On Halloween, 1828, sometime before 11 pm, Hugh Alston, a grocer in the West Port district of Edinburgh, heard two men quarrelling from the floor below, and a woman’s strong voice calling “Murder.” The tenant downstairs was William Burke, a shoemaker; Alston may have guessed that the other man was Burke’s associate William Hare, who lived a few streets away. Alston went downstairs and stood in the passageway. He heard more quarreling, then strangling sounds, and the woman’s voice, still strong, called for the police to come, there was “murder here.” With that Alston went for the police, but found none: Halloween was a traditionally raucous night, and they were either making their rounds or enjoying the fun. When Alston returned, all was quiet.
By that time, Madgy Docherty, the last of the 16 victims of Burke and Hare, was already dead. Drunk and dizzy from whiskey, she had lain down, or been pushed, onto the bed during the quarrel. Burke positioned himself on top of her to compress her lungs, and Hare covered her mouth and nose with his hands. Her face became livid, and blood-flecked saliva came from her mouth. There was no real struggle – Burke, though small, was solidly built, and he and Hare had done this sort of thing before. Once she was dead, they stripped her body and put it under a pile of straw near the bed. Its final destination: the dissecting rooms of Dr. Robert Knox, anatomical lecturer in Surgeon’s Square.
Lisa Rosner is Professor of History at Stockton College, Pomona, NJ, where she is also Interim Director of the South Jersey Center for Digital Humanities. Anatomy Murders, the third book in her Edinburgh Trilogy, has allowed her to delve ever-deeper into the seamy side of early modern medicine. For more on Burke and Hare, including animated walking tours through 1820s Edinburgh and a re-creation of an anatomical dissection, visit http://burkeandhare.com.
IMAGE: Madgy Docherty; Used by permission of the Library of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh