AT the west end of Princes Street, tucked away just off the Gardens there is a lovely piece of architecture – a round tower that overlooks the graveyard of St Cuthbert’s, the Kirk below the Castle.

The watchtower is now more decorative than anything, and it is let to tenants by Edinburgh Council, but it once had a very practical use in the capital. For it stood sentinel over the graveyard and helped combat the practice of bodysnatching.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Edinburgh University was leading the world in the science of anatomy. The law of Scotland at the time allowed the bodies of suicide victims – church rules denied them a Christian burial – as well as prisoners and orphans to be given up for dissection. Relatives usually preserved the graves of their dead family members, but the so-called Resurrection Men still managed to rob the graves of the dead and bring the cadavers to the likes of Dr Robert Knox, a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh and the leading anatomist in the city in the 1820s.

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The fresher the body, the higher the fee, with the top price usually £10 paid with no questions asked – a small fortune at a time when a labourer earned about a half crown a day (two shillings and sixpence, or 25p in modern money) or less.

Then along came two Irish immigrants to the capital who revolutionised the whole practice of bodysnatching. To put it bluntly, William Burke and William Hare cut out the hard part – the finding and digging up of bodies – and simply murdered their victims, selling on the corpses exclusively to Dr Knox.

Their story has become world famous, and has featured in factual and fictional accounts since it all happened back in 1827-28. Sir Walter Scott – more from him later – and Robert Louis Stevenson have fictionalised the characters, and there have been several films about the case.

The truth is that we still do not know exactly how many people Burke and Hare actually killed. The minimum number is 16, to which they admitted, but it could have been as many as 30. One thing both Burke and Hare were adamant about was that they never robbed a single grave.

There have been many factual accounts of their activities, but the best is that by Owen Dudley Edwards, upon whose book Burke and Hare this account relies greatly.

These are established facts: in November 1827, Burke was living in Edinburgh with his second common-law wife Helen McDougal – the style back then was M’Dougal – having left Ireland to become first a labourer on the Union Canal and then a cobbler in Edinburgh where Nelly, as Burke called her, hawked secondhand clothes to help bring in money.

Burke left a wife and children behind in Ireland, and was about 26 when he moved to Scotland in 1818.

Hare also left Ireland to work on the Union Canal before moving to Edinburgh, where he lived with and may have married a widow, also Irish, called Margaret Laird, who ran a boarding house in Tanner’s Close at the West Port between the Grassmarket and Lothian Road.

Dudley Edwards convincingly describes how their poor economic circumstances and intake of alcohol coupled with sheer greed led to Burke and Hare taking up their horrific trade.

The two men had met while working at the harvest in Penicuik, Midlothian, and soon became fast friends, with Burke and M’Dougal moving in with Hare and Laird – for sake of clarity, I’ll refer to the women by their given names in court. Burke and Hare both enjoyed a party and a drink – Burke was a noted Irish dancer – but the two women were quite different, Laird being described as a dour-faced virago and M’Dougal as charming and even vivacious. Still, the foursome seemed to have got on together, at least until they were discovered.

The first “victim” of Burke and Hare was not murdered at all. In November 1827 an old lodger of Hare’s, an army pensioner called Donald, died of dropsy while owing Hare £4 in back rent. There being no relatives anxious to bury the dead man, and with a coffin supplied by the local parish, Hare decided to sell the body and roped in Burke to help carry the cadaver to the university, where he received the princely sum of £7 10s from Dr Knox – Hare deducted his rent and gave the rest to Burke.

In January 1828, the killing began. We cannot be exactly sure of the sequence, but the first victim was likely a miller called Joseph, already ill with fever, who was suffocated by Hare while Burke sat on his chest.

They did the same to a male English traveller, then killed Abigail Simpson, a pensioner and salt seller, by the method that is still known as “Burking” – smothering the victim and compressing her chest while she was intoxicated. By accident, they had hit upon the perfect way to murder people – it would be many years before forensic science would develop a way of detecting such suffocations.

Knox paid £10 for the fresh bodies, and asked no questions. Burke and Hare were on their way, and the victims soon piled up.

Two women, one of them unknown, were killed in March and April, but a third, Janet Brown, escaped after Burke and M’Dougal had a row. Her companion, Mary Paterson or Mitchell, was taken to Knox, who found the body still warm and preserved her in whisky.

Four more women died the same way – plied with drink by Burke and killed by both men. They then killed a woman lodger and her grandson, a dumb boy whose expression disturbed Burke as he compressed his nose and mouth to kill him. Hare’s horse refused to carry the bodies in a cart so the poor beast was promptly shot.

