In the 19th century, Edinburgh university specialized in anatomical research, but obtaining bodies to dissect was difficult. This shortage resulted in "Resurrection men" (body snatchers) raiding graveyards to unearth semi-fresh bodies and selling them to the medical professors.
William Burke and William Hare were both Irish immigrants, but they only met when Burke moved into a boarding house run by Hare and his partner, Margaret Laird.
Their "year of fame" started in 1827 when one of Hare's lodgers died without having paid the £4.- rent. That's when the pair came-up with the ingenious idea of selling the body. Professor Robert Knox gave them 7 pounds 10 shillings for it... and so their macabre business venture began.
Contrary to popular belief, Burke and Hare were not grave robbers or body snatchers. They didn't want to wait for someone to die, so they skipped a step and went straight to murder! Their chosen method was to smother their victims by covering the nose and mouth while the other restrained them. This left no suspicious marks on the body and provided anatomy students with undamaged cadavers. This method later became known as *Burking*.
Besides, newly murdered bodies were fresher than the already buried ones, so they continually delivered "fresh supply" to Professor Robert Knox (on a no-questions-asked-basis, of course).
At first they deliberately preyed on people who wouldn't be known or recognised, mainly prostitutes. But later they started seeing almost anyone as a target, and famously got their victims drunk in some of the Grassmarket's Pubs like the Whitehart Inn (see my separate "Nightlife Tip").
Fondest memory: Eventually, they became lazy and made mistakes by murdering some more well-known residents and they were captured. They murdered at least sixteen people in just under a year before being caught, although the figure could have been as high as thirty.
Hare turned King's Evidence (basically made a deal and testified against Burke); Burke was sent to the gallows. On 28th January 1829 over 25,000 people attended and cheered the hanging of William Burke in the Lawnmarket. In an ironic end to the story his body was donated to the medical school for what they called "useful dissection". His skeleton is still on display at the University Medical School. A pocket book was also made of his skin and this is on display at the Police Museum on the Royal Mile.
There was much public anger at the fact that Hare was allowed to be let off 'Scot free' but despite attempts to bring further charges against him, he was released in February 1829 and escaped to England. Nobody is sure how he lived-out his days or when he died.
Although Professor Knox actively encouraged the pair to supply as many bodies as possible, he was also acquitted for his part in the crimes, but his reputation in Edinburgh was ruined and he eventually moved to London.
These days most of the Ghost Tours around the city will include the story of these 2 murderers, and it is said that Burke still haunts the streets of Edinburgh, namely the White Hart Inn (there's even an effigy of Burke with the noose around his neck on the wall here) and some of the closes & wynds of the Royal Mile.
"Up the close and down the stair,
In the house with Burke and Hare.
Burke's the butcher, Hare's the thief
Knox, the man who buys the beef".
- Old Children's Song.
--> Recently (2010) a film was released called "Burke & Hare" starring Simon Pegg, Andy Serkis, Bill Bailey and Tim Curry.
--> Useful Website: www.burkeandhare.com.
Margaret (Maggie) Dickson was a young & pretty fish vendor from Musselburgh. In 1723 she fell pregnant after an affair, the baby died shortly after birth and Maggie left the corpse on a riverbank. After the body was found it was assumed she had killed the child. She contested her innocence to the very end but was nonetheless found guilty under the act of 1690, for "Concealment of Pregnancy".
She was sent to the Grassmarket in Edinburgh for execution on 2nd September 1724.
According to historical accounts of the proceedings, she was hanged for the usual amount of time and when declared dead, was placed in a coffin for her family to take her back to Musselburgh for burial. On the way her family stopped for a break and some food in Peffermill, where they noticed that the lid was moving and they heard noises from within the coffin: Maggie was alive!
Perhaps she had a Guardian Angel looking over her.. or perhaps she had befriended the hangman, who tied the rope wrongly that day... we'll never know.
Fondest memory: If Maggie had been sentenced in England, she would have been strung up again, as English law dictated that a person must be hanged until dead. But under Scots law Maggie was legally dead (hence her marriage was also dissolved) and she was allowed to go free.
So, Maggie was allowed to live-out her days, and apparently a few days after his miraculous escape her husband re-married here in a small ceremony. She went on to live for another 40 years during which she ran a nearby ale-house and had many more children.
The date of her eventual, natural death is unknown but reports show that she was a familiar figure around Edinburgh, where she was known as " Half Hangit (half hanged) Maggie".
