Although the murders attributed to Burke and Hare, often referred to as The West Port Murders, occurred in Scotland’s capital city, the men were not natives of that country. Both hailed from the province of Ulster in Northern Ireland but emigrated to Scotland sometime around 1817 to work as canal digging labourers in Edinburgh. Hare became acquainted with the owner of a lodging house during his stay in the city and when the owner passed away, Hare married his widow and they ran the lodging house together.
Burke became acquainted with Hare when he moved into Hare’s lodging house with his partner, Helen McDougal and many nights were spent in each other’s company, enjoying a drink. It was out of this friendship, that a murderous partnership was forged. When an elderly tenant of Hare’s died of natural causes, leaving an unpaid bill, the two decided to sell the body to the medical school at the University of Edinburgh in order to recoup the loss. The body was refused, but a student pointed them in the direction of an anatomist named Dr. Robert Knox. Knox had a private anatomy school and therefore had a great demand for cadavers due to the number of dissections he regularly performed for the benefit of his anatomy students. Burke and Hare sold the corpse to Knox for seven pounds and ten shillings and it was made known to the duo that they could always call again should they have a fresh corpse for sale.
This comment obviously stuck in the minds of the pair as, indeed, they did return with another body but this time they had not obtained the corpse by natural means. Joseph Miller, a tenant of Hare, had fallen ill and the two Irishmen decided to speed up the natural process and put him out of his misery. Burke and Hare plied him with whisky and then smothered him.
Burke and Hare’s second victim was an elderly woman named Abigail Simpson. Faced with a long walk home in the particularly harsh winter of that year, the men persuaded her to stay at the lodging house for the night. Here she was served strong liquor until she passed out and Burke and Hare then suffocated her by covering her nose and mouth. This technique, which later would become known as ‘Burking’, left no marks or sign of a struggle, and unmarked corpses would command a higher price. This method, obviously, also disguised evidence of murder.
Dr. Knox paid them the sum of ten pounds for the body as it was so fresh. Having killed a second time, the act of murder had become less…