problem of disease spreading flies, cockroaches, and mammals, all drawn to the aroma of rotting garbage produced by an average human household.
Only because of high insurance rates were the thousands of small smokey fires in the once ubiquitous backyard trash incinerators, finally extinguished  And as living space in cites shrank, so did room for compost kitchen waste. By the middle of the twentieth century, in most of the first world, trash and garbage were now lumped together and left at the curb to be removed by the modern day rag and bone men - now called garbage men.  Anyone who thought about public health, like the directors of the Winnipeg General Hospital, expected the post World War II population boom would lead to an explosion of plagues, brought on by garbage spilling out on the streets.
And that was where Harry Wasylyk came in. In 1949, in his Winnipeg kitchen, Harry melted pellets of polyethylene. He chose PE because it was cheap, available in large quantities, easy to work with, water proof and air tight. He squeezed it between rollers into thin twin sheets, cut and sealed it into bags, and in a stroke produced the world's first plastic garbage bag. The directors of Winnipeg General saw it as the hygienic solution to their growing waste problem, and made garbage easy and safer to handle. The hospital eagerly signed a contract. By 1951 Henry Wasylyk had leased a warehouse, installed equipment, and was mass producing garbage bags for Winnipeg General, and a few other local industrial customers.
At about the same time, the Union Carbide PE plant in Montreal, Quebec, had a back log of pellets.
Larry Hanson, at the UC facility in Lindsay, Ontario, about 60 northwest of Toronto, was assigned to find something profitable to do with them. He quickly hit upon the same idea of making garbage bags, and they proved so popular with the janitorial staff, that management adopted the idea. Doing patent research Dow found out about Harry a thousand miles to the west, in far off Manitoba, and decided to buy his factory and his process. In the end, the patent for the plastic garbage bag is held jointly by two Canadians, Harry and Larry.
Every year humans produce 4 to 5 trillion polyethylene bags, mostly the flimsy supermarket shopping bags. And every year those discarded bags kill a billion seabirds, reptiles and sea mammals, making them one of the most toxic materials in the 4 billion year history of our planet. Less than 1% of 380 billion PE bags discarded each year in the United States are properly recycled. The obvious answer would be to ban the production of all PE bags. But, of course no problem is solved that simply
According to a 2011 study by the British Environmental Protection agency, the average cotton tote bag has a life span of 52 trips to and from the supermarket, and replaces less than 2% of the “fresh water aquatic ecotoxicity” of 350 PE bags. But PE bags themselves make up less than 1% of American landfills. What fills the landfills, is what's in the bags. Concern about the environmental impact of plastic garbage bags is a case of not being able to see the garbage for the garbage bags. They solved a problem, but not THE problem. As Beth Terry writes in her “My Plastic Free Life” web page ““The fact is, there is no magically perfect way to dispose of garbage since the whole concept of garbage itself is not Eco-friendly. The best option is to try and reduce the amount of waste we generate in the first place.”
Less garbage in, fewer garbage bags out. But the constant remains – garbage
- 30 -

Friday, December 14, 2018


I think, maybe, if Wallace Wilkerson (above)  had known a little of the history of the game of cribbage, then William Baxter might have died of old age, instead of in his forties when two metal balls were forcibly inserted into his brain. Honestly, the scoring in cribbage is so complicated, it seems to have been invented by a card shark. Which it was. So a little information, and a little self awareness, might have saved Wallace himself from a very painful, and slow death of his own. Maybe. But then, people are not their intellect, but their personalities. And Wallace's personality was that of a foul mouthed, short tempered alcoholic.  Not that dissimilar from the inventor of cribbage.
The charming and witty Sir John Suckling (above), who invented cribbage, quickly dissipated his substantial inheritance on gambling, wine, woman and poems.  He rebuilt it by investing in elaborate decks of marked playing cards.  Suckling sent these Trojan gifts to several of his wealthier landed gentry "friends".  Then, when he later dropped by for a visit, his hosts invariably brought out his gifts for a friendly game of cribbage, with a friendly wager, of course.  And that was how John Suckling amassed his new fortune of twenty thousand pounds, even tho “no shopkeeper would trust him for sixpence.”
