The Burke and Hare Murders, Revisited, by Lisa Rosner, PhD Distinguished Professor of History, Stockton University


We are delighted to have Lisa Rosner as our guest blogger. Lisa is the author of The Anatomy Murders: Being the True yet Spectacular History of Edinburgh’s Notorious Burke and Hare and of the Man of Science who Abetted Them in the Commission of Their Most Heinous Crimes. You can find out more about this work on her website on the worlds of Burke and Hare (which includes a wonderful 1820s city tour of Edinburgh): You can also follow her on Twitter @burkeandhare


Just when we thought we’d seen everything to do with Burke and Hare, a new exciting primary source has turned up: the reminiscences of Thomas Hume, a student at Edinburgh University during the eventual years 1827-29, including his encounters with Daft Jame and Dr. Robert Knox, wrote his autobiographical manuscript in 1888, and it has been carefully preserved by the Hume family. Now his “College Reminiscences” and other materials have been donated to the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.

GD 81 Hume archive (2)

GD 81 Thomas Hume Collection, RCSEd

William Burke and William Hare were two of Scotland’s most famous serial killers, murdering 16 pepole in a twelve month period from Novermber 1827 through 31 October 1828. (Yes, the last murder really did take place on Halloween). They sold the cadavers to Dr. Robert Knox, a Fellow and curator of the anatomical museum at the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, as well as a most active and enterprising lecturer on anatomy.

The body of their last victim, Margaret Docherty, was found in Burke’s house by a neighbor, who called the police. Both Burke and Hare were arrested; Hare turned witness for the prosecution, and Burke was found guilty and hanged. The Burke and Hare case, together with a murder of an Italian boy in London the following year, galvanized public opinion and led to the Anatomy Act of 1832.

Thomas Hume was born in 1810, and he was therefore between 17 and 19 years of age while in Edinburgh. He was, by his own account, not an especially studious lad, and it is likely that he wrote his “College Reminiscences” relying only on his memory rather than on a diary kept at the time. As might be expected, it is most accurate about events in which he was directly involved. For many others, it provides insight into the student-centered view of the murders. And we may learn as much from what Hume did not tell us as from what he did.

GD 81 Hume inside cover

GD81 Thomas Hume “College Reminiscences”

Hume had come to Edinburgh University to take Arts classes as part of his general education as a clerk, but he had friends who were medical students, and as a sociable young man he sometimes attended their classes as well as his own. One of his particular friends was John Jeffrey, whom he referred to as “assistant” to Robert Knox, though perhaps “paying pupil” might be a better description. Jeffrey was never mentioned in connection with the Burke and Hare murders, though Knox’s chief assistant, William Fergusson, certainly was. “Young Fergus[s]on was at all times, very attentive and assiduous,” Hume recalled, “My friend Jeffrey the very reverse.” One Saturday Jeffrey asked Hume “to go down to the Rooms & ask him to go for a walk, as an excuse for his getting away. On asking for leave for the rest of the day Knox turned upon him very angrily, & asked if he wasn’t aware that there were many specimens to be prepared for Monday; he said he was well aware of that but Fergus[s]on was there, & he was surely entitled to some short holiday. Well replied Knox, You may go but you are a lazy fellow, you are twice as clever as Ferguson, but he has perseverance, & you have none, he will plod on & go ahead of you in the race of life.”

This sounds exactly like the sort of thing Knox would say: he was never one to suffer fools gladly, or mince words when he had a point to make, and he certainly saw professional success as a competition with winners and losers. The only false note comes in the off-hand insult to Fergusson, who was both extremely clever and extremely loyal. But perhaps Knox accompanied his response with an insider’s glance at Fergusson, as if to say, You and I know you are worth five Jeffreys, but we must try to get him to attend to his business. Eventually Jeffrey did, becoming a Licentiate of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh and practicing in Ayton, Berwickshire for many years. As Hume pointed out, Fergusson did outstrip him, “the prophecy was fulfilled, to the letter in after years;” young Fergusson became the eminent surgeon Sir William Fergusson, Bart. and as Hume noted, “was ‘at the top of the tree’ in London.”

As for Hume, he soon learned he was not cut out for medicine. In the form of male bonding typical of the era, he and Jeffrey looked for ways to score off one another, and knowing Hume “always felt a nervous horror for the cutting & carving operations of ‘Saw-bones'”, Jeffrey and his other medical friends “proposed to procure for me a front seat in Dr. Knox’s Class Room, that I might better see and benefit by a more than ordinarily interesting Anatomical lecture on a human subject.”


