HOWARD JACKSON ponders the unusual way we look at the infamous Scottish graverobbing murderers Burke and Hare
Male comic duos have always been indulged. The appeal of Morecambe and Wise went beyond humour. The British public adored them like mothers do wayward sons. The daft lackey and cunning leader is a tradition that runs through both British and American comedy.
We should not be surprised. In less than 12 months between 1827 and 1828, the supposed rogues Burke and Hare killed at least 16 people. They sold the bodies to Dr Alexander Knox who used the corpses for his anatomical lectures in Edinburgh. The number may have been as high as 30. We like, though, to believe the best about loyal male friends. Today, many think wrongly that Burke and Hare were merely grave robbers. And because this act can unnerve sensibilities we have the alternative term, resurrectionists. It suggests benevolent and slightly misguided aims.
In 1948, the film ‘The Crimes of Burke and Hare’ had to be named ‘The Greed of William and Hart’. This was at the insistence of the British Board of Film Censors. The desire to exonerate Burke and Hare has been relentless. They feature in movies as comic characters.
Our dependency on the likable male duo is programmed into our nature. The names of Burke and Hare help; tempt us to be charitable because they fit the stereotypes. Burke can mean stupid and Hare implies someone sharp and slick. They sound just like Abbott and Costello. Actually, Burke was the intelligent partner. In, Ireland he was noted for his ‘ferocious and malignant disposition.’ He fled to Scotland after killing one of the horses of his employer, a lock keeper. Hare was dim but brutal. His stupidity provided some justification for him not being prosecuted. Hare provided the evidence to convict his partner. We think of the 19th Century as puritanical but this was a plea deal worthy of ‘The Wire’.
‘Might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb,’ proposed Burke. More than a murder a month was evidence that he meant what he said. The bodies were sold for a sum between £7-£10. They enticed the unwary into the lodging house of the wife of Burke. After plying them with alcohol they suffocated their victims. The method acquired the name Burking. The bodies were taken in tea chests and herring barrels to the porters in the Edinburgh anatomy school. The murdered included pensioners and women. None was more sympathetic than an 18-year-old boy who was mentally disabled and had a limp. He was known locally as Daft Jamie.
Burke was hanged 10 years after the publication of “Frankenstein’ by Mary Shelley. The novel suggests that it was Victor who roamed the graveyards searching for corpses. 3 years after the hanging of Burke, attended by 25,000 people, Shelley revised her masterpiece.
The second version is more generous to Frankenstein but critical of the ambitious scientist. Knox, the anatomist who bought the bodies from Burke and Hare, had to leave Edinburgh because of the scandal. Burke insisted that Knox had been unaware that he was buying recently slain victims. Perhaps, Shelley was so successful at condemning anatomists she facilitated an alternative posterity for Burke and Hare. Personally, though, I blame Morecambe and Wise.
HOWARD JACKSON is the author of Treat Me Nice Elvis, his music and the Frankenstein Creature. He is also one of the contributors to Frankenstein Galvanized which is edited by Claire Bazin. Treat Me Nice and Frankenstein Galvanized are published by Red Rattle Books, which can be followed on Twitter here.