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The Story of Burke and Hare

8th Jun 2022
The Story of Burke and Hare

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If you have an interest in the Scotland's dark history, then you've likely heard the story of Burke and Hare, Edinburgh's murderous duo from the 19th-century. Today, we're sharing their tale and the events that unfolded and eventually led to their arrest.

Who were Burke and Hare?

William Burke originated from Ireland and emigrated to Falkirk in Scotland after his short-lived marriage ended in divorce. There he found new love and the couple moved to Edinburgh where they would make a living selling second-hand clothes before Burke became a cobbler. He was known to be religious, with a good sense of humour, and attended Prestbyterian meetings in the Grassmarket area, he was rarely seen without his bible.

William Hare's beginnings are much more hazy but it is thought he also emigrated from Ireland. He didn't have quite the reputation of his future-friend and accomplice Burke and was known to be illiterate, violent and quarrelsome. He was a coal man's assistant and lodged at Tanner's Close - after his landlord died, it's thought he married his widowed wife.

Burke and Hare met when Burke began lodging in the same building. The pair and their wive's were known for drinking heavily and becoming boisterous when together.

Why did Burke and Hare commit murder?

On the 29th of November 1827 one of the lodger's at Tanner's Close passed away, owing Hare £4 in rent, a substantial sum in those days! Hare discussed his losses with Burke and the two decided that they would sell the lodger's body to the Edinburgh Medical School to recuperate the debts he owed to Hare. Dr. Knox purchased the body from the pair for roughly £7 and 10 shillings which they split between them.

This is where the story takes a dark turn...

Burke and Hare's murderous spree

Hungry for more money, Burke and Hare came up with a cunning plan. They didn't have to wait for Burke's tenants to pass away - they could simply make it happen themselves! They used a method that would later be dubbed as 'Burking' to suffocate their victims without leaving marks and donated body after body to the medical school. They made a large sum of money in the prcoess, going on to kill sixteen victims in total. Their plans began to fall apart after they murdered a well known local character named James. 

When James' body was due to be disected by the medical students, the students were horrified, they recognised him! However, Dr. Knox feverently denied it could be him and had the body quickly disected. Their next murder would be their last after lodgers found the body of their victim Margaret Docherty hidden under hay and swiftly reported it to the police. 

The end of Burke and Hare

Burke and Hare were arrested. Uncertain that they had enough evidence to convict the duo, the police decided to go the route of confession instead. They offered Hare immunity if he would tell them the details of the murders. This meant Hare was spared punshment while Burke was given the death sentence and eventually hung in the city's Lawnmarket. 

You can hear about the story and more of Edinburgh's dark stories on our five-star Edinburgh ghost tours. 

Join us on our Ghostly Tales of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile tour: entirely above ground, accessible to all. Delve into the gore of Old Town Edinburgh’s darkest deeds and crooked characters, if you dare. Book now!

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