William Burke and William Hare were two notorious serial killers, often mistakenly referred to as grave-robbers, who lived in Edinburgh in the 1820’s. They were responsible for the murder of sixteen innocent victims and sold their bodies to local anatomists for dissection before they were caught and tried at the High Court in Edinburgh. Hare turned King’s Evidence on his partner in crime, escaping with his life and fading into obscurity while Burke was publicly hanged in front of a baying crowd of 25,000 citizens in January of 1829.
But did you know that many of the actual locations in Edinburgh associated with Burke and Hare can still be seen and visited to this very day?
Tanners Close – was the site of Hare’s lodging house and stood in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle. Neither the old tenement building nor Tanners Close now exist and a modern, private car park marks the spot where the building once stood. It is accessed from a lane known as Kings Stables Road in the West Port area of Edinburgh, just off the Grassmarket. All but one of Burke and Hare’s known victims were murdered in the alleyway which was then Tanners Close.
West Port – a street in the Old Town of Edinburgh, just south of Edinburgh Castle and running from Main Point, at the junction of Bread Street, Lauriston Street, East Fountainbridge and High Riggs, to the south west corner of the Grassmarket. The name is derived from the West Port which was the only westwards exit from the city at the time when the city walls stood, allowing a passage through the old Flodden Wall. It was in this squalid part of the Old Town that Burke and Hare lived and committed their crimes, hence why they are often referred to as the West Port Murderers.
Grassmarket – located at the foot of Edinburgh Castle and adjacent to the Cowgate. Originally an open, cobbled market square and the location of some of Edinburgh’s tallest buildings, some of eight or nine stories, the Grassmarket was also a scene of public executions, the last being held there in 1784. It was from here that Burke and Hare lured many of their unsuspecting victims to their deaths.
Surgeons Square – located behind the Old High School Building and the New Surgical Hospital, off High School Yards. Several of the houses around the square were used for privately-run anatomy classes including those conducted by the famous Dr. Robert Knox at Number 10, Surgeons Square. It was to this address that Burke and Hare delivered the freshly killed corpses of their victims for dissection.
Gibb’s Close – in the Canongate, towards the bottom of the Royal Mile, on the “tail” of the Castle rock. On this site in 1700 a tenement was erected by the 4th Earl of Traquair and it was here that he made his residence. Coachbuilder Robert Gibb chose to make this his home in the latter part of the century and it bears his name to this day. This was the scene of the murder of Mary Paterson by Burke and Hare. A shop selling Scottish tourist goods now occupies the site.
Edinburgh University Anatomy Museum – University Medical School, Teviot Place. After William Burke was hanged on 28th January 1829, his body, as ordered by the court, was publicly dissected by Professor Alexander Monro tertius and his skeleton remains hanging to this day in a glass cabinet where the post-mortem saw cut to his skull can be clearly seen.
Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh – Surgeons’ Hall Museum, Nicolson Street. After his death, Burke’s tanned skin was made into several items, including a pocket book which is on display in the Surgeons’ Hall Museum together with his death-mask. Another example of one of those books can be seen at the Police Centre, a museum on the Royal Mile which houses exhibits and contains information on some of Edinburgh’s most notorious criminals.
Supreme Courts of Scotland – Parliament Square. It was here at the High Court of Justiciary that the trial of William Burke took place (most of the work of the High Court of Justiciary now takes place in a building on the other side of the Royal Mile). The trial began on Christmas Eve 1828 and the jury returned a guilty verdict on Christmas Day after deliberating for only fifty minutes.
Site of Burke’s Execution – Lawnmarket, Royal Mile. William Burke was publicly hanged on a wet Wednesday morning shortly after 8 a.m. on 28th January 1829 in the Lawnmarket at the head of Libberton’s Wynd. The event generated such interest that it was even witnessed from a coveted upstairs tenement window by the famous novelist, Sir Walter Scott. Libberton’s Wynd no longer exists, having been demolished during the construction of George IV Bridge but three brass blocks in the shape of an ‘H’ mark the spot where the gallows were erected. In the same area, diagonally opposite Deacon Brodie’s tavern, a brass plaque marks the site of the last public execution in Edinburgh, that of George Bryce (“The Ratho murderer”) who was hanged on 21st June, 1864.