William Burke and the Edinburgh Irish; Sympathy for the Devil

The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh’s Archives  holds the memoirs of Edinburgh University student Thomas Hume. In his memoirs, Hume discusses the execution and dissection of William Burke, both of which he was witness to. In this latest blog, our Senior Museum Research Fellow Ken Donaldson explores the sympathy felt for Burke by some witnesses in the crowd. 

The deadly work of the serial killers William Burke and William Hare is well known. Along with conventional historical enquiry, it has been the focus of film, theatre and fictional re-imagination. The dark tale shows no sign of losing its grip on the public imagination almost 200 years after the murderous events that unfolded in the ‘Old Town’ area of Edinburgh in 1829. These events need little recapitulation. Burke and Hare were immigrant Ulstermen who separately came to Scotland in 1818, along with thousands of their compatriots to work as navvies on the Union Canal that ran from Edinburgh to Falkirk. They became friends, ending up living in a marginalised and close-knit minority Irish community in the Grassmarket area of Edinburgh. After an old man, owing £4 rent, died of natural causes in the lodging house Hare owned, he and Burke decided they could recoup Hare’s losses by selling the body to one of the private Anatomy schools that flourished in the shadow of the University of Edinburgh’s Medical School. These schools needed a constant supply of bodies for dissection by their students and bodies were usually supplied by grave robbers or ‘resurrectionists’ as they were known. When Burke and Hare received the substantial sum of £7 10 shillings from Dr Robert Knox’s School of Anatomy for the body of the old man, they realised that they had stumbled on the means towards a princely income. However, waiting for people to die was never going to provide enough bodies, so they progressed to the dastardly additional step of murdering people. Eventually a total of 16 innocent victims died at their hands and were sold for dissection to Dr Knox.  When they were finally caught, Hare turned King’s evidence and after a dramatic trial where Hare took the stand and condemned his friend with his evidence, he was eventually released and Burke was hung in January 1829.

Few people look beyond these sensational and violent facts in the case of Burke and Hare and there is little sympathy for them. However, a recent acquisition by the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh suggests that there was some support for Burke, even up to the point of his execution, based on his Irish origins. Evidence to support this contention comes from a hand-written journal covering the period of Burke and Hare’s atrocities that was recently donated to the Library and Archive of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.  The journal by a medical student named Thomas Hume is nominally titled ‘College Reminiscences: In which notice will be taken of Dr Knox, Sir Wm Ferguson, Dr Jeffrey, “Burke & Hare”, “Daft Jamie” & others ‘ . It contains new information regarding a contingent of immigrant Irishmen who were present in the crowd at Burke’s hanging and casts vivid light on the nature of the immigrant Irish experience in Edinburgh and their rather surprising attitude towards Burke and Hare.

Execution of William Burke (Wellcome Collection)

The notoriety of the case resulted in a crowd for Burke’s public execution that is generally regarded as the largest that ever assembled in Edinburgh for a hanging, being estimated at between 25,000 and 35,000 people. They gathered where the gallows were assembled at the present junction of the High Street with the top of the Mound and what today is the North end of George IV Bridge. Every window in the Lawnmarket and High Street that afforded a view of the gallows was crowded with people, the going rate for a good seat being £20 to £80 in modern money. The general mood was buoyant with much cheering, jeering and cat-calling, especially during the period when Burke was actually suspended and dying.

Hume relates in his journal how he arrived at the gallows at 4.00 AM on the morning of the hanging to ensure a good view for the main event which commenced at 8.00 AM. Few people were present at that time and he secured a good position in front of the gallows, but soon he found himself surrounded by about 100 Irishmen who took up position around him. From this location, they tried to prevent any non-Irish from approaching the area immediately in front of the gallows, a futile aim given the rapidly accumulating mob. Hume, however retained his position and managed to ingratiate himself with the Irishmen and remained with them during the crush that ensued as the crowd rapidly grew to the tens of thousands. Hume asked the Irishman why they were there together in such numbers, keeping the locals from accumulating in front of Burke. They  responded by saying that they believed it was bad enough for Burke, ‘the poor devil’,  to be hanged but they feared he would be mocked and denigrated by the crowd and so they were there ’to keep the crowd at a decent distance’. Clearly they underestimated the sheer size of the crowd that the hanging would attract and one hundred Irishmen were no match for upwards of 25,000 locals furiously intent on barracking and ridiculing Burke as described in a number of contemporary accounts of the event.

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

What could account for the sympathy the Irishmen felt for Burke whom they described as ‘the poor Devil’, a term most people would have reserved for their victims? One likely explanation was that in choosing to live and work permanently in Edinburgh, Burke and Hare had joined a population of Irish immigrants who were neither integrated nor welcome in Edinburgh Society, nor society anywhere else in Britain. Edinburgh’s Grassmarket area where Hare had his lodging house and where most of the murders were committed, was an Irish ghetto known as ‘Little Ireland’. It had a population of 4,000 Irish in 1820 when Burke and Hare resided there and most UK cities had a comparable ‘Irishtown’ ghetto. The immigrant Irish lived in ghettos because a number of factors led to their marginalisation:-

  1. Many Ulstermen were Catholic in a society that was predominantly Scottish-protestant and overt anti-Catholic feeling was commonplace in Scotland
  2. The immigrant Irish were poor and even worse they were considered ‘non-righteous poor’, being thought idle, uncivilised, drunken and generally undermining of the moral fibre of Scottish society.
  3. Prejudice against the Irish was overt and formalised. In 1852, a published text on physiognomy, a now-discredited ‘science’ that sought to determine a person’s character or personality from their outer appearance, compared the Irish to dogs.
  4. It was also rumoured that Irish navvies, in a bid to secure employment, accepted lower wages than other UK navvies. This would have had the effect of driving down wages in general and,  regardless if it were true or false, earned the opprobrium of their fellow mainland navvies.

Despite his undoubted crimes, his fellow Irish immigrants still regarded Burke as one of their own. They did not appear to have an issue with Burke’s death sentence and their aim was not to highlight a miscarriage of justice, or anything of that nature. Their reference to him as ‘poor Devil’, reveals that they saw him as a victim. Few people, other than Irish immigrants themselves, would have held much sympathy for this point of view. However, as a marginalised, ghettoised group, they were inward looking and possessed the solidarity that such a situation inevitably produces among people struggling together against a common discriminatory majority. Therefore they saw it as their duty to at least try and protect him during his final and most harsh mistreatment by a society that had habitually mistreated him and them.  In the end they saw Burke simply as a ‘poor Devil’ and one of their own, undergoing an experience that was essentially dehumanising and terrifying and so sought to restore some common human decency to his final minutes. It is not recorded whether the blindfolded Burke was aware of their efforts on his behalf before he dropped the handkerchief, the pre-arranged signal for the hangman to release the trapdoor and drop him into eternity.


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