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CHAPTER VI BURKE AND HARE IN TANNER’S CLOSE THE MOCK FUNERALTHE FIRST VISIT TO SURGEONS’ SQUARETHEY RESOLVE ON MURDER Two years have come and gone, and once more it is an autumn daya day of blue sky and bright sunshinea day when throughout the whole extent of broad and bonny Scotland the reapers are in the ¢elds cutting down the yellow grain, enlivening their toil by laughter and song. In all the vales and in all the uplands of the mellow landscape are many bands to be seen, with their bright hook-blades £ashing in the sun as they bury them among the shocks of corn, while on the still and sultry air the sound of their happy voices are wafted among the woods and over the slopes of purple heather, and down the smiling course of the crystal stream, where the latest wild £owers of the year are blooming in richest loveliness, and where woodland warblers are swelling the thanksgiving song which universal nature is raising to the bene¢cent creator who has crowned the year with his goodness.1 But this same autumn day can show another and darker scene than this. In the dingy, dirty closes of old Edinburgh there is to be seen little of the blue sky and less of the bright sunshine, and there the faintest echo of the reaper’s song is not heard, and the happy harvest joy is unknown. In a little dingy room of a house in one of the narrowest and dirtiest closes in the West Port, a group of four living persons are assembled. Two of these were Burke and Helen M‘Dougal. Burke sat in a corner near the window on a cobbler’s stool, mending a shoe, and Helen, and another

 1. The book drops ‘‘and where woodland warblers are swelling the thanksgiving song which universal nature is raising to the bene¢cent creator who has crowned the year with his goodness’’, perhaps for its gushing natural and religious sentiment. 59


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woman were huddled together on stools, near the embers of a ¢re which had cooked the breakfast they had just eaten. Burke had much more of a broken-down appearance than when last we saw him as a day-labourer in Stirlingshire. He and Helen had come to Edinburgh as they proposed, but idle inclinations and drunken habits had prevented them from prospering much in the world. With the last remnant of Helen’s money Burke became a travelling merchant, in which occupation he succeeded but poorly. Then he wrought at various country places, and ¢nally he took to shoe-mending, and he and Helen became lodgers in this house in Tanner’s Close, West Port. The woman with whom Helen huddled on the hearth was the landlady of the house, a dirty, slattern, sensual, hardfeatured woman, with an Irish cast of countenance; her hair seemed red, so far as the colour could be determined through the dirt; her face had a bold, masculine expression; and her whole appearance denoted less of the woman than of the virago. Her protector, the lord and master of the establishment, sat on a higher stool at the other side of the ¢re, moodily smoking a black short pipe. A more repulsive-looking wretch than he was, mortal eye could scarcely look upon. His small head sloped away back from the brow to the crown, very much like an idiot’s. The face below the brow, however, was not idiotic in its expression, but it was worse. To use a good Scotch term, it was ‘‘gruesome’’ to look at. There was a huge mouth, high cheek bones, and small oval grey eyes, a most extraordinary distance from each other. They seemed little other than horizontal slits in the skin of the face, into which a little grey glancing ball had been inserted. But the horrid, loathsome leer which was their natural and almost invariable expression, made one uncomfortable, even by looking at them, and suggested ideas of a disposition of the cruelest character. This man was Hare. On a low, curtainless, and ¢lthy-looking bed behind the group lay a co⁄n of blackened deal, very plain and coarselooking. It contained the body of a lodger who had died a day or two before, and who was that day to be buried. He had been an old soldier, a pensioner, whose quarterly allowance was nearly but not quite due, and would not, therefore, now


