The story of Burke and Hare and the West Port murders is one of Edinburgh's most sensational crime stories. In the early 19th century, Edinburgh's medical school was one of the most pioneering and advanced in the world. However, there was a shortage of corpses with which students could work. Dissection was still considered a fate only worthy of a condemned man, even by those eking out an existence in the slum.
However, with a reduction in the number of Edinburgh hangings there was a shortage in the supply of cadavers with which medical students could practice, leading to some desperados to resort to the illegal practice of body-snatching - so called "resurrectionists" - from Edinburgh graveyards which they would then "donate" to the medical school in return for a few pounds.
William Burke and William Hare, two irish labourers, went a step further. Instead of skulking about in graveyards and dodging graveyard watches, they became purveyors of fresh corpses.
Burke was living with his mistress Helen Macdougal in a lodging-house at Tanner's Close in West Port in Edinburgh in 1827, kept by William Hare. When an old army pensioner, one of Hare's lodgers, died leaving rent arrears of £4 the pair stole his body from the coffin and sold it to Edinburgh anatomist Dr Robert Knox for £7, 10s. Hare quickly realised here was an easy method of making a profitable livelihood.
In the ensuing two years, the two men preyed upon mainly old people and prostitutes, inviting them into Hare's house for a drink, inebriating them, and then suffocating them, taking care to leave no marks of violence. The bodies were sold to Dr Knox for prices averaging from £8 to £14.
In his trial Burke explained: "Neither Hare nor myself ever got a body from a churchyard. All we sold were murdered save the first one, which was that of the woman (man) who died a natural death in Hare's house. We began with that: our crimes then commenced. The victims we selected were generally elderly persons. They could be more easily disposed of than persons in the vigour of".
There were at least seventeen Burke and Hare victims before suspicions were aroused. Medical students started recognising some of the victims - a local prostitute Mary Patterson, an elderly prostitute Mary Haldane, a mentally retarded 18-year-old boy with a limp, "daft Jamie" - even when Knox, apparently in collusion with the murderers, disfigured the cadavers before exposing them to his students.
Burke and Hare were arrested in 1828. Hare turned king's evidence, and Burke was found guilty and hanged at the Lawnmarket, the Royal Mile, on the 28th January 1829. Burke's body was publicly dissected at the Edinburgh Medical College and his skeleton, death mask, and items such as a leather wallet made from his tanned skin are now displayed at the Royal College of Surgeon's museum.
Hare found it impossible, in view of the strong popular feeling, to remain in Scotland. He is believed to have died in England under an assumed name. MacDougal was released, since her complicity to the murders was not provable.
The story of Edinburgh's gruesome twosome is one of the most pointed examples of the dark side of the age of the Edinburgh Enlightenment, with its flowering of science and knowledge.
Burke said that they were encouraged in their actions by the medical school ("They generally pressed us to get more bodies for them") but Dr. Knox was not prosecuted, despite public uproar but due to lack of evidence to show that he knew of the origin of the corpses.