Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Burke, William (1792-1829)

BURKE, WILLIAM (1792–1829), criminal, was born in the parish of Orrery, in the county of Cork, in 1792, and seems to have been a vagabond from his birth. He went to Scotland in 1818 as a labourer, and worked on the Union canal at Mediston. Little more is known of him until 1827, when he appears in Log's lodging-house, Tanner's Close, Edinburgh, an establishment kept by William Hare. An old pensioner, named Donald, dying in this house on 29 Nov. in that year, Burke and Hare, instead of having the body buried, sold it for 7l 10s. to Dr. Robert Knox [q. v.], surgeon, for purposes of dissection. So large a sum so easily procured procured proved sadly ominous. Hare, the more evil of the two men, suggested a further stroke of business, namely, to inveigle unknown and obscure wayfarers into the lodging-house and then kill them. During the following months they, assisted by their wives, murdered at least fifteen persons, their method of proceeding being to invite the victims into various homes, make them drunk, and then suffocate them in such a manner that no signs of violence appeared on the bodies. The corpses of all these were sold to Dr. Knox’s school of anatomy for prices averaging from 8l. to 14l. At last, on 31 Oct. 18, they suffocated, in Burke’s house, a poor old woman, called Margery Campbell or Docherty, and disposed of the body in the usual manner; but the suspicions of the neighbours having been aroused, the police were communicated with, and the corpse was found in a box in a cellar in Dr. Knox’s house. Burke was tried for the murder in the High Court of Justiciary at Edinburgh on 24 Dec. 1828, when William Hare, the partner in his crimes, being admitted king's evidence, his guilt was clearly proved, and he was hanged on 28 Jan. 1829 amid the execrations of a vast assemblage, who cried out ‘Burke him!’ ‘Burke him!'

William Hare was a native of Londonderry, and, going to Scotland, also worked on the Union canal; he afterwards became a travelling huckster, and then, as before mentioned, a keeper of a lodging-house. Immediately after. the trial of Burke an attempt was made to indict Hare for the murder of one of his victims, James Wilson, known as Daft Jamie, who had been put out of the way in the previous October. The law officers, however, decided that he could not legally be put on his trial, and on 5 Feb. 1829 he was set at liberty from the Tolbooth, Edinburgh. It is believed that he then sought refuge in England, and as it is more than probable that he changed his name, it is not surprising that no record has been found of his decease.

[The Trial of William Burke (1829), portrait; supplement to the Trial of W. Burke (1829); MacGregor's Hist. of Burke and Hare, with portraits (1884); Lonsdale's Life and Writings of Robert Knox (1370), pp. 73–115; Cassell's O1d and New Edinburgh, by James Grant (1882), ii. 226-30.]

G. C. B.