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Encyclopedia > West Port murders

The West Port murders were perpetrated in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1827-1828 by William Burke and William Hare who sold the corpses of their 17 victims to the Edinburgh Medical College for dissection. Their principal customer was doctor Robert Knox. For other uses, see Edinburgh (disambiguation). ... This article is about the country. ... William Burke (1792 - January 28, 1829), was an Irish criminal. ... William Hare (born 1792 or 1804) was an Irish serial killer who, along with William Burke committed a notorious series of murders in Edinburgh in the 19th century. ... For other uses, see Body (disambiguation). ... The University of Edinburgh, founded in 1583, is a renowned centre for teaching and research in Edinburgh, Scotland. ... Dissected rat showing major organs. ... Robert Knox (4 September 1791 — 20 December 1862) was a doctor, natural scientist and traveller. ...


Historical background

Main article: History of anatomy in the 19th century

Before 1832, there was insufficient legitimate supply of cadavers for the study and teaching of anatomy in British medical schools. As medical science began to flourish in the early 19th century, demand rose sharply, but at the same time the only legal supply of cadavers - the bodies of executed criminals - was falling due to a sharp reduction in the execution rate in the early 19th century, when compared to the 18th century. This situation attracted criminal elements who were willing to obtain specimens by any means. The activities of body-snatchers and the Resurrectionists gave rise to particular public fear and revulsion. The perfection which anatomical science attained in the last ten years of the 18th and during the 19th century is evinced not only in the improved character of the systems published by anatomists, but in the enormous advance which has taken place in the knowledge of the minute structure of... A cadaver is a dead body. ... Human heart and lungs, from an older edition of Grays Anatomy. ... See drugs, medication, and pharmacology for substances that are used to treat patients. ... Body-snatching was the secret disinterment of bodies in churchyards to sell them for dissection or anatomy lectures in medical schools. ... Resurrectionists were grave robbers who dug up fresh corpses and sold them to be used in anatomy lectures in medical schools. ...


By 1827, Burke and his mistress, Helen MacDougal, were regular tenants at Hare's lodging house in Edinburgh. It is not known whether the two knew each other from an earlier common employment on the Union Canal. According to Hare's later testimony, the first body they sold was that of a dead tenant, an old army pensioner who owed Hare £4 rent. In November, they stole the body from its coffin and sold it to the Edinburgh Medical College for £7, their first meeting with Professor Robert Knox, a leading Edinburgh anatomist. For other uses, see Edinburgh (disambiguation). ... The Union Canal is a 50 km (31. ... As far as we can tell from the hugely informative Little Britain pensioners are disgusting people who piss all over the floor. ... GBP may be: short for Game Boy Player the ISO currency code for the British Pound Sterling. ... It has been suggested that this article or section be merged with rental agreement. ... For other uses, see Edinburgh (disambiguation). ... Human heart and lungs, from an older edition of Grays Anatomy. ...

Their next victim was a sick tenant Joseph the Miller whom they plied with whisky and suffocated. When there were no other sickly tenants, they decided to lure a victim from the street. In February 1828 they invited pensioner Abigail Simpson to spend the night before her return to home. They engineered her intoxication and smothered her. Because the corpse was so fresh, they were paid £15. For other uses, see Whisky (disambiguation). ... Suffocation can mean two things: Suffocation, or Asphyxia, is a medical condition where the body is depraved of oxygen. ... ...

After another murdered tenant, Margaret Hare invited a woman to the inn, plied her with drink and then sent for her husband. Next Burke brought in two prostitutes, Mary Patterson and Janet Brown but Brown left when an argument broke out between MacDougal and Burke. When she returned, she was told that Patterson had left with Burke. Next morning some of the medical students recognized the dead prostitute, possibly because they had used her services. Prostitution is the sale of sexual services (typically manual stimulation, oral sex, sexual intercourse, or anal sex) for cash or other kind of return, generally indiscriminately with many persons. ...

The next victim was an acquaintance of Burke, a beggar woman called Effie. They were paid £10 for her body. Then Burke "saved" a woman from police claiming that he knew her and delivered her to the medical school just hours later.

The next two victims were an old woman and a deaf boy. Burke and Hare argued over the boy but then Burke broke his back and sold both bodies for £8 each. The next two victims were Burke's acquaintance Mrs Ostler and MacDougal's relative Ann MacDougal.