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be paid.2 Hare had been looking forward to this money as the means wherewith he was to be paid what the old man owed him; and the latter having died just a little too soon, this hope of satisfaction was thereby taken away, and it was this disappointment which made Hare moody and sullen as he sat silently smoking his pipe. ‘‘A penny for yer thoughts, me boy,’’ said Burke, breaking the silence that had for some time prevailed. ‘‘Faix, then, ye may hand it over at wonst,’’ replied Hare, as he slowly took the pipe from between his teeth. ‘‘I was thinking what a mighty shame it was uv the ould vagabond to go o¡ in such a spiteful hurry. If his soul and body had hung together till next week, it’s his quarter’s pinsion I would have got, and then he might have gone to Purgatory3 and welcomethe sooner the better afther that. But divil a farden will I get now, and him next to four pounds in my debt. Bad luck to him, the ould Highland thief!’’ ‘‘Be jabers, thin, couldn’t the money be got out uv him yet?’’ said Burke, speaking like a man to whom a sudden idea had occurred. ‘‘What the divil do ye mane?’’ asked Hare, as a look of wonder issued from his ill-favoured eyes. ‘‘Troth, thin, and wouldn’t the doctors be afther buyin’ him. I’ve heard as how they employ men to take bodies out uv their graves; and what would be the di¡er to them if the body has never been buried?’’ ‘‘By the powers, but that’s an illigant idea intirely,’’ exclaimed Hare. ‘‘And so it is,’’ added his wife. ‘‘The devil a funeral he should have at all, at all, if his old bones would bring money.’’ ‘‘But how could it be done,’’ suggested Helen, who relished the idea no less than the others. ‘‘You know he is to be buried  2. After reform in 1806, military pensions rewarded service and supported disability. The disabled could receive a shilling a day. The 1816 register of military pensioners suggests that six out of seven Scottish soldiers from the Napoleonic era returned to Britain, but often to England or the lowland cities. See J. E. Cookson, ‘‘Early Nineteenth-Century Scottish Military Pensioners as Homecoming Soldiers’’, The Historical Journal 53.2 (June 2009): 333, 323, 327. 3. Pae signi¢es Hare’s Catholicism by his invocation of Purgatory, a doctrine not shared by most Protestant churches.


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to-day at one o’clock, and the people are asked. If the neighbours came to know we sold him to the doctors, they would make an awful noise about it.’’ ‘‘Och, and wouldn’t we get mighty aisy over that, Nelly,’’ observed Burke. ‘‘Sure, the co⁄n full uv that tanner’s bark4 out there would be just as heavy as if ould Donald was in it; and couldn’t we bury it like a Christian, and never a sowl the wiser?’’ ‘‘Uv coorse, we could,’’ cried Hare, starting up and giving a low, satirical laugh, while the horrid leer broadened on his inhuman countenance. ‘‘But,’’ he added, ‘‘how are we to get the bargain made wid the doctors?’’ ‘‘We’ll ¢nd that out up in Surgeons’ Square,’’ rejoined Burke. ‘‘It’s there I’ve heard the bodies are taken to. We’ll go up to-night, Hare, me boy, and do the best we can wid the queer devils.’’ This arrangement being deemed every way satisfactory, Burke and Hare went to the back of the neighbouring tannery, where lay an immense heap of bark, and a quantity of this they managed to bring into the house unseen. Without ceremony, the body was drawn from the co⁄n, and, enveloped as it was in the shirt which formed its shroud, it was carried into a little room adjoining, and pushed under the bed out of sight. For greater security against discovery, the door of the room was locked, and Hare put the key in his own pocket. The work of stu⁄ng the co⁄n with the bark was now quickly proceeded with, and when the gloomy receptacle was ¢lled, the lid was screwed down, and the co⁄n was laid on the bed as before. The trick succeeded to the entire satisfaction of those concerned. At one o’clock the funeral proceeded from the house to a neighbouring churchyard, and the co⁄n was interred with the usual formalities, no one but Hare and his accomplice having the slightest suspicion that a fraud had been perpetrated. At dusk the worthies set out to pay a visit to Surgeons’

 4. Tanner’s Close, beneath the west side of Castle Hill, was named for its local industry, in this period the tannery of Allan Boak. Tanning used tannins derived from tree bark. RCAHMS website record NT27.


