The Darker Side of Life in Old Ireland III

Burke and Hare

In 1828 a bizarre proposal appeared in a London Newspaper suggesting a means to alleviate the shortage of corpses for dissection:

Let the body of every Irish pauper, who comes to this country uninvited, and dies here, be given to the anatomical schools. The plan would relieve us in a great measure from the influx of Paddies, as they would much rather deposit their bodies at home, than give at all events, a few additional subjects to our anatomists.

burke_and_hare 2It shows the attitudes held by the English for the Irish, but it was only one of a number of solutions being put forward at this time to increase the number of human bodies that could be made available for dissection, including the first ‘Anatomy Bill’ (1829). In the meantime, however, for several years two Irishmen living in Edinburgh had begun working on their own solution to the problem in that city. The names of Burke and Hare are well known to history as resurrectionists who decided it was more profitable for them to cut out the ‘middleman’, including the undertaker, in their corpse supply chain to the medical professionals. At the height of their activities they were considered ‘resurrectionists’, but they had moved on to secretly providing freshly murdered corpses to their customers. These crimes were not detected until November 1828, after they had sold seventeen bodies to the anatomist Robert Knox, sixteen of which they had suffocated to death. Part of the trouble for Burke and Hare was the fact that in 1828 Knox’s anatomy school required the huge number of four hundred bodies for its students, and the Edinburgh authorities had, in the meantime, made great advances to prevent grave robbing, which had caused Knox to import more and more bodies from Ireland.

William Burke was a native of Urney, Co Tyrone, and his companion, William Hare, was said to have come from the parish of Newry in County Armagh and was some years younger than Burke. Any real information concerning Hare is scarce, especially when looking into his birth, his life in Ireland, or the circumstances which had brought him to Scotland. Even more mysterious is that any information we may have about what happened to him is unreliable and from unofficial sources. By the time they were caught Burke and Hare had already been in Scotland for about ten years and were initially employed on the construction of the Union Canal. It appears that the men had met in Edinburgh in the mid- 1820s and immediately formed a friendship.

burke_and_hare 4
William Burke’s Skeleton on Display

On Christmas Eve 1828 the trial of Burke and Hare began and, famously, the latter turned ‘King’s Evidence’ against Burke, who was found guilty the very next day. William Burke was publicly hanged on 28 January 1829, and duly dissected like many of those he had delivered up to the anatomy students. But such was the man’s fame that a procession of thousands, including seven women, filed past to view his corpse on display. In fact, Burke’s skeleton can still be viewed in the ‘Anatomy Museum of Edinburgh University’ and a book, allegedly made from William Burke’s skin’, is apparently held by the ‘Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh’. William Hare’s wife, Margaret (née Laird), was released on 19 January and, taking their baby, went to Glasgow where she was mobbed, before she managed to board a steam ship going to Belfast. Subsequent court proceedings against Hare were unsuccessful and he was eventually released on 5 February 1829.

After being released from custody, a disguised William Hare was put on a coach for Dumfries, where, despite his disguise, he was soon recognized and forced to seek safety in a hotel by a large, shouting mob. He wanted to take the packet boat to Ireland that set sail from Portpatrick but was not permitted to board a coach to take him there. He was, however, given refuge in the town jail and, reluctantly leaving behind his cloak and bundle, was put on the road to England by the police who now washed their hands of him. Reports state that Hare was last seen about two miles beyond the border town of Carlisle’. The ‘Belfast Guardian’ reported that the mob had not beaten Hare while he was in Dumfries but suggested that wherever Hare went, he would carry the curses hatred of every human being.

‘The Northern Whig’at this time reported its belief that Hare would “take Belfast in the way of his return towards his native country” and would certainly to try to sail to Donaghadee. Stating – “A rumour having become prevalent in Donaghadee, … that Hare the murderer was on his was [sic] from Portpatrick to this town, the inhabitants flocked to the harbour to get a glimpse of the sanguinary ruffian. All were anxiety until the Steam Packet, in which Hare was said to have taken his passage, arrived. When she landed, the passengers were eyed attentively for a considerable time; at last, one was suspected, who is said to have the sullen mien of a murderer. He no sooner landed, than it was intimated to him that he was Hare; he replied that he was not Hare, but had been taken for him in Dumfries, where he had to fly from the fury of the populace. This was not satisfactory; and he had not proceeded many steps till he was in the centre of a circle, and the object of as much curiosity as the stranger with the long nose, in Strasbourg. At length, an acquaintance recognised, and asserted he was not Hare and the people quietly dispersed.”

On the 20 March 1829 the same newspaper that Hare had been arrested in Newcastle in England on suspicion of committing more murders. But there is no reliable information as to what happened to him, although there were rumours that he had returned to his family in Ireland. The truth of this rumour is said to have been demonstrated a few weeks later when Hare’s sister turned up in Dumfries to successfully recover his belongings.