The classroom was completely “packed in every corner from the platform to the Ceiling with upwards of 600 students.” As Hume recalled, “On getting very satisfactorily seated within a few inches of the Dr’s Dissecting table I began to take notes a little & first felt all but choked with a frightfully disagreeable smell which naturally drew my attention to a horrible dirty green cloth below which evidently proceeded the villainous smell and covering the material on which the Doctor was about to lecture and perform his ‘beautiful experiment’.” Hume was already feeling queasy, “& the stifling atmosphere of a doubly packed room were beginning to sit unfavourably on my weak nerves, which only needed the last act of the Drama to complete my total discomfiture; No sooner did Dr. Knox uncover a frightfully mutilated subject in the last stage of decomposition & purification, then I sank down in a dead faint.” Fortunately, Hume was not a large man, being “very lightly made up,” as he said, so his “friend Jeffrey & some other good souls raised me “’shoulders high’ & I was more pitch-forked than handed from one to the other, till I was landed at the Entrance, where a gulp or two of blessed fresh air soon revived me.”

Hume may not have realized it, but his account undercuts one of the arguments later raised in Knox’s defence: that he would never have displayed fresh cadavers in a classroom filled with hundreds of students if he had known they had been murdered. The problem with this argument is that there is no evidence that Knox did display the Burke and Hare victims in his lecture hall. He bought bodies from a number of clandestine sources, and the documentary evidence suggests that he saved the freshest for his own research or that of select students. Certainly the cadaver that wreaked such havoc on Hume’s nerves, “frightfully mutilated…in the last stage of decomposition,” was more likely to have come from a distant cemetery than the West Port.

For Hume, it was the death of James Wilson — best known as Daft Jamie — that began the murder inquiry. His account makes heroes of the medical students, first for befriending Jamie, then for recognizing him on the dissecting table and calling the police. He describes Jamie as the “Retainer at the College Gates…an innocent, kindly disposed creature, malformed & ‘decrepit’ both in mind & body.” He was “constantly to be seen hanging about the College gates, with his bare head and feet in all weather, with a broad grin on his blank imbecile countenance.” A ” great favourite with the Students, ” he “was kindly treated by all, as exemplified by the donations of lots of ‘copper’.” Hume remembered that Jamie’s “command of language was very limited, hardly enabling him to thank his donors in intelligible words,” but that does not fit other contemporary accounts, including Burke’s. We can well imagine that Hume and his friends would have little time for conversation at the college gates as they rushed to class.

GD 81 Hume (3)

Thomas Hume sketch of “Daft Jamie”, GD81

As Hume remembered it, Jamie was present every day, rain or shine, and so the students were puzzled when he did not appear for a day or two. When a week went by without his being seen, Hume recalled, “the anxiety on the part of the students became more general.” On checking with the police, they found that he was missing from his home, and “under these circumstances it may be more easily understood than expressed the horror of a Medical Student on entering Dr Knox’s Dissecting rooms to find his poor friend ‘Daft Jamie’ lying on the table for dissection!!”

That was, in Hume’s account, what set off the murder inquiry. “The distance between Knox’s Dissecting Rooms in Infirmary Square & the College is not great,” Hume explained, “& as fleet as a telegram arrived, the Medical Student to unburden himself of the doleful tale which sent a shock through the crowd of students that had gathered, like a shock of electricity. No sooner was the fact made public by the Students of Daft Jamie’s body having been identified, on the Dissecting table and marks of violence on it, than a furore took possession of the people, & a ‘hue & cry’ went thro’ the town, demanding a thorough investigation into all the circumstances, as to how the body came to be there under such suspicious circumstances.”

Surgeons Square ed

Surgeons’ Square, Edinburgh. Site of Old Surgeons’ Hall, surrounded by anatomy rooms of some of Edinburgh’s most notable anatomists, including Robert Knox

That account is not borne out by documentary evidence.  Jamie was killed in September 1828, about six weeks before Margaret Docherty, and there is no contemporary record of any student seeing his body on the dissecting table, or calling the police. If “the fact” had been “made public” in September, it could have saved Margaret Docherty’s life. It is very likely that Hume was conflating the furore in the wake of the Halloween murder with his own memories of Daft Jamie. The phrases he used, “as fleet as a telegram” and “a shock of electricity,” are clues that these are his reflections later in life, not his exact thoughts in the fall of 1828.

It is all the more intriguing, then, that it is Daft Jamie he places on the dissecting table, whereas anyone taking an Edinburgh ghost tour today will hear about the beautiful prostitute Mary Paterson, recognized on the dissecting table — oh horror more easily understood than expressed! — by a student who had been with her only the night before. There has never been any documentary evidence for that story either, and Hume’s account undercuts its credibility still further, for Mary Paterson was killed in April 1828 and he says nothing whatsoever about it. If there had been any student rumours about her cadaver, six months before Daft Jamie’s death, we would certainly have expected even the inattentive Mr. Jeffrey to have heard of them.