Then Hare met elderly prostitute Mary Haldane. When her daughter Peggy inquired about her whereabouts, she ended up accompanying her mother on the medical school cutting table. However, this disappearance was noticed since Mary Haldane had been a well-known figure in the neighbourhood.

Their next victim was an even better-known person, a retarded young man with a limp called Daft Jamie(18). The boy resisted and the pair had to kill him together. His mother began to ask for her boy. When Dr Knox uncovered the body the next morning, several students recognized Jamie. His head and feet were cut off after Knox had shown his students the body. Knox denied that he was Jamie but apparently began to dissect his face first.

The last victim was Mary Docherty. Burke lured her into the lodging house by claiming that his mother was also a Docherty but he had to wait because of James and Ann Gray who were lodging with them. The Grays left for the night and neighbours heard the noise of a struggle.


Next day Ann Gray became suspicious when Burke would not let her approach a bed where she had left her stockings. When the Grays were left alone in the house in the early evening, they checked the bed and found Docherty's body under it. On their way to alert the police, they ran into MacDougal who tried to bribe them with an offer of £10 a week. They refused.

MacDougal and Margaret Hare alerted their spouses and Burke and Hare took the body out of the house before the police arrived. However, under questioning, Burke claimed that Docherty had left at 7:00 am then MacDougal claimed that she had left in the evening. The police arrested them. An anonymous tip-off led them to Knox's classroom where they found Docherty's body. James Gray identified it. MacDougal and Margaret Hare were arrested soon after. The murder spree had lasted eleven months.

When an Edinburgh paper wrote about the disappearances on November 6, Janet Brown heard about it and went to the police. She identified Mary Paterson's clothing. is the 310th day of the year (311th in leap years) in the Gregorian calendar. ...

The evidence against the pair was not overwhelming so Lord Advocate Sir William Rae offered Hare immunity from prosecution if he confessed and agreed to testify against Burke. Hare's testimony led to Burke's death sentence in December 1828. Ironically following his hanging, he was to share the fate of his victims - dissected for the benefit of medical students. Helen MacDougal was released, since her complicity to the murders was not proven. Robert Knox was not prosecuted despite a public uproar. Her Majestys Advocate, known as the Lord Advocate (Morair Tagraidh in Scottish Gaelic) is the chief legal adviser to the Scottish Executive and the Crown in Scotland for both civil and criminal matters that fall within the devolved powers of the Scottish Parliament. ... Sir William Rae (1769 - 1842), 3rd Baronet, was a Scottish politician and lawyer. ... Capital punishment, also referred to as the death penalty, is the judicially ordered execution of a prisoner as a punishment for a serious crime, often called a capital offense or a capital crime. ... Not proven is a verdict available to a court in Scotland. ...

External images
M'Dougal being chaced by the enraged mob

Helen MacDougal returned to her house but was almost lynched by an angry mob. She fled to England but her reputation preceded her. She was rumoured to have left for Australia where she died around 1868. Margaret Hare also escaped lynching and reputedly returned to Ireland. Nothing more is known about her. Image File history File links Looking_glass_Hexagonal_Icon. ... Image File history File links Looking_glass_Hexagonal_Icon. ... Lynching is a form of violence, usually execution, conceived of by its perpetrators as extrajudicial punishment for offenders or as a terrorist method of enforcing social domination. ... An ochlocracy from The Simpsons Ochlocracy (Greek: οχλοκρατία or ohlokratía; Latin: ochlocratia) is government by mob or a mass of people, or the intimidation of constitutional authorities. ... For other uses, see England (disambiguation). ...

Hare was released in February 1829 and many popular tales tell of him as a blind beggar on the streets of London having been mobbed and thrown in a lime pit. However, none of these reports were ever confirmed. The last known sighting of him was in the English town of Carlisle.

Robert Knox kept silent about his dealings with Burke and Hare but his popularity among students decreased. His applications for other positions in the Edinburgh Medical School were rejected. He moved to the Cancer Hospital in London and died in 1862.

Skin from Burke's body was used to make the leather binding of a small book. This book can now be seen in the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh. The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, a centre of excellence for surgical education and research traces its origins to 1505 when the Barber Surgeons of Edinburgh was formally incorporated as a Craft Guild of Edinburgh, and granted a royal charter in 1506 by King James IV of Scotland. ...