Today, a pub in the Grassmarket No. 92, adjoining to the West Bow, is named after her. A plaque on the wall tells her story.
In the shadow of Edinburgh Castle you will find the Grassmarket.
During my first-ever visit to the city we stayed in a small self-catering apartment here and found it to be a fantastic area with lots to explore and discover.
The Grassmarket's origins lie with it being in a valley carved by glaciers during the ice-age, which meant it was easier for livestock and carts to access rather than having to walk up the steep slope to the Old Town. For this reason the area was probably used as a market from the 1300s. Historical records confirm that weekly horse and cattle markets were held here from 1477 to 1911. Cattle would be driven from the surrounding fields through The Cowgate in the east and West Port Gate to the West.
The area was also used to conduct public hangings, and a memorial marks the spot where the gallows once stood. The history of the Grassmarket and the gallows are inextricably linked, it is difficult to think of them without also imagining images of body snatcher Burke and Hare, the unlucky Captain Porteous of the town guard, and "half-hingit" (half-hung) Maggie who actually survived the execution!
The area still has taverns and shops which have been here since the 1500s and continue to be a popular attraction. Most of the buildings in the Grassmarket date from the 1800s following a period of improvement in the Old Town. Several buildings from the 1700s survive on the northern and eastern sides most notably the White Hart Inn (see my separate "Nightlife" Tip). Sadly only one complete building remains from the 1600s at the entrance to Victoria Street, which dates from 1616.
Nowadays, The Grassmarket is a convenient meeting point for locals and visitors alike who enjoy the various shops, bars and restaurants whilst soaking up the medieval atmosphere of the ancient marketplace with splendid views of the nearby castle, looming over the city from its position atop an extinct volcano.
Fondest memory: Useful websites:
--> LOCATION: http://www.grassmarket.net//mapsanddirections.asp
--> HISTORY: http://www.the-grassmarket.com/
Favorite thing: What I really loved about Edinburgh, apart from all of the famous sights, was simply walking around the old Town. I really loved the streets and old buildings, one street in particular that stands out is Cockburn Street off the Royal Mile with it's boutiques, restaurants and record shops.
I just love looking at, and being amongst these old buildings. It never ceases to amaze and excite me - I get like a child exploring rock pools at the seaside!!!
So, come to Edinburgh but allow extra time to just wonder these streets and soak up the history. Let your imagination free, and travel back in time, to when these stones echoed with the shouts and clatter of medieval street life.
Fondest memory: To really enjoy these streets and houses, walk the whole length of the Royal Mile, and then return, nosing in at little half hidden closes and alleyways. Coming back uphill its easy to slow down and ponder!!!
The Tolbooth is on the left hand side, lower down the Royal Mile, towards Holyrood and close to the Edinburgh Museum and Peoples' Story, both really interesting.
Favorite thing: You really can walk nearly everywhere in this city. Just be aware of one of the obvious features of High St...it's HIGH...to reach it and the Royal Mile from Princes St and the Edinburgh Castle area, you may either walk the sloping series of switchback pathways *OR* look for one of the little arched closes such as Advocate's Close here...there might be 200 steps here, there might be 1000, who the he** knows...at least this way affords you a fine view of the city rooftops below! Catch your breath and proceed!
Favorite thing: I enjoyed Edinburgh's tall buildings. Apparently the old city was only a mile long by a half mile wide, so the buildings went up instead of out. I thought they gave the city a unique look and contributed to its somewhat mysterious air.
Favorite thing: This wellhead, found just outside John Knox’s house, was one of a limited quantity of cisterns that supplied water to the old town until 1822. The water came from Comiston springs via Castlehill reservoir. By the 1780’s, the system could not provide enough water for the city’s growing population. To limit demand, the supply was limited to only 3 hours, at midnight. Those who could afford it, paid water caddies to collect their water for them, so as to not disturb their sleep.
Favorite thing: The surround to the alleyways is usually made of plain stone but some, like this one, have been spruced up. Most of those that are maintained in this fashion are usually entrances to private courtyards.
As you walk down the Royal Mile, you will find several small entrances that are alleyways, leading either through to other roads or into courtyards, which are surrounded by tenement flats (apartments). If you get a chance, wander into one of these and imagine what it was like back in the 1900's when families of 4 or more used to live in these small living places.
Fondest memory: Now, more often than not, they have been upgraded to single person living accomodation and are rented out by university students.
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