Naturally the mystery surrounding Hare’s fate gave rise to many stories being told, including one that said he was blinded in a lime pit in Carlisle, or that he ended his days as a beggar on the Strand in London. There was one report from the ‘Northern Whig’ of 23 March 1829, less than seven weeks after Hare was released from jail, that told its readers:

burke_and_hare 5“On Friday evening last [20 March] , Hare the murderer called in a public-house in Scarva, accompanied by his wife and child, and having ordered a naggin of whiskey, he began to enquire for the welfare of every member of the family of the house, with well-affected solicitude.- However, as Hare is a native of this neighbourhood, he was very soon recognised, and ordered to leave the place immediately, with which he complied, after attempting to palliate his horrid crimes by describing them as having been the effects of intoxication. He took the road towards Loughbrickland, followed by a number of boys, yelling and threatening in such a manner as obliged him to take through the fields, with such speed that he soon disappeared, whilst his unfortunate wife remained on the road, imploring forgiveness, and denying, in the most solemn manner, any participation in the crimes of her wretched husband. They now reside at the house of an uncle of Hare’s, near Loughbrickland. Hare was born and bred about one half mile distant from Scarva, in the opposite County of Armagh; and shortly before his departure from this country, he lived in the service of Mr. Hall, the keeper of the eleventh lock, near Poyntzpass. He was chiefly engaged in driving the horses, which his master employed in hauling lighters on the Newry Canal. He was always remarkable for being of a ferocious and malignant disposition, an instance of which he gave in killing one of his master’s horses, which obliged him to fly to Scotland, where he perpetrated those unparalleled crimes that must always secure him a conspicuous place in the annals of murder.”

There are a number of issues raised in this report that have some truth in them e.g. Hare had been reunited with his wife and a ‘yellow-faced’ one-year-old child, of unknown gender, who is recorded as having suffered from whooping cough during the trial. The suggestion that Hare blames his crimes on the effects of alcohol, demonstrates the alcoholic’s talent for manipulating the truth. But the report states that Hare was born in Armagh, narrowing his place of birth down to two townlands in the parish of Ballymore. The Tithe Books of 1830 show that a John Hare did live in the townland of Monclone. At the same time, the report also states that a Mr Hall was the keeper of the eleventh lock on the Newry Canal and this is confirmed by the ‘Office of Public Works, Directors of Inland Navigation Records (1800-30)’. They establish that in 1801 a Walter Hall was keeper of the eleventh lock at the village of Poyntzpass, the residence only being demolished around 1980. Walter Hall died in January 1821 and was succeeded by Alexander Hall, probably a son, who was still held in the post when the canal was privatised in 1830.

There are reports that suggest that William Hare eventually died within the walls od the workhouse in Kilkeel, County Down. In the journal ‘The British Weekly’ of 14th July 1921 it was reported: “it is common knowledge in the little town of Kilkeel, Co. Down, that Hare died in the Union Workhouse there, and is buried in the grounds attached thereto. While there he made an unsuccessful attempt to commit suicide by cutting his throat and was then attended by the local doctor, who was a student at Edinburgh University at the time of the murders. This information was given to my father by the doctor himself. Some years ago there was, in the ‘Weekly Scotsman’ , a very graphic account of Hare’s adventures after his escape. There it was stated that Hare was a native of Carlingford, Co. Louth, which is only a short distance as the crow flies from Kilkeel, so it is easily understood that he would make for the district he knew on gaining his freedom. Kilkeel was for long an isolated town, so this may explain why these facts were not known long ago.”

The contents of this report have proved impossible to prove or disprove since the register of inmates for Kilkeel Union has not survived, and even if it had there is a case that Hare may well have used an alias. Moreover, if Hare had survived until 1864, his death may have been officially registered, but the question remains, ‘under what name?’ Besides, the extension of the ‘Poor Law Amendment Act’ to Ireland in 1838 brought with it a form of the English workhouse system, under which the workhouse managers could dispose of unclaimed bodies for dissection. Some would say that it would have been an ironic fate if William Hare did finish his days in the ‘Kilkeel Workhouse’ where, on his death, his body would have been given up for dissection.

There is an interesting footnote to the career of Burke and Hare that occurred in ‘The Belfast Guardian’ in March 1829. It was an observation made in a letter that chiefly concerned Burke, stating: “By his conduct the public mind has been excited, long gathering prejudices against anatomists have been increased and strengthened, and odium has been cast on the Medical profession inimical to the well-being of society. The excitation of public feeling thus occasioned, if rightly improved, however, instead of proving unfriendly or injurious to the Medical Profession should, and, we trust, ultimately tend to its advantage; yes, and to prevent, too, the recurrence of such tragic scenes of murder and exhumation as have lately so often disgraced the columns of the public prints, have ranked us lower than the very savage, and have caused the warm blood of humanity to flow back in the arteries and freeze in the heart, whilst it is thrilled with horror. For it should be the means of causing those whose province it is to devise and effect an anatomical reform, then Burke was a useful member of society.”

