Unmaking a Murderer

John Baxter writes for Surgeons’ Hall Museums in this guest post chronicling William Burke’s movements in his final 24 hours. 

The story of the West Port Murders is one of the most shocking ever recorded in Scottish judicial history.  Over a period of 10 months in 1828, William Burke and William Hare murdered 16 people and sold the bodies onto the esteemed anatomist Dr Robert Knox at 10 Surgeons Square.  Their murder spree was brought to an end on the 31st of October with the murder of Mary Docherty after her body was discovered hidden under some straw by a neighbour of Burkes.  Following a short investigation, Burke stood trial and was found guilty of the murder of Mary Docherty after his partner in crime William Hare had testified against him, turning Kings Evidence in return for freedom from prosecution.  He was sentenced to be taken to Calton Jail and fed on the customary bread and water until the 28th January 1829 when he was to be brought to the common place of execution at the head of Libbertons Wynd on the Lawnmarket.  As an addendum, Burke was also to be sent for public dissection and his skeleton put on display as a reminder of his atrocious crimes.

Burke and Hare

Following the trial, Burke was transported to Calton Jail and shackled in the condemned cell as he awaited his execution.  During his one month stay at Calton he was not idle, inviting various members of the press to put his story straight, revealing a number of detailed and shocking confessions.  These confessions, detailing the murders of the 16 persons including that of James Wilson or ‘Daft Jamie’, were to be published after his execution.

Burke was removed from Calton Jail at 4am on Tuesday the 27th of January and taken by coach to a lock up house on Libbertons Wynd accompanied by the Governor of the Jail, Captain Hugh Rose, maintaining sound composure throughout the entirety of the short journey over the North Bridge.  He spent most of the day prior to his execution taking religious solace with both Presbyterian minsters and Catholic priests.

Burke awoke around 5am on the morning of the 28th after sleeping soundly overnight and went about preparing himself for the grim task ahead, supported throughout by ministers of both faiths.  Shortly before 8am, Thomas Williams, the executioner, entered the lock up and proceeded to ready Burke for his final appearance.  Williams pinioned Burke’s arms behind his back and bound him ready for the short walk to the scaffold at the head of Libbertons Wynd.  At exactly 8am, the procession including Burke and his executioner made its way steadily up the wynd, with each step the noise building as they grew closer and closer to the assembled masses which by now had reached an estimated 25,000 people from all walks of life, including Sir Walter Scott who had taken a great interest in the case

As soon as the crowd caught sight of the procession, they began baying for blood.  Cries of “hang him”, “hang Hare too” and “you’ll see Daft Jamie in a minute” rang out across the Lawnmarket.  Interestingly, the crowd also cried “Burke him! Burke him! Burke him!” in reference to the way in which Burke and Hare dispatched their victims.  In his last minutes on earth, Burke would have been aware that his own name was being used as a threat against him.  Burking would later feature in the dictionary to describe killing someone through means of suffocation whilst leaving no signs of wrong doing.

Execution of William Burke

It is reported that the last words uttered by him on the gallows were “the knots behind” in reference to the incorrect positioning of the noose.  The knot traditionally would have been placed towards the side of the head resulting in a greater chance of a clean break.  The executioner perhaps wanted to ensure a longer, more painful death such was the enormity of Burke’s crimes and the ill feeling towards what he had done.

Cast of William Burke’s death mask © The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh

At exactly 8:15am, the executioner launched William Burke into eternity.  Death, however, was not instantaneous as the drop was not sufficient to sever the vertebrae.  Instead, Burke strangled to death on the gallows, his body jerking every so often until life finally slipped away.  He hung for a total of 45 minutes before being cut down and then transported to Dr Alexander Monro (tertius) at the university anatomy school as per his sentence.  The following day, Burke was publicly dissected and it is estimated that the numbers who filed through the lecture theatre were similar to those seen on the Lawnmarket the previous day.  His skeleton was then put on public display and remains to this day a reminder of one of the darkest chapters in criminal history.

The skeleton of William Burke. Reproduced with permission by the University of Edinburgh ©The University of Edinburgh

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Find out more about the Anatomical Museum at the University of Edinburgh


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