Your journey begins where most Edinburghers of the early nineteenth century devoutly hoped theirs would end – in the graveyard.
Find the Neilson family burying ground. Close your eyes for a moment, and cast your mind back to November of 1828. The funeral of Miss Margaret Neilson, aged 23, has just ended. After the burial, the family leaves the graveside with its pile of fresh earth. Night falls early in November, and by midnight it is as dark and as quiet outside the graves as it is inside them. Then the silence is broken by stealthy footsteps, and the soft thud of wooden spades carried over the shoulders of the resurrection men.
They would have noted the locations of fresh graves before the light failed. They’re back now to dig the newly dead up, to make them rise again as instructors of anatomy. Edinburgh University is the finest medical school in the world, but the law restricts it to one corpse a year for dissection, supplied from the city gallows . To train the students, lecturers have resorted to buying the freshly dead – no questions asked. And, as in any city of the time, there are people in Edinburgh poor enough to be willing to supply them with bodies.
The grave robbers have found a recent grave, and start to dig. Listening to the scrape of spades in dirt, you catch the sound of one of them humming. It’s a popular ballad of the day, Mary’s Ghost, by Thomas Hood.
The arm that used to take your arm
Is took to Dr Vyse,
And both my legs are gone to walk
The hospital at Guy’s.
I vowed that you should have my hand
But Fate gives us denial.
You’ll find it there at Mr Bell’s
In spirits in a phial…
The cock it crows, I must be gone,
My William, we must part;
And I’ll be yours in death although
Sir Astley has my heart.
Then a lantern appears near the cemetery gates. It draws nearer, bobbing with its bearer’s pace. A voice calls out, “Who’s there?” The grave robbers stop digging and flee. The Neilsons have hired a guard for the few days until Miss Margaret’s body is no longer saleable. She may yet rest undisturbed. But others will return in the morning to find their family plots dug up, and their loved ones gone to the medical school.
The resurrectionists sell the bodies for £7 - £10 each (an enormous sum), but they work hard for their money. There is fierce competition for fresh corpses, and the graveyards are watched by the law. Today we’re on the trail of a worse pair of criminals, who have decided to cut out all of the hard work and risk by making their own corpses: Burke and Hare.
Before going on, take note of the following numbers from the Neilson family gravestone.
- The Sultana Anne Neilson or Krim Ghery died in the Crimea in June 18AB
- Mrs Anne Stuart or Neilson, widow of James Neilson Sen’r, was born 9 Dec’r 177M
2. An Abode of Profligacy, Vice and Drunkenness
N 55° 56.805
W 003° 11.852
They say that foul deeds can be planned in luxurious surroundings as easily as in squalid ones. But some environments seem almost destined to give rise to criminality, if only because the people there are too poor to be principled. This was just such a place in the 1820s. The narrow, dirty lanes that led off of this area were built up with overcrowded tenements and boarding houses, and the entire district was haunted by prostitutes and drunks. In previous centuries, the wealthy of Edinburgh had lived alongside the poor. But since the construction of the New Town in the late 1700s, the Old Town was abandoned to the working – and criminal – classes. Burke and Hare fit right in.
William Burke and William Hare had both come to Scotland from their native Ulster, originally to build canals. There is no evidence that they ever met before the summer of 1827, when they each ended up in Edinburgh. The canals were finished, and they were out of work. Hare had become friendly with the widow Margaret Logue, who ran a boarding house in Tanner’s Close, just off the West Port. Burke, meanwhile, came to the city with his companion Helen McDougal, and the couple soon found lodgings with the Hares. Newspapers later described the boarding house as an “abode of profligacy, vice and drunkenness,” which made it no different from much of the neighbourhood.
The house, and indeed the whole street, is long gone, but it was not far from where you’re standing. It was there in November of 1827 that one of the Hares’ lodgers died of apoplexy. Mr Donald, an army pensioner, overweight and prone to gout, owed his landlady £4 when he died. Since they wouldn’t get the money any other way, Hare decided to sell the corpse. Burke agreed to help him for a share of the profits.
The two men replaced Mr Donald’s body in the coffin with a load of bark, and saw it safely buried. That night, they took the dead man out to sell. With little notion of how to go about it, or whom to take it to, they set out for the University. Burke carried the stout old man while Hare went on ahead.
Before you follow in their footsteps (hopefully without a body to carry), find the commemorative stone, laid to the glory of God, on the Salvation Army building by the stairs. It was laid on February 6th 19JK
3. So What Do We Do With This Dead Body?
N 55° 56.792
W 003° 11.410
In 1827, as now, this was a delivery entrance, but for Edinburgh University rather than a museum. Knowing only the name of an anatomy lecturer, Burke and Hare decided that this was the place to come to sell their first body. Burke was tired, having carried the late Mr Donald up the hill from the West Port. He stayed in the shadows with his grim companion while Hare did the talking.