On 11 June, 1877 the 100 odd denizens of Homansville, Utah were living at 6,000 feet, up a canyon two miles north east of Eureka. That Monday afternoon there were nine or ten men talking, smoking and drinking in James Hightower's general store and saloon, mostly teamsters who carted potable water to the 120 mines in the surrounding Tintic Mountains. As the temperature struggled to take the chill off the air, and the water tanks at the wells were slowly re-filled, the primary entertainment was two men seated at a small table, playing cribbage.
Cribbage is usually played by just two players, each dealt six cards. They retain four, their joint discard forming the “Crib”. The top card in the remaining deck is turned over, becoming the starter. . All face cards are worth ten points, the ace just one. The non-dealer begins by laying one of his cards atop the starter, while announcing the cumulative value of those two cards. Players alternate, adding the numerical value of the cards, up to thirty-one. Why thirty-one? Why not? 
The popular William Baxter, who normally tended bar in Eureka, was seated on an upturned beer barrel, his cheek resting in his right palm as he was recovering from a previous night of drinking. He was a “pleasant and peaceable man” - when he was sober. Drunk,. he was  a violent bully, according to Wallace, and prone to pulling a gun to get his way, although he does not seem to have ever shot anyone. One of William's best customers in Eureka had been the tall, thin 43 year old Wallace Wilkerson, who now sat across the small table from him in Hightower's store . But William had previously pulled a gun on Wallace, and even insulted him by calling him a “California Mormon”. Or so said Wallace. And yet, here they were, playing  a game of cribbage. And Wallace was losing.
When a player cannot lay down a card without going over “31”, the opponent scores “1” point, called a go. Once all eight cards have been played, the dealer picks up the “crib”, and adds those points to his or her total.  After the score is recorded by moving pegs in a cribbage board, the deal then passes to the second player.
It is unclear why Baxter was in Homansville. Wallace was there to visit his brothers, who worked at the wells in the four year old town. None of Wilkerson's or Baxter's relatives were in James Hightower's establishment that Monday, and I don't think the witnesses had any influence upon the the events, which began when Baxter observed that Wallace had moved his peg in the cribbage board too many spaces.
Beyond the single point awarded for coming closest to reaching “31”, an additional point is awarded for hitting “31” exactly, and “2” for hitting “15” exactly. If a player lays down a card matching the suit of the previous card, they call out, “That's “1” for the go, and “2” for a double.” If the next card by either player also follows suit, that player says, “That's “2” for a double and “3” for a triple.” A fourth matching suit card, even if played in the next “31” is called as a quad and counts for a total of “10” points. All of these are cumulative, as in “1” for the go, “2” for fifteen, “1” for the “31” and “2” for the double, etc.  Adding in the many sometimes obscure additional points that can be called out in the flush of the contest, almost always without a pencil and paper tally, makes the game quick, meteoric, exuberant, confusing and tension filled. In other words,  the scoring seems to have been designed by a card shark. The first player to reach 121 points is declared the winner. Why 121, I have no idea.  I do know that the first player to be shot and killed is the loser.
Hearing William's accusation about his misplaced peg, Wallace pushed his chair back from the table, stood up and claimed he was being cheated.  As Wallace started to take off his jacket, preparing for a fight, the unimpressed William Baxter merely said “Sit down, Wilkerson, and don't make a fool out of yourself.”  At that, Wallace drew a small pistol from his jacket and shot William in the face. The victim fell backward, against the flour bags.  Wallace strode through the black powder smoke and grabbed a hand full of William's hair,  lifting his head. Wallace pressed the gun's muzzle against William's right temple, and fired again, literally blowing William Baxter's brains out. Then Wallace ran out of the store.
