Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

William Burke & William Hare

The Trial & Final Journeys

The busy days following Halloween included an official autopsy of Mary Docherty, the questioning of Burkes and Hares neighbors, and multiple interviews with the four accused.  The four had apparently not synchronized their stories. Their tales varied from stating that they had never met Docherty to Burkes telling of a strange man (whom he named as William Hare) coming to his house to get his shoes repaired and who had a large tea chest with him.  Helen apparently did not know of this story, however, and she did not echo this alibi or claim that William Hare was a stranger.

On November 6th, an Edinburgh newspaper reported on rumours...of individuals having of late disappeared (including) a sort of half-witted lad called Daft Jamie...  This report caught the interest of Janet Brown, who went to the police and identified some of the clothing the police had found in Burkes house as Mary Patersons.

The public were outraged and called for justice against all four principals and Dr. Knox as well.  The Lord Advocate, however, was in a quandary about how and whom to prosecute.  As there had been no eyewitness to any of the actual killings, the entire case depended on circumstantial evidence which, even including the Grays testimony and Janets identification of Mary Patersons clothing, was weak at best.  He also suspected that Helen and Margaret were secondary players and that neither would testify against her male counterpart.

After one month of vacillation, under the assumption that Burke had been the leader of the two men, a deal was made where William Hare would receive immunity if he testified against Burke and Helen.  Hare readily agreed, and soon after Burke and Helen were both charged with the murder of Mary Docherty (Burke was also charged with the killings of Daft Jamie and Mary Paterson), and their trial began on Christmas Eve.

The prosecution brought forth both Hares (who testified that Burke and/or Helen were the main players in the murders), and other witnesses who claimed to have seen the victims in Burke or Helens company shortly before they disappeared.

In defense, Burkes counsel tried to downplay Burkes role in the murders -- and Helens solicitor suggested that it was Helen, terrified by seeing Docherty killed, who the neighbor overheard crying Murder that Halloween night.

Christmas morning the jury deliberated for only fifty minutes and came back with their verdicts: Burke was guilty and Helen was freed by the uniquely Scottish not proven verdict.  On hearing the news, Burke reportedly cried and embraced Helen, saying, you are out of the scrape!

Burke was executed on January 28, 1829.  In the month between his sentencing and the execution, he gave two detailed confessions.  In both of them he cited 16 murders that he and/or Hare had committed (although he got confused about the order of the murders between the two confessions).  At his scaffold, enormous crowds shouted for Hare and Dr. Knox to join him at the gallows.

Helen, on being released, went back to the house she had shared with Burke, where an angry mob found her and the police had to be summoned so she could escape.  She left Scotland for England, but news of the murders had spread as far south as Newcastle, and police once again had to protect her from vigilantes in that city.  After Newcastle, it is not known what became of her, although lore states that she went to Australia and died there in 1868.

Margaret Hare also disappeared.  After her release, she escaped angry mobs in Glasgow and Greenock, and is believed to have eventually journeyed back to Ireland.

William Hare was released in early February of 1829, but did not meet up with Margaret.  The last known sighting of him was south of the English town Carlisle, although a popular later tale tells of his being blinded by a mob who threw him into a lime pit, and of him becoming a beggar on the streets of London.

Dr. Robert Knox attempted to remain in Edinburgh, and he maintained a silence about any suspicions he might have had about how Burke and Hare supplied his classroom with such fresh corpses.  Angry crowds occasionally mobbed his house and classrooms, but he continued lecturing and giving classes until the number of students who wanted to study under a man associated with Burke and Hare dropped dramatically. He twice applied for vacant positions within Edinburgh Universitys medical school but was rejected both times.  He eventually moved to London where he held a post at the Cancer Hospital before passing away in 1862.


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