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Burke and Hare: Serial Killing for Science (Ghastly Tales of Scotland) - Documentary

But the Resurrectionist would sell the bodies to the doctors or med students, so everybody's getting what they want, except perhaps the families of the deceased. Sarah Dowdey: Yeah. We should talk a little bit about how they would actually get these bodies, too, how Resurrectionists would work.


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It was easiest to do this in pairs. Obviously we're talking about a possible adult body dead weight that you're lugging. One person would be the lookout while the other one dug.

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Then according to an article in History magazine by Phil Jones, there was a pretty efficient way of carrying out the exhumation. Here's what you would do. You would dig the hole at one end of the grave. Then you would crowbar the part of the coffin you uncovered, sort of popping it back against the soil.

You would cover that with sacking so it wouldn't make a really loud noise and alert authorities or angry family members. Then you would put ropes around the corpse and heave it up through that hole that you've made, but there's a weird legal loophole here. To get around it, these people had to further desecrate the bodies.

Katie Lambert: Right. You had to take all of their clothing and belongings and then put that back into the coffin, so they're stripping these corpses and returning everything to the grave. That was because it was a crime to steal property, but there wasn't anything specifically mentioned about taking bodies.

So if you just took the corpse, you were fine, but if you took a corpse who was dressed and perhaps wearing jewelry, that was just taking things too far. So this obviously doesn't sit well with families. Soon we have armed guards at cemeteries and walls built with steel housings called mort saves put over graves. Think more actually of your modern cemetery with that concrete casing around a grave.

Wealthier people were even buried in metal coffins, so families were really trying to protect their dead. Katie Lambert: Grave robbers are very resourceful, however. They started buying bodies directly from the undertakers or pretending that they were the relative of the dead person and claiming the body, so they're either outright stealing the bodies before they're buried, or they're getting them from an undertake and having him fill the coffins with something else.

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The Resurrectionists

Sarah Dowdey: In case you're wondering why people want to go through the trouble of digging up probably kind of gross old bodies and selling them, it's because it was very, very lucrative. It turns out to be pretty lucrative for Burke and Hare, too, in and when they start their plan. To give you a little physical description, Burke was about 5'5" and considered attractive while Hare was hideous and stupid-looking, and this was not my assessment.

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I would never be so mean. It's a contemporary, and they were drinking buddies. Jerks tend to find each other, and they ended up in the same boarding house together. Burke was living with a woman named Helen McDougal, and Hare with Margaret Laird who ran the place after her husband died. An opportunity arises. Sarah Dowdey: An old man who was boarding there died, and he owed Margaret money, so Hare suggests that maybe to get the money back and maybe even make a little extra, they should sell the body.

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Sarah Dowdey: That's what you do when one of your guests dies. It was surprisingly easy. A med student told them to go see Doctor Robert Knox who was in charge of this private anatomy school and must've had a little reputation for buying bodies, and he pays them what was then several months' wages and promises more if they can find him a fresh corpse.


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  • So these two scoundrel type of guys suddenly have a really good prospect in front of them. Katie Lambert: Because how do you get the freshest of the fresh in corpses? By killing someone and then delivering the corpse immediately, and that they do. Their MO was to give the person plenty of alcohol, and then when he or she was drunk or passed out, one of them would immobilize the body while the other suffocated the person with his hand over his or her mouth and nose.

    They killed perhaps 15 people, older women, younger women, prostitutes, beggars, in general the down and out or people who were not as likely to be missed. Their cockiness eventually caught up with them, however. They murdered a mentally retarded boy that everyone around town knew, and when he was brought into the anatomy lab, some of the students told Doctor Knox that they recognized him. They knew who he was. So Knox took off his face first. Sarah Dowdey: Even then, they weren't quite caught yet. Their last victim was an older woman named Marjory Docherty. This is found out in a very poor way of running their hotel business.

    There's another couple staying at the lodging house at the time, the Gray's, and they're asked to leave one night, leave their room. That's kind of weird, they think. So when they come back the next day, Mrs. Gray is trying to get back into the room to look at some of her belongings, and she's not allowed in.