The inventor of cribbage, Sir John Suckling, should have died like a character from a Felding novel, an ancient retired reprobate, safely ensconced in his estates, surrounded by dutiful if not respectful servants. Instead, his mercenary morality finally drove him to plot too obvious a crime. Escaping just ahead of the authorities, Sir Suckling fled so quickly he had to leave his fortune behind. Within a few weeks he realized that life without his 'raison d art', his one true love, his money, was not worth living, and he self administered poison. He died alone in May of 1641 at 32 years of age, flat broke, vomiting away his life in a dingy Paris apartment. But, unfortunately for Wallace Wilkerson, before Suckling died, he invented cribbage.
Wallace Wilkerson was arrested and taken north to the village of Goshen, to avoid a lynching party. His defense was that William Baxter could have been carrying a gun. The only problem was, he wasn't. The only weapon found on the victim was a small pocket knife. Wallace seemed indifferent to the outcome of his November trial, but after his conviction he told Judge P. H. Emerson, “When I did the shooting I supposed my life was in danger.” He also claimed the witnesses had lied. Judge Emerson was no more impressed by the theatrics than Baxter had been, and ordered that Wallace was to be executed in December. At the time, the Territory of Utah had a choice in killing Wallace: he could be hung, shot or beheaded. Unfortunately for Wallace, the court chose the firing squad.
The results were delayed for over a year when Wallace's lawyers appealed his sentence to the U.S. Supreme Court, saying execution by firing squad was a cruel and unusual punishment, denied by the U.S. Constitution.. During his time in jail in Salt Lake City, Wallace was deemed to be “the most foul mouthed and profane man” in the prison.  In March of 1878 the Supreme Court held, by an unanimous vote, that death by a firing squad was  not a cruel or unusual punishment.  So, at about noon on 16 May, 1879, Wallace was led into the yard behind the Provo, Utah county courthouse and jail (above).  Wallace was wearing a black suit, topped with his habitual white ten gallon hat, and smoking a cigar, donated by a sympathetic family member.  And he was swaggering, because he had been drinking since his long suffering wife Amilia had left him an hour earlier.
The sheriff led Wallace to a chair, set out away from the courthouse wall. Wallace insisted he not be tied to it, and he refused a blindfold, saying “I give you my word, I intend to die like a man, looking my executioners right in the eye.” Except he could not do that. Thirty feet away a barricade had been constructed, pierced by four rectangles, just large enough to accommodate the protruding rifle barrels. The gunmen were hidden from Wallace's drunken challenging stare.  But they had a clear view of him. Or thought  they did.
After the sentence was read, Wallace was asked if he had anything to say.  In a slurred speech, he assured the 20 men present within the yard that he bore them no ill will,  but insisted again that the witnesses at his trial had lied.  The sheriff pinned a three inch square piece of white paper above Wallace's heart, as a target, and then stepped aside.  Wallace called out, “Aim for my heart, Marshal!" The four riflemen aimed at the white target, and their commander quietly gave the order. Four men pulled the triggers, and four bullets raced toward Wallace Wilkerson's chest.
At the impact of the lead, Wallace jumped “five or six feet” from the chair, screaming in pain.  After staggering a step, Wallace shouted, "Oh, my God! My God! They've missed it!", as he pitched over, face first into the dirt.  Four doctors rushed to the condemned man's side.  Wallace was moaning in agony.  On examination the doctors found that one round had shattered Wallace's left arm, and the other three had pounded into Wallace's chest, all missing his heart. They now faced a quandary. What do you do if the condemned man survives the execution?  Do you minister his wounds? Do you shoot him again? While these discussions continued, Wallace lay in the dirt, moaning and writhing for almost 30 minutes.  Some timed his death throes at 27 minutes, others at twenty. Finally, Wallace did the right thing.  He died.
At last Wallace Wilkerson was as dead as William Baxter.  The only difference was that while the reprobate Wallace was solely and fully responsible for the death of William Baxter, the entire territory of Utah and its taxpayers, and the nine judges on the U.S. Supreme Court, were all responsible for the botched execution and slow painful death of Wallace Wilkerson.  The process of state sponsored death seems, at least in this case,  to have been designed by a drunken sadist or a crooked gambler.