Once the story of the murders broke in Edinburgh — that is, by November 1828 — Hume found himself in the middle of the action.  By the time he wrote his account in 1888, he was clearly convinced that Knox “was morally blameable for wilful ignorance.” In the fall of 1828, though, he, like other students, defended Knox and what they understood to be the students’ prerogative against encroachments by the townspeople. At one point “a large crowd taking the law into their own hands gathered in the square of the old infirmary in front of Knox’s Dissecting Rooms, determined to lie in wait, & have their vengeance out upon him, & clearly but for the ready assistance of a number of Students he would have been lynched on the spot.” Hume was there with Jeffrey, and the students decided “to act as a body guard in Conducting Knox who was in his Lecture Rooms safely home by forming a ‘Cordon’ round him.” As Hume recalled, “We sallied out & forced a passage through the Crowd…which continued all the way up Nicolson Street, but with few Missiles thrown with the exception of lots of mud, of which I being on the outside rank or circle got more than my own share running the gauntlet through a terrible volley of excretions & threats till we arrived safely at Knox’s house in Comiston Place Newington.” Hume remembered the students standing guard while Knox and his household escaped. Perhaps that was when Knox left the Newington house for Portobello, where he remained for some months until it was safe for him to return to Surgeons Square.

Hume also remembered being present at Burke’s hanging on 28 January 1829, and he gives us the only account we have, literally, on the ground, as all other contemporary accounts are from people who had rented apartments overlooking Parliament Square. He arrived with a number of students at 4 am to get a good place, for the execution was scheduled for 8 am. “Sure enough I arrived in good time,” he recalled, “to select a position anywhere I liked, there being hardly half a dozen people forward, & the workmen still busy finishing the erection of the Gallows with Candlelight the morning being pitch dark.” Most revealing is his account of solidarity among the Irish community. As Hume wrote, “The next arrival was a posse of Irishmen & their number was increased by successive detachments following hard on one another.” Their purpose soon became clear: they made a point of forming “a dense Cordon round the scaffold for whenever any townsmen or rather Scotsman came within a certain line, or boundary… he was quietly but forcibly elbowed off again to a safe distance from the Gallows.” Curious as to what was going on, “after a severe tussle & jostling back & fore in which a number of Scotsmen were again forced out to a respectable distance,” Hume “inquired what all this hubbub meant.” The nearest Irishmen explained that they knew the Scots meant “to collect round the Scaffold, and… give “him” (evading any mention of the name) as bad a time of it as they could. So as we thought it was bad [enough]for the poor Devil as it was, we were determined to keep them at a distance.” Hume, hearing that, thought it was best for him to withdraw, but he was already too closely packed in to be able to move. Fortunately his light frame aided him once again, as the Irishmen on all sides lifted him to their shoulders to keep him from being crushed by the crowd.

Execution of William Burke

Execution of William Burke, Credit: Wellcome Collection

Hume also took part in the student riot over the dissection of Burke’s body. Newspaper accounts claimed that it was caused by students wanting to gain access to the dissecting rooms; Hume claimed that it was a large and rough crowd of townspeople who wanted to gain access, and the students “simply declared we would on no account allow it!” By the time Hume arrived, he recalled, it had turned into a roaring fight between students and constables, which only ended when rumours spread that the troops had been called from Edinburgh Castle. At that, the students dispersed; Hume ran home and “made a desperate rush upstairs, warned my Landlady if anyone asked for me to say I was in bed unwell, jumped into bed with all my clothes on & to tell the truth the fright had actually made me already feverish & unwell & sick for fear of being apprehended by the police; & where I lay trembling ’till it was pitch dark when I thought it somewhat safe to leave my lair.”

For the rest of that year, Hume recalled, he and Jeffrey “kept up a most unhallowed system of irritation to the nerves & feelings of our friend Fergusson,” by making up rumours that Knox’s assistants were to be investigated for their part in the system of receiving cadavers. They clearly didn’t know that Fergusson had already been questioned by the police, and Hume’s account of how “subjects” were received does not match other documentary evidence; but then, Fergusson had no reason to take them into his confidence. Seeing that Jeffrey, too, was worried about his role in these events, Hume “took care to bring his name prominently forward in any rumours I had heard, or invented, which was much the same thing, so he did not go altogether unpunished.” But Jeffrey, Fergusson, and Knox’s other students were protected by Knox’s steadfast silence on the subject of Burke and Hare. They were protected, too, by Burke’s own exoneration of Knox: “Burke declares that Dr. Knox neither encouraged him, neither taught or encouraged him to murder any person, neither any of his assistants.” Hume’s printed copy of “Burke’s Autograph Exoneration of Dr. Knox” is included among the donated materials.

GD 81 Hume Knox exoneration (2)

Exoneration of Dr. Robert Knox, GD 81 Thomas Hume Collection 

Thomas Hume left Edinburgh that spring, and by his own account never went back to the university. He became factor to the Earl of Lauderdale and died in 1898 at the age of 88. We can be grateful to him for writing down his reminiscences after the passage of so many years, and to his family and the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh for preserving them. “The retrospect,” Hume said, “has been to me a wholly agreeable one from the halo thrown round the memories of the past”, and we hope the opportunity to peruse it has been wholly agreeable to readers as well.

Thomas Hume (2)

Thomas Hume, 1880s (GD 81 Thomas Hume Collection)

I am grateful to Dr. Jacqueline Cahif, College Archivist, and Dr. Elaine Thompson, author of the Jem Flockhart mystery series, for calling them to my attention.


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