William Burke: an Edinburgh body snatcher
William Burke and his accomplice William Hare committed between 16 and 30 murders in Edinburgh in 1827 to make money by selling corpses for dissection to Edinburgh’s anatomists. When they were caught and tried, Hare turned King’s Evidence against Burke freeing himself and thereby condemning Burke to public execution.
The death warrant (on the left) held by Edinburgh City Archives details the guilty verdict of the court and the sentence of death to be carried out on the 28 January 1829. In a final ironic twist it indicates that Burke’s dead body is then to be handed over to Dr Alexander Monro, Professor of Anatomy in the University of Edinburgh – one of the very group of surgeons whom Burke had supplied bodies to – for the corpse of the murderer to be publicly dissected!
Edinburgh City Archives preserve a fascinating volume showing numerous people apprehended by the police in Linlithgowshire, which is full of mugshots of Victorian villains as well as details of their known crimes.
People of all ages hailing from places throughout Scotland and beyond can be found in the gallery. Their crimes range from serious assaults to fraud and petty thefts. The Linlithgowshire Rogue’s Gallery was created at a time before policing procedures were consistent and some entries are very detailed and often contain quirky anecdotes and stories.
From the sample image you can see here, you can clearly see what the individuals looked like, and the style of clothing they wear. We can pick up the story of James Wallace of South Queensferry who was apprehended on a charge of murder. We can see he was tried on 8th March 1874 for aggravated assault, however after examining the witnesses the sheriff withdrew the case from the jury, and he was found not guilty. You can also see two policemen in the image of John Regan, and this again provides a wonderful opportunity to actually see what they looked like and gain a more vivid picture in your mind of the times.
Criminal Conviction Registers
Edinburgh City Archives have a series of general conviction registers covering the period of the late 19th Century and into the early 20th Century. These unique volumes chart the criminal activities of individuals, and so it is possible to build up a reasonable picture of someone’s life and the common criminal activities and punishments which were handed out.
The conviction registers note the name and age of the offender and describe the offence. They also include the date or hearing of each case, the police officers involved and the outcome or sentence. Browsing the registers, it becomes obvious that some people were well known to the local police!
From the image you can see on the left, we can unlock more about the life of Mary McDonald Wilson (and her many other aliases), and build up a very good picture of what life was like for her and the wider contextual social conditions of the time. You can compare crimes and punishments from when Mary was living to those nowadays for example.
To unearth more stories get in touch with us or see our website (www.edinburgh.gov.uk/cityarchives) to learn more about what secrets our records may hold…