- 30 -

Thursday, December 13, 2018


I find it fascinating how we can suddenly lose sight of things that were once vital to us.. Consider this fable; in the final hours of Saturday, 20 May, 1995, Mrs. Paula Dixon leaped on the back seat of a motorbike, rushing to make a plane – British Airways flight 32, bound for London. Trying to stretch out her ten day vacation in Honk Kong, the 38 year old divorcee had left herself precious little time to make her 11:45 pm flight out of Kai Tak airport. During her dash to make that plane, Paula fell off the moving bike, hitting the pavement and bruising and cutting her arm. After scrapping her self off, and finishing the trip, Paula made it to the departure gate with just moments to spare.  But while the 747 was waiting on the tarmac Paula's arm began to hurt and swell. So she called a flight attendant, who luckily was a trained nurse. And thus began a swirl of currents in which the fate of this mother of two would be swept between an obsessed turn-of-the-century factory worker, and a Dadaist acolyte born in South Philadelphia in the summer of 1890. 
As the eldest of four children, Emmanuel grew up surrounded by threads and swaths and shreds of things. He was the first child of Russian immigrants, a garment factory worker who earned extra money by doing a little tailoring and a mother with an artistic flair who assembled collages out of errant scraps of clothing. When he was seven the family moved to the slums of the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, New York City. And at about the same time, suffering from the anti-antisemitism common in America of that age, the family shortened their name from Radnitzky to Ray. Emmanuel would soon shorten his first name to simply Man. So he became Man Ray.
The flight attendant called for a doctor, and two responded. They decided Paula had broken her arm, and at her urging, fashioned a quick fix, a splint out of a Hong Kong newspaper, and rubber bands. She was given morphine from the aircraft's first aid kit, and tried to relax while the plane took off, bound for Heathrow airport, 14 hours away. But just an hour later, at 33,000 feet above the Bay of Bengal, Paula had bent over to take off her shoes and felt a stabbing pain in her left side. Suddenly she couldn't catch her breath. One look convinced both doctors Paula had not only broken her arm, but a rib as well. When she bent over, that broken rib had punctured the tissue surrounding her left lung, inflating it like a child's balloon and preventing her lung inside that tissue from expanding. Without immediate surgery, Paula Dixon was going to strangle to death..
Seventy miles east of Detroit, the town of Jackson, Michigan grew because people who thought they were going somewhere else, paused here for whatever reason, and stayed for whatever reason. The railroads came because the soil was good for farming, and since it was a convenient place to change crews, they built railroad shops here, which attracted other industry. By 1900 the town of 25,000 included a mechanically inclined Canadian tinkerer named Albert J. Parkerhouse.  He found work at the Timberlake Wire and Novelty Company, pulling cold steel, brass and copper through dies to form lampshade frames, bed springs, paper clips, wheel spokes and wire fences, anything that could be sold for a profit. He stayed because the work was steady and because if any of the workers stumbled upon an idea, the owner, John B. Timberlake, encouraged them to follow it. And one cold morning in 1903, Albert Parkerhouse was irritated because when he got to work there were no empty hooks to hang his heavy jacket from.
With Paula stretched out across an entire row of seats, and the improvised instruments sterilized with five star Courvoisier. brandy, an incision was made just below her collar bone. Then while one doctor held the cut open with a knife and fork, the other took a catheter from the first aid kit. One end, with a flap in it, was slipped into a bottle of seltzer water - the flap keeping the fluid from rising into the tube. And then the open end of the catheter, stiffened at the suggestion of a flight attendant with a straightened wire coat hanger, was slowly forced through the muscle tissue and into Paula's chest cavity. The patient, who had no more anesthetic, said she felt like beef on butcher's hook.