Political consequences

The murders highlighted the crisis in medical education and led to the subsequent passing of the Anatomy Act 1832, which expanded the legal supply of medical cadavers to eliminate the incentive for such behaviour. About the law, the Lancet editorial stated: The Anatomy Act 1832 (2 & 3 Will. ...

Burke and Hare ... it is said, are the real authors of the measure, and that which would never have been sanctioned by the deliberate wisdom of parliament, is about to be extorted from its fears ... It would have been well if this fear had been manifested and acted upon before sixteen human beings had fallen victims to the supineness of the Government and the Legislature. It required no extraordinary sagacity to foresee, that the worst consequences must inevitably result from the system of traffic between resurrectionists and anatomists, which the executive government has so long suffered to exist. Government is already in a great degree, responsible for the crime which it has fostered by its negligence, and even encouraged by a system of forbearance. (Lancet editorial, 1828-9 (1), pp 818-21, 28.3.1829)

In popular culture

The West Port murders have entered the timeless culture of children’s folklore. Threats of visits from Burke and Hare are used by some parents to discipline unruly children (sf. Boogyman), and the pair are even prominently featured in a couple of sing-song rhymes that accompany children’s jump rope and hopscotch games: Boogeyman, depicted by Michael Whelan The bogeyman, also boogeyman, boogyman, or bogyman, is a legendary ghost-like monster that children often believe is real. ...

Up the close and down the stair,
In the house with Burke and Hare.
Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief,
Knox, the boy who buys the beef.

A close in Edinburgh's old town is a narrow alleyway, usually arched over by the houses fronting on to the High Street or Canongate. The term is also used for the passageway leading from the front door of a tenement past the stair. Categories: Stub | House types ...

The story of the murders was filmed in 1948 as a motion picture with working title Crimes of Burke & Hare. However, the British Board of Film Censors deemed its historical topic too disturbing and insisted that references to Burke and Hare be excised. The film was redubbed with alternative dialogue and characters, and was released as The Greed of William Hart. The original script is apparent to anyone skilled in lipreading. A less coy treatment of the topic was made in the 1971 film Burke and Hare starring Derren Nesbitt. The 1960 film The Flesh and The Fiends also used the real names, with Peter Cushing as Knox and Donald Pleasence as Hare. Burke and Hare also made an appearance in the Hammer Horror film Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde. In 1985, Freddie Francis directed a film version of the events entitled The Doctor and the Devils. Another film based on the murders is in pre-production, based on a script by Edinburgh novelist, Irvine Welsh. Provisionally titled The Meat Trade, the film is scheduled to feature Robert Carlyle and Colin Firth under the direction of Antonia Bird and will be shot on location, in Edinburgh, beginning in April of 2007. For other uses see film (disambiguation) Film refers to the celluliod media on which movies are printed Film — also called movies, the cinema, the silver screen, moving pictures, photoplays, picture shows, flicks, or motion pictures, — is a field that encompasses motion pictures as an art form or as... The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) is the organisation responsible for film classification (see Motion picture rating systems and History of British Film Certificates) within the United Kingdom. ... In filmmaking, dubbing or looping is the process of recording or replacing voices for a motion picture. ... Lip reading is a technique of understanding spoken language without hearing its sounds. ... Derren Nesbitt (born June 19, 1935) is an English actor who was in demand in the 1960s and 1970s for roles that combined the muscular and the debonaire. ... Peter Wilton Cushing, OBE, (26 May 1913-11 August 1994) was an English actor, known for his many appearances in Hammer Films, in which he played Baron Frankenstein and Dr. Van Helsing, amongst many other roles, often appearing opposite his close friend Christopher Lee. ... Donald Pleasence, OBE (October 5, 1919 – October 2, 1995) was an English stage and film actor. ... Hammer horror refers to a series of gothic horror films produced from the late 1950s until the 1970s by the British film production company Hammer Film Productions Ltd. ... Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde is a 1971 film made by Hammer Film Productions. ... Freddie Francis (born December 22, 1917) is an English cinematographer and film director. ... Irvine Welsh (born Leith, Edinburgh, September 27, 1958) is an acclaimed contemporary Scottish novelist, most famous for his novel Trainspotting. ... Robert Carlyle OBE (born April 14, 1961) is a Scottish movie actor. ... Colin Andrew Firth (born 10 September 1960) is an English film, television and stage actor. ... Antonia Bird is a British TV and film director. ... For other uses, see Edinburgh (disambiguation). ...

