A Tale for Halloween

October 27th, 2010


This week, I'd like to veer off my usual theme of midcentury design in honor of the upcoming holiday. As it happens, my home is also home to one of the most macabre crimes in our relatively recent history, those of one William Burke and one William Hare. These two chaps both lived most of their lives in the same province of Ireland, Ulster, but didn't happen to meet until they had both emigrated to Edinburgh some time after 1817. Hare moved in with a widow, Margaret Laird, who ran a lodging-house in Tanner's Close off the Royal Mile, and having stayed in Margaret's lodgings on previous trips to Edinburgh, Burke and his companion, Helen M'Dougal, decided to set up residence there as well. I fear to ask the origin of the close name, knowing the fate Burke met in the end.

I have to wonder though, how one broaches a proposition of this character – that of creating cadavers out of innocent unsuspecting people. Did they sit down over a pint on a cold blustery, and most likely rainy evening in Edinburgh, and propose it first as a joke, just to make some much needed cash, laugh, then truly consider it? Was it the outcome of a late night and far too much to drink? Or was it blunt, cold, and calculated? I suppose one may never know, but the demand was high and Burke and Hare deemed the supply was there. Up until the Enlightenment of the 19th c, medical labs had been amply supplied with the bodies of criminals hung for crimes or accusations of witchery. However, when public lynching became a sign of an uncivilized city, the number of available cadavers dropped to almost nill while interest in the medical sciences grew exponentially.

The killing spree began when one of Margaret's lodgers died of old age, leaving a debt of £4 to her. Seeing an opportunity for reimbursement, Burke and Hare filled the coffin with tanning bark and delivered the body to Dr. Robert Knox at the Surgeon's Hall of Edinburgh University. No questions were asked and they were rewarded with £7 10 shillings, which amounts to £550-600 today. It seems the lure of easy money was too much to resist, leading to another 16 murders (possibly up to 30) within the year. Early on, they preyed on victims who were already ill (though not likely terminally) or those not likely to be missed. But whether it was greed or laziness, they got sloppy with their victims, figuratively. One report says they even thought of selling Helen and Margaret! After a few anatomy students recognized a well-known street performer with a club foot, suspicions were raised. With little evidence to convict them, Hare was offered prosecution immunity if he confessed against Burke. Well, being the scoundrel that he was, he took the offer and Burke was convicted of 17 counts of murder and hung in front of a crowd of 40,000. In a sick twist of fate, his body was then sent to the Surgeon's Hall for a public dissection,. Exemplifying Edinburgh's dark past, his skin tanned and bound into a book and his skeleton was reassembled for teaching anatomical courses, both of which are still popular exhibits in the Surgeon's Hall Museum.


I hate to leave you on such a grim note, but as with any detail of mankind's sordid past, someone has managed to make a comedy out of it. In a film opening this Friday in the UK, Burke & Hare, Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) humorously brings to life all the stench and chaos of the streets of 19th c Edinburgh, which, as the most densely populated city in the world, was yet to have any sort of indoor or outdoor sanitation system. Garde-lou!

Caroline Engel for Danish Teak Classics

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