Monday, October 4, 2010

Burke and Hare: Victorian Serial Killers

by Cathy Scott

Dr. Michael Baden, a forensic pathologist and expert witness, introduced the Victorian term “burking” to jurors in a 21st century case. It happened during the trial of two people charged with the murder of casino magnate Ted Binion. The prosecution's theory of the murder included burking, a term derived from the slaying style that two 19th century murderers used in Scotland. William Burke and William Hare killed by putting pressure on their victims' chests while covering the mouths and noses. Burke and Hare, two Irish laborers who originally went to Edinburgh to work on the Union Canal, ultimately became known as murderers and body snatchers.

In the Ted Binion case, Dr. Baden claimed that not only did Binion die from a drug overdose, but that he also was strangled using the same technique Burke and Hare specialized in two centuries earlier. Burking is not a theory typically prosecuted in modern courtrooms. Burke and Hare used the method they’d perfected because it left no obvious trace of foul play and little evidence of murder.

Yet, according to Dr. Baden's theory, this remarkable cause of death was performed in the late 1990s by defendant Sandra Murphy--who weighed 120 pounds--by sitting on Ted's chest, causing his sternum and upper ribcage to collapse, leaving it concave. By Sandra’s side, the prosecution and Baden contended, was her co-conspirator and co-defendant Rick Tabish. The motive? Binion’s millions. The jury believed Baden and, in 2000, they convicted the couple of murder. My book Death in the Desert, about the Ted Binion case, goes into depth about Baden's theory of old-fashioned burking.

On a technicality, the Nevada Supreme Court overturned the convictions of Murphy and Tabish. Prosecutors, in turn, charged and tried the couple again. The defense countered the burking theory with photos and medical evidence proving that Binion had always had a concave chest--a physical defect he was born with. Yet despite evidence to the contrary, Dr. Baden took the stand and stuck to the burking theory. I was in the courtroom when Baden's testimony appeared to captivate the jury in Clark County District Court. This time around, however, while the latest jury seemed fascinated, they apparently didn't buy Baden's burking theory and handed down “not guilty” verdicts.

Back in the 19th century, Burke and Hare moved from Ulster to Edinburgh, where they lodged with a pair of prostitutes named Maggie Laird and Nell MacDougal. Maggie rented out rooms. On November 29, 1827, when an elderly pensioner boarding with them passed away of natural causes, they seized the opportunity and hit on the idea of selling the boarder’s remains to a local anatomy school desperately in need of bodies for dissection. They took the corpse to Dr. Robert Knox, who worked out of a private anatomy classroom in the Royal Medical Society's Hall in Surgeon's Square at the Edinburgh Medical School. Knox paid them seven pounds and ten shillings for the corpse.

Medical schools required cadavers for anatomy classes, and the demand always outstripped the supply. Attracted by the ease with which they had made the money, Burke and Hare decided to go into the business full-time. They upped their price to ten pounds and, for the next 10 months, the two ferried miscellaneous corpses of more than a dozen boarders to the dissection school, earning them ten pounds from Dr. Knox for each body in good condition.

Schools invariably accepted bodies with no questions asked. Thus, Burke and Hare set themselves up as procurers of human bodies to satisfy the demand of Edinburgh's medical schools. In today’s world, the pair would be labeled serial killers.

Most of the corpses were of drunken down-and-outs who Burke and Hare suffocated when their victims fell into alcoholic stupors. Originally, they set about digging up the graves of the recently departed in the dead of night, stealing the bodies and selling them for cash to a doctor for use in anatomy demonstrations. But digging up bodies was apparently too much work for the pair. So the entrepreneurs started murdering people in Edinburgh's old town and selling the cadavers. Early in 1828, another of their fellow lodgers--Joseph--came down with a fever. Burke took a small pillow and laid it across Joseph's mouth, and Hare lay across the body to keep down Joseph’s arms and legs. Thus, the term "burking" was born. They would employ that technique in all the murders that followed.

Their greed, however, got the better of them when they started killing and disposing of people whose disappearances were noticed by the police. Also, students began recognizing the corpses and became suspicious. Both men, along with their female companions, were arrested. The evidence against the men was circumstantial, despite local cries for justice. Then a deal was struck: Hare agreed to give evidence against Burke in exchange for immunity against prosecution. And Maggie Laird turned King's Evidence and testified against Burke and Nell MacDougal. Nell received a "Not Proven" verdict but Burke was found "Guilty."

The trial of William Burke began at 10 a.m. on Christmas Eve 1828 and lasted no longer than Boxing Day morning (celebrated the first weekday after Christmas when gifts are given to service workers). The jury, following a brief deliberation, found him guilty of murder. On January 28, 1829, William Burke went to the gallows and was hanged at Edinburgh in front of a large crowd.

In a twist of irony, Burke’s body was given to a local medical school for dissection. A free man, Hare left Edinburgh shortly after the execution of his partner. He died penniless in London in 1859. Dr. Robert Knox, the physician who so willingly purchased most of Burke and Hare's bodies, was never prosecuted.

William Burke and William Hare are remembered in Scotland with a degree of romantic nostalgia. In Nevada, they are remembered for the trial and retrial in which Dr. Michael Baden tried to pass the pair's particular style of murder onto a case that was proven an accidental self-overdose of prescription and street drugs.


Ron Carstens said...

Fascinating what people will do for money!

Anonymous said...

I used to admire Baden but these days he's just a gun for hire....
Amazing how he tried putting forth his version of events without having actually examined Binon's body. He made that BS/wrong diagnosis from looking at a PHOTO ONLY!

Wendy Roberts said...

Wow! Amazing.