West Port Murders

The use of bodies for dissection is essential for the teaching of anatomy but the legitimate supply in the early eighteenth-century was severely limited. Prior to the passing of the Anatomy Act of 1832, bodies could only be used for dissection if derived from executions and even these were restricted. For much of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century the demand was largely met by the practice of grave-robbing, with the bodies being sold to surgeons on a no-questions-asked basis. The heavily fortified tombs in Greyfriars and other churchyards reflect the fears of the bereaved.

Burke and Hare were not, however, as is sometimes suggested, grave-robbers but murderers who lured itinerant strangers to the squalid slum they occupied in Tanners Close off the West Port. Here the strangers were killed and the bodies transported to Surgeon’s Square, where they were sold to the assistants of Dr Robert Knox. It is believed that about sixteen persons met their fate in this manner before the pair were brought to justice. Hare turned King’s evidence, whilst Burke was found guilty and executed. Hare was then released and fled via Dumfries. His subsequent fate is unclear though there is a local legend that he settled at Camustiel, in Ross and Cromarty, and took up the trade of a weaver. Knox, who was not prosecuted, was nevertheless popularly believed to be fully aware of the source of the bodies and was obliged to leave the city. A popular ditty of the day went:

Burke’s the butcher

Hare’s the thief

Knox the boy who buys the beef

I have been in the habit of occasionally republishing significant books on Edinburgh. These very small editions of 500 copies or include Arnot’s History of Edinburgh and a compilation of the antique maps of the city. The discovery of a copy of the scarce The West Port Murders provided me with an opportunity to re-publish an accurate contemporary account of the Burke and Hare case and a book peculiarly suited to the West Port imprint.

The West Port Murders was first published in 1829, shortly after the execution of Burke. It includes a full transcript of the trial, contemporary newspaper reports, pen portraits of the principal characters (including biographies of Burke and Hare), their confessions, descriptions of the murders and a description of the execution. There was considerable controversy at the time at the failure to prosecute Hare and his wife and the book contains lengthy legal discussions of this and of other legal issues raised by the case. Phrenology, or the interpretation of character from the external morphology of the head, was a very popular practice in the nineteenth century and the book contains a detailed phrenological analysis of Burke, together with a somewhat sceptical critique. A lengthy chapter describes the escape of Hare via Dumfries, where he was recognised by a mob and besieged in the police station. The book vividly depicts the contemporary scene and the extent to which the case and the popular reaction to it dominated the city at the time: newspaper circulation soared by c.8000 and over 35,000 persons witnessed the execution. The body of Burke was, by order of the judge, publicly dissected and many thousands subsequently trooped through the anatomy theatre to see it.

The West Port at this time was one of the more squalid parts of the city, with poor houses and cheap lodgings, and remained so for many years. Grant in Old and New Edinburgh comments: ‘The West Port has long been degraded by the character of its inhabitants, usually Irish of the lowest class.’ Tanners Close was near the head of the West Port and was demolished with the construction of Argyle house in 1966.

The Anatomy Act of 1832 permitted the dissection of unclaimed pauper bodies from workhouses and hospitals, etc, and so helped stamp out the worst aspects of a profoundly unsavoury trade. The book has been reset and includes the original illustrations of the principal characters, the house of Burke and Hare and of the execution of Burke.

The West Port Murders, £14.95, West Port Books.

Copyright Bert Barrott 2005.