Burke and Hare

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Issue 2(March/April 2011), Letters, Volume 19

Sir,—My attention has been drawn to a Sidelines item (p. 6) in the last issue (HI 19.1, Jan./Feb. 2011), which contained a couple of inaccuracies that I’m sure you’d wish corrected. Although almost universally referred to as grave-robbers, William Burke and William Hare were in fact mass-murderers and never robbed a grave in their lives, at least not together. Being grave-robbers—or ‘resurrection men’, as they were called at the time—was their cover. In his confession William Burke said of himself: ‘He never was concerned with any other person but Hare in these matters, and was never a resurrection-man, and never dealt in dead bodies but what he murdered’. And it was, of course, William Hare and not William Burke who turned king’s evidence and got immunity for all the murders he might have committed (he didn’t actually admit to any). Burke was hanged on 28 January 1829, his body was dissected before a packed audience and his skeleton was put on public display, which was the only grave it ever found. Hare might very well have ended in a pauper’s grave but the last reliable sighting of him was on the road to Carlisle on 7 February 1829, as he made a bolt for it after the failure of the private prosecution against him for the murder of James Wilson. He had been trying to escape to Ireland but was spotted, and there was a riot in Dumfries from which the police had to rescue him. His wife, Margaret, appears to have made her escape a week later, to Ireland from Greenock, and again nothing more is heard of her. Conventional morality demanded that the Hares and Burke’s wife, Helen MacDougal, ended their days in poverty and misery, and Walter Scott had several pauper’s graves pointed out to him in various places as being those of these reprobates suffering for their sins (although MacDougal was almost certainly innocent of any crime). But they were resourceful and there is no reason to think that they didn’t have reasonably successful further careers. It is said that Helen MacDougal was stoned to death by an angry mob in Gateshead, and that might very well be true, or it might have been someone the mob thought was MacDougal. Who knows?—Yours etc., BRENDAN ELLIS Dublin 4

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