Sunday, 24 February 2013

Burke and Hare: the unacceptable face of 19th Century Capitalism

Doun the close and up the stair,
But an' ben wi' Burke and Hare.
Burke's the butcher, Hare's the thief,
Knox, the boy that buys the beef.
19th-century Edinburgh skipping rhyme
Public execution was one way to keep the populace quiet.
 In 2013 we have reality TV for this
Between 1688 and 1823 the number of offences in Britain for which the offender could be executed rose dramatically. From 50 in 1688 it rose to nearly 200 by 1776 and 220 by the end of the century, most of these offences being to defend property: some interpreted this as a form of class suppression of the poor. The theft of goods worth more than 12 pence, for example attracted the death penalty. This was about one 20th of the weekly wage of a skilled worker at the time, which would be equivalent to about £30 in 2013. These offences were known collectively as the “Bloody Code”

As the 18th century wore on juries started deliberately assessing goods at less than this limit, which made the death penalty discretionary. In 1823 the death penalty became discretionary for all crimes except Murder and Treason and the number of capital offences decreased.

Before 1832 the only legitimate source of dead bodies for dissection in Anatomy classes at British universities was the gallows: only executed criminals could be dissected. In Edinburgh the reduced execution rate meant only two or three corpses a year became available. There was a market gap and, crime being the purest form of capitalism, devoted to Milton Friedman's notion that “The only social duty of a business is to make a profit”, various entrepreneurs stepped in to meet the rising demand. These “resurrectionists” as they were called robbed the graves of the newly buried to sell the corpses to anatomy teachers who did not want to ask too many questions.

Burke and Hare found a way to outflank the resurrectionists Their actions resulted in the end of the body snatching industry.

Burke and Hare

William Burke was born in 1792 in Ireland. He worked at a number of jobs then, leaving his wife and two children, moved to Scotland around 1817 and worked as a Navvy on the Union Canal in Edinburgh. There he met his girlfriend Helen McDougal, and worked as a labourer, weaver, baker and a cobbler.

William Hare was born in 1792, or possibly 1804, also in Ireland and emigrated to Scotland where he worked as a labourer on the Union Canal. He then moved to Edinburgh where he met William Logue who ran a lodging house in the West Port. Logue died in 1826 and Hare married his widow Margaret who ran the lodging house, which contemporary accounts called “an abode of profligacy, vice and drunkenness” - a great advertisement - while Hare worked on the canal. Apparently he had a “ferocious and malignant disposition” and an 1829 article in Blackwoods magazine says he was a very brutal man with a ghastly appearance when he laughed[9]. This may simply reflect the clarity hindsight brings.

At the end of 1828 Burke and McDougal moved into Margaret Hare's lodging house in the West Port and Burke and Hare became good friends, though apparently [9] their “friendship” was punctuated by frequent quarrels and based on a shared fondness for whiskey and a desire to make easy money. The resemblance to a modern boardroom cannot be denied.

One day a tenant in the Lodging house died owing Hare £4. Hare was furious till he realised he could make a profit. The pair filled the coffin with tree bark and took the body to Edinburgh University. Burke said a student directed them to Surgeons Square where they sold the body to local Anatomist, Robert Knox. To modern eyes the notion of carrying a corpse through the city seems incredible but times were different then and maybe they passed the corpse off as a drunken friend or a sack of potatoes.

The Murders

As happened to other people, Burke and Hare started their business by accident and it grew. They did not become body snatchers: doubtless the trade was well sewn up, as these things tend to be, and they would have risked ending on a dissection table themselves had they tried to enter it. The answer, one any entrepreneur would recognise, was to cut out the middle man and supply corpses directly. Burke kept accounts of what they had been paid and the normal tensions between business partners arose. Sometime around June 1828 it is believed that Burke and Hare had a falling out, ostensibly because, while Burke was away from Edinburgh that month for a holiday, Hare had “worked” solo in his absence and kept the proceeds. Burke and McDougal moved out of the Hare lodging house, although the pair continued to “work” together.

One problem was that people do not die when you want or need them to, so the pair started hurrying up the process. In today's terminology this is just in time delivery. The normal procedure was to get the victim drunk then suffocate them. Had they been a bit more cautious they could have enjoyed a long and prosperous career. With a bit more intelligence they might even have moved up the economic if not the social ladder. But a mixture of carelessness and bad luck undid them

People began vanishing, initially people no one would miss. On a couple of occasions they had near misses when some of Knox's students claimed to recognise the victims.. Their last victim was Marjory Campbell Docherty who Burke lured into the lodging house by saying his mother was also a Docherty. But they had lodgers, James and Ann Gray. The Grays left for the night and there were sounds of a struggle. The next day Ann Gray became suspicious when Burke would not let her approach the bed where she had left her stocking. That evening when left alone in the house they looked under the bed and found Docherty's body there. Why Burke and Hare had not removed it the night before is not explained.

Enter the Police

On the way to get the police the Grays encountered McDougal who tried to bribe them with an offer of £10 a week. They refused. Burke and Hare removed the body but the police arrested Burke and McDougal anyway. An anonymous tip led the police to Knox's classroom where Gray identified Docherty's body. Then the police arrested the Hares. The evidence against them was not overwhelming so Hare was offered immunity if he confessed and testified against Burke, which he did ( again spot the resemblance to modern business practice ).

Burke was hanged on 28 January 1829, after which he was publicly dissected at the Edinburgh Medical College. His skin was tanned and used to make a wallet and other items. This was not unusual: in the 19th century an anthropologist had a purse made from the skin of the last Tasmanian native. The tales of lampshades made from the skins of slaughtered Jews during the holocaust seem to be less well founded and probably a myth.

The Aftermath

MacDougal and the Hares had to leave Edinburgh and the last reliable sighting of Hare was in Carlisle. A gang in London started copying their methods but did not last long. Knox was not prosecuted and taught anatomy using regular body snatchers till 1832 when the law was changed and more bodies became available. Knox then lost popularity and eventually moved to London where he died in 1862. The 1832 changes in the law killed the body snatching industry. For a while the term “burke” meaning to stifle became popular. This has no relation to the English insult “berk” which is rhyming slang, short for “Berkshire Hunt”. There is a statue of Burke and Hare on the towpath of the Union Canal about three miles from Edinburgh.

By a bizarre coincidence shortly after writing this I read of a truck in China that overturned spilling 16 dead bodies onto the road. It turned out they had been purchased for dissection by students in anatomy classes. The corpses included executed criminals, unclaimed murder victims and the homeless.

If they were alive today they would have a government contract and their victims delivered to them [10]

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