Although we have no clues as to the writer’s identity, the letter certainly came across as a statement of common sense at a time when most criticism was the result of hysterical, albeit totally justifiable, public outrage which had been aroused by the ‘Burke and Hare Scandal.’ The letter’s author strongly recommended the importance of the authorities having full control of the licensing of anatomy schools and their licensing to teach anatomy to the student doctors. However, any idea that the scandal had brought about the introduction of ‘The Anatomy Act 1832’ is wrong, although it may have contributed to it some small way.

burke_and_hare 3.jpgIn fact, six months prior to the crimes of Burke and Hare being made public, a select committee had been established to draft an ‘Anatomy Bill’, which was first introduced in 1828. It was, however, thrown out by the House of Lords in 1829 to make way for the ‘Reform Bill.’ But the growth in the copycat crime of ‘burking’ (called after William Burke and recalling his actions.) that caused the ‘Second Anatomy Bill’ to be introduced to Parliament in 1831. In January that year there was a case of ‘burking’, which took place in Ballylesson, Co.Down in Northern Ireland. Subsequently, Charles and Agnes Clarke of Drumbo were tried for the murder of an ‘unknown person’ and Daniel M’Connell, whom they had entrapped with ‘the pretence of hospitality.’ Agnes Clarke then tried to sell M’Connell’s body to a surgeon at Antrim Infirmary who raised the alarm. Quite how she proposed to market a body with multiple hatchet wounds to the head is unclear, but she claimed that the death was the result of ‘a stone quarry falling’. Partly on the testimony of their own daughter, the couple were found guilty of M’Connell’s murder and hanged on 5 August. Their bodies remained hanging for a long time because they could not convince to give or hire a car for the removal of their bodies. Eventually, a few men were got to carry them on their shoulders’ to Down Infirmary, where their bodies were dissected.

There is evidence to suggest that at this time a ‘Burker’ dispatched his victims by offering them snuff laced with arsenic, while another grisly incidents of ‘burking’ happened in London, committed by John Head (alias Thomas Williams), John Bishop and James May. It was stated that they murdered their victims by first drugging them and then suspending them head-first down a well. Their killing spree had begun in the summer of 1830, but it was the murder of a fourteen-year-old Italian boy, Carlo Ferrari, which led to their arrest in November 1831. Carlo used to carry a revolving squirrel cage containing two white mice and a tortoise, and his death was considered particularly nasty because the boy’s teeth were removed using hardened steel awl, known as a bradawl. Bishop and Williams confessed to three murders, and the ‘Second Anatomy Bill’ was introduced in December 1831, just ten days after they were hanged. Parliament passed the Act in 1832 and came into force for the entire United Kingdom on 1st August.

From this point onward it was at the discretion of the ‘Secretary for Ireland’ to grant the licenses necessary to practice anatomy. The Act also made provision for an inspectorate to be established and the first ‘Inspector of Anatomy’ for Dublin was Sir James Murray, who had strong Belfast connections. Murray was to hold this important post for almost forty years and is known as the inventor milk of magnesia. He was also employed as the resident physician to the marquis of Angelsey, who sponsored him for a knighthood because of his services. The ‘resurrectionist’ trade was ended through this ‘Anatomy Act’ although the legislation itself was never perfect. Nevertheless, it was to remain in place until the inception of the ‘National Health Service in 1948’ and the introduction of the 1984 Anatomy Act. In Northern Ireland it was finally replaced by the ‘Anatomy (NI) Order of 1992’.

Finally, the rise of the anatomy schools and their ghastly relationship with the resurrectionists was a squalid affair and did nothing to improve the public perception of the ethics of the medical profession of the day and reflects the modern day’s growing international trade in organs for transplantation.

Dublin, the Irish capital, became an important centre for the export of bodies to other parts of the United Kingdom because of its thriving resurrection trade. Market forces and better transportation drove the traffic to new levels, which were detrimental to the supply of bodies to the local anatomy schools. Belfast and its hinterland, on the other hand, lacked a resurrection trade because there was no local, large scale anatomy school to create one. Dublin’s trade in bodies was carried out on an industrial scale while in Belfast it appeared the trade never amounted to much more than a cottage industry, but the true prevalence of resurrectionist activity in Ulster will never be known. From the frequency of contemporary newspaper reports, and even though the practice often went undetected, it is unlikely that the average annual total amounted to more than a few dozen. Indeed, even at its height in the late 1820s, it is probable that the total did not stray much into triple figures. This trade from Ulster seems to have been sustained by just a few individuals, sporadic visits by gangs of resurrectionists from Scotland and some opportunistic freelancers. The coming of regular steamships travelling the Belfast to Glasgow route from 1818 and the burgeoning demand in the Scottish medical schools did vastly improve the trade until the 1832 Anatomy Act finally put an end to it. It was, in fact, the act’s stifling of a free market, by legalizing the supply of bodies but not increasing it, which contributed to the decline in the trade, which coincided with an upsurge in the popularity and influence of the medical schools of Paris and Dublin.