There was then a serious row between Burke and Hare. The former had gone with Nelly to see her family in Falkirk and when they came back they found Hare with new clothes, the result of a murder-sale. They had a huge fight but made up again.

The killings soon recommenced. A washerwoman named Ostler, a relative of M’Dougal’s named Ann, and then “Daft” Jamie Wilson, a well-known local character who was recognised by some of Knox’s students.

On October 31 1828, they killed their final victim and made a complete botch of it.

Two lodgers, Ann and James Gray, became suspicious and while Burke and Hare and their wives were absent, they searched a bedroom and found the body of Margaret Docherty, a middle-aged Irish woman. They went for the police.

Not knowing of the discovery, Burke and Hare removed the body to Knox’s surgery, but they were soon arrested.

NOW to the trial: Hare decided to turn King’s Evidence, which also meant his wife could not be prosecuted, while Burke and M’Dougal stood trial for three murders.

The Lord Advocate, Sir William Rae, decided to go for a quick trial after Burke confessed in a bid to save Nelly M’Dougal.

The trial before Lord Boyle began on Christmas Eve. The Edinburgh Courant reported: “No trial that has taken place for a number of years past has excited such an unusual and intense interest; all the doors and passages to the court were accordingly besieged at an early hour, even before daylight.

“A few minutes before 10 o’clock, the prisoners were brought to the bar. Burke is of a short and rather stout figure, and was dressed in a shabby blue surtout. There is nothing in his physiognomy, except perhaps a dark lowering of the brow, to indicate any peculiar harshness or cruelty of disposition…

“The female prisoner appeared to be more disturbed; every now and then her breast heaved with a deep drawn sigh, and her looks were desponding.”

The Courant continued: “Witness Ann Black had testified that she had asked M’Dougal, ‘what had become of the old woman?’ and she replied, that Burke and her had been too friendly together, and she had kicked her out of the house, asking, at the same time, ‘Did you hear it?’

“Burke asked, if witness had heard the dispute between him and Hare? And she said no; he added, it was just a fit of drink, and they were friends enough now.”

She then testified about the events immediately before the arrest: “Did not see Burke till far on in the night, till it was reported that he had murdered a woman. Mrs Burke laughed very loud, and he said he defied all Scotland, for he had done nothing he cared about, she said no one breathing could impeach them with anything that was indifferent.

“Burke said he would go and see the man who said he had done amiss – and when he went to the passage the police apprehended him.”

As was usual in those days, the trial continued uninterrupted through the night until the following morning, Christmas Day, when the jury, apparently convinced by Burke and Hare’s very similar account of events, found the former guilty but gave a verdict of not proven against Helen M’Dougal.

Shortly afterwards no less a personage than Sir Walter Scott, then a sheriff with access to legal papers, mused on the sequence of events in a letter to the editor of the Edinburgh Advertiser.

Scott wrote: “There is a slip in which Burke’s confession differs from that of Hare. They give the same account of the number and the same description of the victims, but they differ in the order of time in which they were committed.

“Hare stated with great probability that the body of Joseph, the miller, was the second sold (that of the old pensioner being the first), and, of course, he was the first man murdered. Burke, with less likelihood, asserts the first murder to have been that of a female lodger.

“I am apt to think Hare was right, for there was an additional motive to reconcile them to the deed in the miller’s case — the fear that the apprehensions entertained through the fever would discredit [the house], and the consideration that there was, as they might [think], less harm in killing a man who was to die at any rate.

“It may be worth your reporter’s while to know this, for it is a step in the history of the crime. It is not odd that Burke, acted upon as he seems always to [have been] by ardent spirits, and involved in a constant succession of murther, should have misdated the two actions. On the whole, Hare and he, making separate confessions, agree wonderfully. — Yours, W. Scott.”

William Burke was hanged – he was slowly strangled rather than having his neck broken – in front of a crowd of 25,000 on January 28, 1829. As decreed by the trial judge, his body was dissected, and some of his skin was used to wrap a book. It can be seen with his death mask at Surgeons’ Hall Museum. His skeleton is still at Edinburgh Medical School at the University.

Knox was not even called as a witness, but his reputation was ruined and he eventually left for London. No one knows exactly what happened to Helen M’Dougal, Margaret Laird or William Hare.

There was soon a poem circulating in Edinburgh:

Through the close

And up the stair;

But and ben wi’ Burke and Hare.

Burke’s the butcher,

Hare’s the thief,

And Knox the boy who buys the

beef.