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Square. The business being utterly new to them they were at a loss how to proceed. Burke left Hare in the Cowgate, and proceeded alone to open negotiations. The little melancholy square was silent as the grave, but a light glimmered in one of the windows of Doctor Knox’s classrooms, and from that window a young man was at the moment gazing upon the gathering twilight of the autumn night. Burke, as he sauntered hesitatingly along, eyed this youth with a sly and stealthy glance. The errand on which he had come had made him nervous a bit, and he didn’t know ‘‘at all, at all’’ how he was to make known his business. While directing his side-long glances, he observed the youth quit the window, and presently appearing at the entrance door below, he beckoned to Burke to come forward. The latter obeyed, and for a moment the two stood silently confronting each other, the youth curiously scanning the man before him to see if the guess he had made as to the object of his presence there was correct, and Burke absolutely blushing in his awkward bashfulness. ‘‘Well, my man, what do you want?’’ asked the young doctor, pretty sure that his conjecture was correct, though he knew that the man before him was not one of their regular body-snatchers. ‘‘Want,’’ repeated Burke sheepishly; ‘‘II don’t know.’’ ‘‘Oh, comeyou do want something; tell me what it is.’’ Just then a footstep was heard in the square, and Burke started and looked nervously round in the direction whence the sound came. ‘‘Och, musha, there’s somebody coming,’’ he whispered. ‘‘See, come along here,’’ said the youth, taking Burke by the arm, and half pulling him up the stair. He led him into a room where other three youths seemed at work, for their coats were o¡, and they wore cotton sleeves on their arms. Large tables stood everywhere in the room, and on the tables lay bundles covered by dirty cloths. The atmosphere of the room was close and full of heavy odours. Burke shuddered as he looked at the awful bundles, and, turning to his conductor, said, hastily ‘‘Might I make bould to ask if you are Doctor Knox?’’ ‘‘Oh, no; but I am one of his assistants, and will do just the same.’’


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The other assistants, smelling business, came eagerly forward. ‘‘Got ‘the thing’ for useh?’’ asked one. Burke looked dubious, and still hesitated. He did not exactly know if he understood what was meant by ‘‘the thing.’’ ‘‘Oh, speak out; don’t be afraid. You are all safe here,’’ said his ¢rst interrogator, encouragingly. ‘‘Have you a body to dispose of?’’ ‘‘Yes,’’ answered Burke, immediately relieved by being able to come to the point. ‘‘That’s right; this is the place to sell such an article.’’ ‘‘And what do you give for wun?’’ ‘‘It depends much on the condition of the subject. Six, seven, eight, and sometimes as high as ten pounds.’’ ‘‘The wun I’ve got is fresh and beautiful,’’ returned Burke, whose eyes sparkled at the prospect of so much cash. ‘‘Well, when you bring it we shall see what it is worth. Can you have it here to-night at ten?’’ ‘‘Och, sure and I can.’’ ‘‘Then bring it at that hour, in a box; and it may be as well to let no one see youyou understand?’’ ‘‘I take you,’’ said Burke, with a nod of intelligence. ‘‘Sure, now, I’ve got a tea-chest5 nate and handy; might that do to hould it in?’’ ‘‘Nothing could be better. Remember the hour. I shall be here to receive the subject and pay you.’’ Burke went down the stair highly elated. He had succeeded in his mission beyond his expectations, and was delighted to ¢nd that no unpleasant questions were asked. Hare was waiting anxiously for him in the Cowgate.6 ‘‘Have you seen the doctors, thin?’’ he eagerly inquired in a hurried whisper. ‘‘Indade, and I have, whole four o’ them, me boy. It’s all right. We are to take the body up at tin o’clock to-night, and they’ll pay us for it.’’  5. Plywood box, lined with metal, about 20  30 inches, used to ship tea to Britain. 6. Street running under the South Bridgeanother dark and crowded slum where Hare could skulk.


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‘‘Och, murther, isn’t that beautiful,’’ said Hare, with one of his most frightful leers; ‘‘and did they say what they would give for it?’’ ‘‘They have to see it ¢rst; but they towld me they sometimes gave as much as tin pounds for a good wun.’’ ‘‘Thunder and turf! tin pounds!’’ ejaculated Hare, in joyful amazement. ‘‘Isn’t that illigant?’’ added Burke. ‘‘Be jabers, and it’s twice as good as the ould boy’s pension.’’ ‘‘Uv coorse, the half is mine,’’ said Burke, as he shu¥ed along. ‘‘We’ll share it to a farden, me boy; and a mighty jolly blow-out we’ll have afther we come back.’’ Arrived at Tanner’s Close, they acquainted the women with their prospect, and the tea-chest of which Burke had spoken was emptied of its miscellaneous contents, and the body of the old pensioner packed into it. This matter required silence and secrecy, for some of the lodgers had come in for the night, and it was necessary that none of them should have a suspicion of what was going forward. But the little room in which the body lay was well adapted for this object. It was the room which Burke and Helen occupied. It was on the other side of the passage, and isolated from the rest of the housea solitary back room, with a small window, opposite which was a high grey dead wall. It was not without considerable di⁄culty that the old man’s body, now sti¡ in death, was bent and packed into the teachest. The actors in the scene were far from being at ease in the doing of their work, for it was the ¢rst time they had been engaged in such a matter, and the nature of it was such as to make the hardest hearts quiver. But the expectation of the gain to be derived made them go through with it; and what will not the hope of gaining money tempt man to do? It is this hope that has led to the worst crimes by which humanity has been disgraced. The love of money is truly the root of all evil,7 and how deep this root goes down into the sinner’s soul we shall yet ¢nd exempli¢ed in the history of these four who are

 7. 1 Timothy 6:10: ‘‘For the love of money is the root of all evil.’’