    This is just raising their suspicions even more. Sarah Dowdey: Something is going on, so they wait. When the coast is finally clear, they go back into the room. I will haunt all thy wanderings and follow thee still. But, lo! I am come, said the shade, from the land of the dead, Though there is for Jamie no grass-covered bed; Yet I'm come to remind you of deeds that are past, And to tell you that justice will find you at last. Hare, thou hast been a dark demon of blood, But vengeance shall chase thee o'er field and o'er flood. Though you fly away from the dwellings of men, The shades of thy victims shall rise in thy den.

    When night falls on the world, O! In your dreams do you ne'er see my poor mother weep? Sadly she wept, but, O! From the grave, did I say, and though calm is the bed Where slumber is dreamless, the home of the dead, Where friends may lament, there sorrow may be, Yet no grave rises as green as the world for me. Hare, go to shelter thy fugitive head, In some land that is not of the living or dead; For the living against thee may justly combine, And the dead must despise such a spirit as thine.

    Hare fly away, but this world cannot be The place of abode to a demon like thee, There is gall in your heart; poison is in your breath; And the glare of your eyes is as fearful as death. When the blue lightnings flash'd through the glen, and it shone, And there rose a wild cry, and there heaved a deep groan, AS the Ghost of the innocent boy disappear'd, But his shrieks down the glen, in the night breeze were heard. For we have seen that Law alone, Can do us little gude, As it has let three demons loose, To work mair deeds of blude.

    Ye bloody fiends, ye hellish fiends, Dare ye here yet be seen, With the mark of blood upon your brows, And murder in your een! O woe for my ain Scotland, For thou art now the land, Chosen for such deeds of darkness, As man before ne'er plann'd. Alas for Mary Paterson, Cut off in her young days, Wi' a' her sins upon her, And in her wicked ways; While steep'd in drunk stupidity, And overcome by sleep, On his devoted victim Burke took the dreadful leap. And alas for the old woman, Entic'd to revelry, Under the mask of country kindness, By a Judas for his fee; That he might sell her body, When he had done the deed, And with the price of human blood, His loathsome carcass feed.

    O'hon for poor Daft Jamie, Whom we shall miss away, In his own happy idiocy, Sae gude-natur'd and gay! But our all-gracious Maker Will surely soon look down, On this detested murder With his all-powerful frown! The two fell fiends they watch'd then, Until he soundly slept, Then Hare upon his destin'd prey With murderous purpose crept. And having fastened on him, Hare strove his life to take; Which recall'd his long lost reason, And did his senses wake.

    He shook the butcher from him, And seeing no help there, He fought with all the frenzy Of madness and despair. His cowardly assassin, Did crouch beneath his blows, And called on Burke his comrade To give the murderous close. The two, conjoin'd together, Depriv'd him of his life; But not before he left them Marks of the desperate strife. In his tremendous struggle, Though weaken'd much by drink, He showed how men do fight for life, When on death's dreadful brink.

    His body, it is said, if true, Let those who bought beware Was sold to an Anatomist; And some one did declare, When it lay on his table For the dissecting knife, That it was poor daft Jamie, Whom he saw strong in life But yesterday; and more 'twas strange As all knew passing well, He was a stout and hearty youth, The rest I may not tell; But loudly it's been whisper'd, That damning marks of strife Show'd clear that death by violence Had twin'd him of his life. If so! O righteous Heaven, To thee we look for aid; Nor will thy kindling anger Be longer much delay'd! Thou art the poor's avenger, The idiot's only guard, The childless mother's helper, The good man's high reward.

    To Thee then we are looking, To appease the cry of blood Which runs throughout our city, Like a portentous flood!

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    In eighteen-hundred and twenty-seven, Their cruel work begun. Burke and Hare before 29 Many cruel murders had done. Neither young nor old we spared, Me and my comrade Hare. Like barbarians or cannibals, With our wills no lives we'd spare. We and our wives with hearts like stones Never once on God did call, Like beasts of prey, people may say, Without feeling at all. Had we but been resurrection men, And taken none but the dead, And that to men of feeling, Doth strike their hearts with dread. But the devil hardened our hearts so, Murder was no dread at all; So all that came within our grasp Was surely doomed to fall.

    Our hands we stained with human blood And never thought on our souls.