In 1913 the young Man Ray was exposed to the electrifying Armory Show, which Teddy Roosevelt walked out of, declaring “This is not art!”  But Man Ray thought it was, and was, he said,  "elevated." At the show he met the cubist painter of “Nude Descending a Stair”,  Marcel Duchamp. The two became fast friends, and enthusiasts of the heady freedom of "Dada". The word meant various things in various languages, but to German writer Hugo Ball who adopted it, it meant nonsense, the rejection of art as only things worthy of inclusion in a museum. In 1915 Man Ray had his first one man show in New York and bought a camera to document his art. Eventually he became best known for his surrealistic and absurdest photographs. But he never let go of the wonder and whimsy he had experienced from his mother, and what he now called his “ready-mades”.
Once the catheter had penetrated the tissue surrounding Paula's left lung, the coat hanger was removed, and the air pressing around Paula's lung could now escape into the catheter. Each time she expanded her lung, a little more of the air strangling her was expelled. The flap in the catheter and the seltzer water kept what was expelled from slipping back, and each breath got easier. Within ten minutes Paula Dixon was breathing normally. With a doctor at her side, the exhausted patient fell asleep. The exhausted doctors drank the remaining Courvoisier.
On and off for weeks, Albert Parkerhouse twisted and bent lengths and thicknesses of wire from the factory floor. Finally he hit upon what he thought was the best design to support his jacket without wrinkling it. Timberlake filed for a patent in January of 1904 (Number 822,981) (above) and made profits for the next 77 years pulling wire coat hangers. Albert was not bitter he had received no share of his invention, but he was annoyed that on the patient application he was not listed as the inventor. A few years later he moved to Los Angeles where he started his own wire company. He died in 1927 of a ruptured ulcer at the age of 48.
The big white British Airways 747 landed at London's Heathrow airport at 5:00 in the morning of Sunday 21 May, 1995. Paula, who felt good enough that she had eaten breakfast, was immediately transported to Hillington hospital, just north of airport . Here her make-shift surgery was closed and she slowly recovered from the ordeal, One year later she returned to Hong Kong to be married to her motor bike driver, German banker Thomas Galster. She told reporters, “If it wasn’t for my doctors I wouldn't be here today”. And, she might have added, she also owed her life to a wire coat hanger. If one had not been invented by an irritated Albert Parkerhouse in 1903, Paula Dixon would have died on that plane in 1995. That is what you call an unintended consequence.
Man Ray was finding it difficult to make a living as an artist in New York City. He wrote, “All New York is Dada, and will not tolerate a rival.” He then burned many of his older unsold works, borrowed $500, and set off for Paris, where he would live the rest of his life. One of his last works created in New York City was “Obstruction”, a three dimensional collage, described by the N.Y. Museum of Modern Art as a “pyramid of coat-hangers, each with two more hangers suspended from its arithmetic progression until almost an entire room was obstructed. This pyramid had an even, but changeable equilibrium; if only one hanger was set in motion, the entire pyramid oscillated with it.”
It must have reminded Emmanuel of his childhood, surrounded by a forest of hangers, all suspended just out of reach, hangers hanging from the ceiling, representing at the same time a whimsical playground for the child and a crushing existence of endless work for his parents, the pattern of their collective individual lives, connected yet separate, each suspended from the others. Life, Emmanuel seemed to be saying, is mostly just hanging on.
- 30 -

Wednesday, December 12, 2018


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, known as a weasel, and  gin is a product of fermented mullberries.  So, the story of an alcoholic so controlled by his addiction he can not afford new socks.. But my favorite is the lesser known rhyme  “Burke and Hare”.   It is younger, but 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.  Burke's 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 little story, 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 who navigated across Scotland. 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 had died.
In 1827 the married 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, Trump Investments for the dead) who found a way to undercut their competition in both overhead and underfoot - in 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 to work with.
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 her contribution - ten pounds for each woman.  Business was booming!
Not that there weren’t problems. College students of today are no less 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 challenged 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 the 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 Irish woman 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 unlucky lady Douchety 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 such a modest investment.
There was an added profit, in that the invention of "Burking" which had given rise to the company, had also disguised the method of death so that it might be impossible for the authorities to prove any murders had occurred. And, amazingly enough, the corporation was not accused of robbing a single grave, which there were laws forbidding.  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 28 January, 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, famous and respected. 
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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