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now in the little room packing up the cold clay of their dead fellow-being, to be sold like merchandise. The task was done, the tea-chest was made secure, and the hour appointed was near. The burden was hoisted on the broad shoulders of Burke, who made his way with it up the narrow close, through the Grassmarket, and by way of Candlemaker Row into Bristo Port. Mindful of what the assistant at Surgeons’ Square had told him of the necessity of using caution so that no one should see them, Burke took this circuitous route. At Bristo Port, Hare received the burden, and by this division of labour they got safely and comfortably into Surgeons’ Square. Still timorous, through inexperience, they did not march boldly into the dissecting hall, but laid the chest down close to a cellar door, and gave information of its arrival. ‘‘Here with it,’’ said the assistant, who, with the other three were still at work in the room. It was a mere common-place matter of business with them, and they neither felt nor manifested any scruples of delicacy. The next minute Burke and his companion brought the box into the room, and the piece of goods was displayed. The merchants did not exactly discant on the excellence of the commodity, but the purchasers examined it with a keen eye to its commercial value. Without saying a word, one of the students left the hall, and almost immediately a smart, fussy, self-consequential man, wearing spectacles entered. This was Doctor Knox, who rapidly ran his eye over the body, and simply said ‘‘Seven pounds ten.’’ Burke and Hare were a little disappointed at the sum named. They expected near ten pounds at least. But to such men seven pounds ten was a large sum, and their mode of earning it very easy, so without a word they pocketed the price, took up the empty tea-chest and departed. ‘‘Perhaps we shall be able to give you more for the next,’’ said the assistant, as they were going out at the door. ‘‘Such a thing as that is always welcome here.’’ And thus the transaction was ¢nished, and Burke and Hare went home to Tanner’s Close, with their ¢rst earnings in Surgeons’ Square. Who can forbear remarking the fatal facility for the disposal of human bodies which the history of this transaction discloses?


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We designedly and deliberately say a fatal facility. Here was a man, a perfect stranger to these doctors, who o¡ered a dead body for sale, and it was bought and no questions asked not one simple interrogation as to how the body had been procured; and not only so, but an invitation was given to bring more. Was this not, at the least, presenting a very strong temptation? Was it possible that the idea never occurred to the doctors that the subjects which they bought so freely, and paid for with a comparatively large sum, might have been got in a criminal way? Was their faith in the men who engaged in such tra⁄c so great that they considered them incapable of doing anything worse than robbing a churchyard or purchasing unburied bodies from needy relatives? We cannot think so. We are forced to believe that with them the exigencies of science were made paramount, and that they made it a point to ask no questions, lest they should be put in possession of dangerous knowledge. But the fact is, the principle of their procedure was immoral. They based the claims of their humane science on a practice not only at variance with honesty, but abhorrent to all human feeling, and it was impossible that a system, illicit in every sense, should not lead to crimes of the worst description; and of these crimes we must consider the doctors presumptively guilty, inasmuch as they carefully abstained from satisfying themselves that they were not committed. When the fearful truth did come to light, the doctors tried to clear themselves by protesting their ignorance. In our opinion, it was this ignorance which constituted their greatest guilt. ‘‘Well,’’ remarked Hare, as they made their way home by the Cowgate, ‘‘we haven’t got so much as we expected, but by the powers, it’s a lot o’ money for carrying a full tea-chest the matter uv three-quarters of a mile.’’ ‘‘Thrue for it,’’ returned Burke, ‘‘it’s a mighty long time we are in making as much at hawking or mending shoes. Come, let us share in Rymer’s, and take in a bottle a-piece to make a night uv it.’’ Acting on this suggestion, Burke and Hare entered a publichouse not far from their residence, and in a back room there, over a glass of whisky, they divided the spoil. Then, taking each a quantity of liquor with them, they made their welcome appearance in Tanner’s Close. Money earned in such a way, and by such men, could not


