Burke was born in Urney near Strabane in Ireland, where he married and had two children. He worked a number of trades and also served as an officer in the Donegal Militia. Around 1817, he abandoned his family and went to Scotland, working as a navigator at the Union Canal, which was being constructed at the time, where he met a Scotswoman named Helen McDougal and worked a few odd jobs, including as a weaver, baker, and laborer. Like Burke, Hare also immigrated to Scotland from Ireland. His year and place of birth is uncertain, but he also worked for the Union Canal at the same time as Burke, though it's unknown if they ever met there. In 1826, he took over a lodging house in the West Port of Edinburgh, Scotland after marrying Margaret Laire, the widow of the previous owner. She ran it in his absense while he continued working on the Canal. In late 1828, Burke and McDougal moved into the lodging house.
Killings, Capture, and Incarceration
Burke and Hare discovered the business potential in death in November of 1827 when a lodger at the lodging house, an old army pensioner named Donald, passed away owing Hare 4£ in rent money. To get the money, they stole his body from its coffin, filled it with timber and took it to an anatomy school headed by Dr. Robert Knox, who paid them 7£. The windfall gave the duo blooded tooth; when another tenant, a miller named Joseph, got a fever a few days later, Burke and Hare got him drunk and suffocated him with a pillow, making it look like he died of natural causes. They then took his body to Knox's anatomy school and sold it for 10£. In February the following year, they did the same to a woman named Abigail Simpson, bringing her to the lodging house, getting her drunk, killing her and selling her corpse for the same sum. Over the following months, they killed a total of 15 additional people. They were caught around Halloween after killing a woman named Mary Docherty. When a couple who were staying at the lodging house, James and Ann Gray, found her body, they fled. When they came back in the morning, the body was gone. When Helen McDougal tried to bribe them to keep what they saw a secret, they went to the police. When Burke and McDougal were questioned, they gave contradicting stories about where Docherty had gone; Burke said she had left at 7:00 p.m. the previous night, but McDougal said she had left at 7:00 a.m. the morning the Grays came back. Both were arrested. When an anonymous tip led the police to Docherty's body in Knox's anatomy school, the first of several victims that became attributed to them when rumors of people disappearing from the streets hit the newspapers, and so the game was up for Burke and Hare.
Because the prosecution's evidence was slim and circumstantial at best, they offered to let one of them go in exchange for testifying against the other. Hare became the one who walked free. Burke was found guilty and sentenced to death, though Helen McDougal went free. While awaiting execution, Burke wrote a confession telling about 16 murders he had committed (Hare had sold at least one body, presumably a murder victim, alone while Burke was on holiday with McDougal). On January 29, 1829, Burke was hanged. His skeleton is currently on display at the University of Edinburgh's Anatomical Museum. The ultimate fates of Helen McDougal, Hare, and Margaret Hare are unknown, though they were all targeted by angry mobs for their parts in the killings. Some stories say Hare was blinded during an attack and spent the rest of his life as a blind beggar, though they are unconfirmed. McDougal, after being attacked twice, is said to have moved to Australia and lived there until her passing in 1868. Margaret Hare is believed to have moved back to Ireland after the trial. Knox, whose payments encouraged Burke and Hare to kill and steal cadavers, was not prosecuted for his part in the murders, which angered many. He continued practicing and teaching, but this changed when the 1832 Anatomy Act, which expanded the legal supply of cadavers to medical schools in order to reduce body-snatching activities like those of Burke and Hare, was passed. As a result, his number of students plummeted as more medical schools got access to corpses to use in teaching and nobody wanted to be taught by him because of his involvement in the murders. His medical career affected by the case, he spent the rest of his life working at a cancer hospital in Glasgow.
Burke and Hare targeted people from the lower classes of society and lived at other communities (either ones who stayed at Hare's lodging house or random pedestrians from the street) to avoid suspicion, although they became careless and started targeting other victims. After luring them somewhere private, they would get them drunk to the point of near-unconsciousness. They would then kill them by suffocating them by sitting on their chests so their arms were pinned down and blocking their noses and mouths with their bare hands (it has become known since as "burking") or simply smothering them with a pillow. The cadavers were then sold to Dr. Knox's medical school at handsome prices.
The London Burkers
John Bishop and Thomas Williams, a.k.a. "The London Burkers", were a second team of profit killers who were inspired by Burke, Hare, and their crimes. The two confessed to have drugged and murdered two boys and one woman in Bethnal Green, Greater London, in 1830, in order to sell their bodies to local medical institutions. They were assisted by Michael Shields and James May, who helped transport the bodies of their victims. Bishop also confessed to have sold between 500 and 1,000 fresh bodies stolen from cemeteries in a span of twelve years. Bishop and Williams were sentenced to death and hanged on December 5, 1831. Afterwards, their bodies were donated to medical institutions for dissection.
- February: "Joseph the Miller" (pseudonym; real name unrevealed)
- February 11: Abigail Simpson
- April 9: Mary Patterson, 18
- "Effie" (pseudonym; real name unrevealed)
- An unnamed woman and her grandson
- June: Margaret Haldene
- September: Mrs. Ostler (first name unrevealed)
- Ann McDougal
- Elizabeth Haldane
- Peggy Haldane
- October: James "Daft Jamie" Wilson, 18
- October 31: Marjory Campbell Docherty
On Criminal Minds
- TruTV Crime Library articles about Burke and Hare
- Summary of Burke's life by Radford University's Department of Psychology
- Only In Edinburgh online article about Burke and Hare
- Robert Keller's blog article about Burke and Hare
- Evil Beyond Belief (2009)