Both the short story The Body Snatcher by Robert Louis Stevenson and its 1945 film adaptation refer to the murders. The Body Snatcher is a 1885 work by Robert Louis Stevenson. ... Robert Louis Stevenson Robert Louis (Balfour) Stevenson (November 13, 1850–December 3, 1894), was a Scottish novelist, poet, and travel writer, and a leading representative of Neo-romanticism in English literature. ... The Body Snatcher (also known as Robert Louis Stevensons The Body Snatcher) is a 1945 horror directed by Robert Wise based on the short story The Body Snatcher by Robert Louis Stevenson. ...

The Doctor Who spin-off audio drama "Medicinal Purposes" features Burke and Hare, as well as Daft Jamie and Mary Patterson, and weaves the events leading up to the murders into a science fiction story. For other uses, see Doctor Who (disambiguation). ... Radio drama is a form of audio storytelling broadcast on radio. ... Medicinal Purposes cover by Lee Binding. ... Science fiction is a form of speculative fiction principally dealing with the impact of imagined science and technology, or both, upon society and persons as individuals. ...

The second season of the US TV series CSI featured an episode titled "Burked" in which the murder of a man closely resembled Burke and Hare's crimes. CSI: Crime Scene Investigation is a popular Alliance Atlantis/CBS police procedural television series, running since October 2000, about a team of forensic scientists. ...

In the 1989 children's television series Tugs, two characters named "Burke and Blair" appear. They are scrap dealers rather than body snatchers, but do bear some resemblance to their namesakes. This article is about childrens television series. ...

The Edinburgh based, Australian Rules Football club, the Body Snatchers is named for the antics of Burke and Hare. High marking is a key skill and spectacular attribute of Australian rules football Precise field and goal kicking using the oval shaped ball is the key skill in Australian rules football Australian rules football, also known as Australian football, Aussie rules, or simply football or footy is a code of... Australian rules football club in Edinburgh, Scotland, based around Edinburgh University students. ...

See also

Robert Knox (4 September 1791 — 20 December 1862) was a doctor, natural scientist and traveller. ... As a young physician in Massachusetts, Dr. Thomas Sewall (d. ... The London Burkers were a group of active body snatchers, operating in London, who apparently modelled their activities on those of the notorious Burke and Hare. ...


  • Adams, N. (2002) Scottish Bodysnatchers ISBN 1-899874-40-2
  • Bailey, B. (2002) Burke and Hare: The Year of the Ghouls ISBN 1-84018-575-9
  • Douglas, H. (1973) Burke and Hare ISBN 0-7091-3777-X
  • Edwards, O.D. (1993) Burke and Hare ISBN 1-873644-25-6
  • MacDonald, H.P. (2005) Human Remains: Episodes in Human Dissection ISBN 0-522-85157-6
  • Menefee, Samuel Pyeatt and Allen Simpson (1994). "The Westport Murders and the Mineature Coffins from Arthur's Seat". Book of the Old Edinburgh Club 3: ns 63-81. 
  • Richardson, R. (2001) Death, Dissection and the Destitute ISBN 0-226-71240-0
  • Roughead, W. (1966). Classic Crimes 1: Katharine Nairn, Deacon Brodie, The West Port Murders, Madeleine Smith, Constance Kent and The Sandyford Mystery. London: Panther. 

External links

  • Buried secrets of the city murder dolls
  • Newspaper clipping of the notice of execution of Burke

  Results from FactBites:
West Port murders - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (1541 words)
The West Port murders were perpetrated in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1827-1828 by William Burke and William Hare who sold the corpses of their 17 victims to the Edinburgh Medical College for dissection.
The murders highlighted the crisis in medical education and led to the subsequent passing of the Anatomy Act 1832, which expanded the legal supply of medical cadavers to eliminate the incentive for such behaviour.
The West Port murders have entered the timeless culture of children’s folklore.
  More results at FactBites »



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