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possibly be well spent. A very carnival of alcoholic revelry began. Work was not to be thought of while the money lasted, and the reckless mode of disposing of it was not calculated to make it last long. Several days of feasting, drinking, quarrelling, and ¢ghting ensued, till the last shilling of the seven pounds ten was done, and then the wild revelry was, per force, brought to an end. After the carouse, work was of course more distasteful than ever, and on the ¢rst day of enforced sobriety Burke sat down in his cobbler’s stall with very great reluctance. He was sitting alone in the afternoon (all the others being out) listlessly mending a shoe, when Hare came in. He had been hawking a little, but to no great purpose, and was in a correspondingly dissatis¢ed mood. But he sat down in silence, and meditated with the air of one who revolved a thought in his mind. ‘‘I say, Burke, me boy,’’ he observed, after a long pause, ‘‘this is mighty poor work for both uv us. I made only twopence with the hurley to-day.’’ ‘‘Faix, thin,’’ answered Burke, ‘‘it’s meself that’s not much better. This bit uv a job won’t turn in more than sixpence. I was just thinking to meself what a lucky thing it ’ud be if another lodger would be kind enough to die in the house.’’ ‘‘Och, sure, and I’ve thought that a thousand times,’’ said Hare. ‘‘But there’s no appearance uv that luck comin’unless we make it.’’ The last words Hare uttered in a whisper, and the moment he had done so he rose and looked into the other apartment to see that no one was listening. The room in which they were was the small back room which looked out upon the dead wall. Helen and Mrs Hare had both come in, but, Hare closing the door, they could not hear the conversation. Burke eyed his companion’s proceedings with some interest, and when the latter returned to his seat, he had ceased to work, and was looking ¢xedly at him. ‘‘And how could we make the luck to come?’’ he asked, in reference to Hare’s last words. ‘‘Aisy enough. Give one a knock on the head. The tramps that come here to lodge would never be missed.’’ ‘‘Thrue for it, but the doctors would see that the body had been murdered, and wouldn’t that be afther bringing us into a purty scrape?’’


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‘‘Begorra, thin, it’s a pity it couldn’t be done without making a mark at all, at all,’’ observed Hare. The words went like an electric current into Burke’s memory, and roused from thence, with the rapidity of lightning, the information he had two years before received from Doctor Ford. ‘‘Thunder and turf! but it can be done,’’ he exclaimed, in great excitement. ‘‘I was towld of a way that doesn’t lave a scratch.’’ And throwing down his work, he rose and came close to Hare, and repeated what Doctor Ford had said. Hare listened with ferocious eagerness, and the dreadful leer became more than ever diabolic. He comprehended the horrible modus operandi almost by instinct. ‘‘Och, thin, it’s the beautiful luck that will come to us afther all,’’ he exclaimed. ‘‘Sure, we can’t try it too soon, and maybe it’s tin pounds we’ll get this time up by at the Square. They tould us they would be glad to see us again.’’ ‘‘Troth and they did, and I didn’t forget it,’’ said Burke. This, then, was the fruit of that ¢rst visit to Surgeons’ Square. The welcome they had there received, and the pro¢table transaction they had negotiated, coupled with the indiscreet communication formerly made to Burke by Dr Ford, made these two men resolve on the crime of murder. Murder, in the year 1827, was no new crime, nor was the motive for its commission which actuated these men new, for to obtain money the darkest deeds of crime have been done in all ages of the world, and this was precisely the object which Burke and Hare had in view. But the mode of murder they resolved on was entirely new, and the sale of the body of their victim was also an unheard-of mode of making the crime yield its expected fruit; and but for the system of secret body-buying pursued by the doctors, the terrible crimes whose history we are now to record would never have been committed. Weeks passed without a lodger coming to Hare’s house, and they grew impatient for a victimso impatient that Hare resolved to go to the streets and seek out some poor wretch whom no one would miss, lure him or her to the house, and put in practice the scheme on which they had resolved.

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Extract from Mary Paterson or The Fatal Error  

a high-Victorian tale of the tragic life, and sorry end, of poor Mary Paterson: her fall from grace, her unhappy loves – and her final grisl...

Extract from Mary Paterson or The Fatal Error  

a high-Victorian tale of the tragic life, and sorry end, of poor Mary Paterson: her fall from grace, her unhappy loves – and her final grisl...

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