The first person Hare spoke to was a student. As soon as he realised that the two men had a corpse to sell, he requested in the strongest terms that they not bring it onto the University grounds. Rather, he suggested that they take it to Dr Robert Knox, 10 Surgeon’s Square.
Hare took the corpse from the exhausted Burke, and the gruesome procession set off. They had to pass through the University district and cross the main road from Edinburgh to England on the way. The risk of detection was enormous. But under cover of darkness, the two men had the luck of fools and madmen; they were not caught.
Before you too go on the second leg of that night’s grim journey, look around you and take note of a number. You’ll need the second digit of the street address for the main door of J Donald and Co (China Merchants) Ltd. It is at number 1E.
4. The Boy Who Buys the Beef
N 55° 56.917
W 003° 10.993
Up the close and down the stair,
But and ben with Burke and Hare.
Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief,
Knox, the boy who buys the beef.
- 19th century Edinburgh jumping-rope rhyme
In 1827, the square where you’re standing was a pleasant place, inhabited by surgeons and doctors working in the nearby Infirmary. By Christmas of 1828, it was besieged by angry mobs, and its most notorious inhabitant was criticised in the newspapers and immortalised in children’s rhymes.
Burke and Hare first came here in November 1827, carrying the corpse of Hare’s apoplectic and overweight lodger. They had heard that Dr Robert Knox, of 10 Surgeon’s Square, would buy the body for dissection. It was late at night by this point, and if any of the other inhabitants of the square noticed two scruffy Irishmen carrying a dead body, they never remarked on it.
Knox’ doorman let the two in, and the doctor offered to pay just over £7 for their burden. Burke and Hare were delighted in their good fortune, and struck a deal with Dr Knox to sell him any other bodies that they happened across. The price they agreed was £10 per corpse in winter and £8 in summer.
The temptation of ready money was too much for the two men. Two months after selling Mr Douglas’ body to Knox, they were back with another of Hare’s lodgers. Joseph the Miller had been ill and in pain, and Burke and Hare decided that he was going to die. Rather than wait for events, they got him drunk and smothered him. Dr Knox bought the body, and asked no questions.
Over the next 11 months, Burke and Hare brought fifteen or twenty bodies (no one is sure of the exact number) to Surgeon’s Square. They came in tea chests and herring barrels, and never showed the slightest trace of dirt, winding-cloth or coffin. Even Dr Knox remarked on their freshness – a grim comment on what he must have been getting from other suppliers. All Burke and Hare’s corpses showed signs of having died while drunk.
Did Dr Knox know that Burke and Hare were making their own corpses? He denied it vociferously, in court and in letters to the local papers. But students recognised the subjects of at least two of Dr Knox’ dissections. Knox dismissed their questions, and nothing further came of it.
Should Dr Knox have known, or suspected that something was wrong? Almost definitely. But the business of buying the dead was illegal in itself. Having begun to break the law, he must have found it easier to turn a blind eye to worse crimes than grave robbery. He was never tried, but the scandal ruined his career.
Having visited the place they brought the bodies, come now to their hunting ground. But before you go on, note the year above the doorway of what is now the Research Centre for Social Sciences, Technology Studies Unit. The building dates back to 1N9D.
5. Fancy Coming Back to My Place for a Drink?
N 55° 56.922
W 003° 11.198
How fitting that we’re outside a pub, considering the role alcohol played in Burke and Hare’s murders. The area you’re standing in has always been a refuge for the down and out. In 1828, the area was rife with prostitutes and pickpockets, as well as honest people struggling to make a living. And in the nineteenth century, as now, the poor took comfort in drink. Our two murderers took advantage of this to hunt their prey.
In early 1828, Hare took to wandering around here with an open bottle of gin. He would strike up conversations with strangers, offer them a drink, and promise more back at his lodgings. In February, Abigail Simpson, a pensioner from out of town, was the first to take up the offer. Things didn’t go to plan – Burke and Hare passed out along with their intended victim. The next morning, Mrs Simpson woke with a ferocious hangover. Burke and Hare offered her more to drink until she was unconscions again, then smothered her. Knox received her body in a tea chest that evening, and commented that she was “very fresh”.
This became their pattern, and it worked like a charm. Over the course of the year, they abducted at least 15 people from the streets. Most of their victims were visitors from out of town, lost or looking for somewhere to pass the time before heading home. They simply vanished, unrecognised by the audience at Dr Knox’ dissections, missed only by people who didn’t know where to search. As the two got more daring, they even took one victim from the police, claiming to know the drunken woman the officers were escorting home. (She was, of course, never seen alive again.)
