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William Burke (1792-1829) - Murderer

Murderer who, with William Hare, was the instigator of 16
sensational murders and underwent an equally sensational trial at Edinburgh. He was a native of Ulster. After a period of service as a soldier with the Donegal Militia he drifted to Scotland, working as a navvy on the Union Canal. He ended up in Edinburgh and in 1827 he met Hare, in whose lodging-house he stayed with his mistress Helen MacDougal. For the anatomist Dr Robert Knox they provided cadavers for medical study, and they turned to murder to meet the demand. Their partnership came to grief when they murdered their 16th victim, an old Irish woman called Mary Docherty, and left evidence of their crime. Although they were both arrested, with Helen MacDougal, the Crown had difficulty in presenting the case and Hare was persuaded to turn king's evidence to save his own neck. Burke was tried on Christmas eve 1828 and sentenced to death, while the case against MacDougal was not proven. The trial caused a furore in Edinburgh and Burke was hanged in front of an enormous crowd on the morning of 29 January 1829. The events of the Burke and Hare case provide the background for the play The Anatomist by James Bridie. Burke added a new verb to the English language, 'burke': 'to smother, hush up'.

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