It was when the two murderers targeted locals that things got risky. On April 9, Burke invited two prostitutes to a whisky breakfast at his brother’s house on the Royal Mile. One of them, Mary Paterson, passed out and was quickly despatched. Her companion, Janet Brown, was still conscious when they were interrupted. Several students at Dr Knox' next dissection recognised Mary, who was popular in the university district. Janet, meanwhile, survived and spent the next seven months looking for her friend. It was pure coincidence that the students who recognised Mary’s body never heard Janet’s story.
The two men then went back to killing strangers until October of 1828. Then Hare bumped into a well-known local, Daft Jamie. Jamie lived on the streets, occasionally accepting the offer of a bed from the charitable. Did Jamie think Hare was offering drink or shelter? He went back to the boarding house and fell asleep on a spare bed, only waking when the two men tried to smother him. They overpowered him and sold him on to Knox. Again, students recognised the body on the dissection table, but no one knew his mother had missed him. The two men’s luck held.
Better move on, before some stranger offers you a drink. You never know it might lead. But first have a look at the plaques on the walls outside the pub. You’ll need a few numbers to find the last cache in this series.
- The year in which James Condie, a carpenter joiner, sold the building to the eldest James Mullen, a pawnbroker. It was 18GF.
- The year in which 53 Niddry Street became a leather merchant’s shop, run by W. Hutchison (18IH)
6. Poetic Justice
N 55° 56.950
W 003° 11.613
Burke and Hare should have been caught long before they were. Twice, the bodies they sold to Knox had been recognised, by people who knew the dead had been alive and well shortly before dissection. Twice, relatives and friends of the dead were looking for the missing. Had the witnesses bumped into the searchers, had Edinburgh’s gossip network operated a little faster, the body count would have been lower.
They did not escape a third time.
On November 1, 1828, one of Hare’s lodgers mislaid her stockings. Burke and Hare were waiting for nightfall while Ann Gray looked all over the boarding house. Despite warnings to the contrary, once the two men left the lodgings, she looked under the bed. What she found there caused her and her husband James to flee the building and go straight to the law. By the time the police came, the body of the old woman was no longer in place, but a neighbour mentioned seeing two men carrying a tea chest from the building. When Burke and his mistress returned home, the police arrested them. After an anonymous tip, the police called on Dr Knox and found the body, then tracked down Hare and his mistress.
The story of a year’s murders soon came out. But the evidence against the four was entirely circumstantial, and the police decided they needed a witness. They offered Hare the chance to turn King’s Evidence and testify in exchange for immunity. Hare seized the chance, and the trial of Burke and his mistress Helen McDonald began on Christmas Eve. By Christmas morning, the jury had found McDonald “not proven” and convicted Burke. The sentence was death.
William Burke was hanged on January 28, 1829, right near where you’re standing now. The entire area was jammed with 40,000 people, some of whom had waited all night to get a good view of the execution. As Burke was led to the scaffold, the crowd cried out so loud that you could hear it on Princes Street.
The murderer’s body was then sent to the University, where Dr Munro, the anatomy professor, used it in a lecture on the structure of the brain. On January 29, it was put on public display by popular demand. The skeleton was then preserved, and stands in the Edinburgh University museum of surgery to this day.
Burke’s confederates all fled Scotland in fear of their lives. Hare left for England, and was nearly lynched in Carlisle. He is said to have died a beggar in London. Helen McDonald escaped a mob in Newcastle, and may have emigrated to Australia. And Margaret Hare returned to Ireland and obscurity.
Unlike his poorer partners in crime, Dr Knox never faced trial, the gallows, or a threatened lynching. His house was mobbed and his lectures disrupted for some time. However, the real penalty for him was professional. Students simply didn’t wish to study with him, and Edinburgh University refused to take him on as a lecturer. He eventually moved to London and worked in the Cancer Hospital there. He died alone and embittered in 1862.
You now need only two numbers to get the co-ordinates for the final cache in the series. They are: The date on which the Duke of Edinburgh opened the reconstructed Scottish Central Library building. It was the 5th of November, 19CL.
7. Souvenir of an Execution
N AB° CD.EFG
W 0HI° JK.LMN
Opening hours 10am to 7:30 pm, seven days a week
Admission free (this is a non-commercial site)
You’ve walked their streets. You’ve heard their stories, and those of their innocent victims. Now it’s time to take the final step on the trail of Burke and Hare. Go to the information centre marked by a coloured lantern. Look in the upper glass case on the back wall for an extraordinary (and gruesome) souvenir of one of the grimmest stories in Edinburgh’s bloody history.
To log this cache, you must sign the visitor’s book in the information centre. Include the words “geocache”/”geocaching” and your username. When you post a "found" log on the cache page, you must also email me and describe the object in the glass case.
Public transport information:
The first stage is ten minutes' walk from Waverly Station, Edinburgh's main train station. All stages are in easy walking distance.