Episode 18: Life, Death, & Whiskey

Shea and Aaron dive into a whiskey bottle, and then into Scottish history, to bring you a dastardly set of stories about yee-oldie fairy homicide.

Welcome to Interesting If True, the podcast that wants your lucky charms—and is willing to ply you with whiskey until you give them up!

Jenn wanted to call this one “Two Guys One Whiskey” but I didn’t want to remake the artwork…. 0_o

I’m your host, Aaron, and this week I learned Jenn is a dirty, pant-burning, liar face:

I’m Shea, and this week I learned that I’m not lazy, I’m just an off-season hibernation innovator.

The Year was 1828—a leap-year starting on Tuesday for Gregory and Sunday for Julian (the Gregorian calendar was 12 days ahead of the Julian calendar at this point), saw the Turkmenchay peace treaty (between Russia and Persia), the feral child Kaspar Hauser was found in Nuremberg, and Andrew Jackson was elected the 7th President of the United States.

Meanwhile, in Edinburgh there was an explosion of anatomy!

Well… an explosion in the study of anatomy. Famous smarties like John Bell, Alexander Monro, and Robert Knox all studied human bits there.

First, if you’re not familiar with Robert Knox, don’t worry, we’ll get there.

Second, there is now a market for human bits in Edinburgh.

Before we go to the worst farmer’s market ever, a bit about Scottish law. It was illegal to make a body of course, and grave or funeral home robbing was generally frowned upon. So what was an enterprising “resurrection man” to do? Resurrection men, by the way, where the purveyors of fresh corpses that totally, for sure, honest, never robbed graves.

Turns out it was legal to steal a body, just not from someone or a hole in the ground. So if you could find yourself a ward of the state, orphan, etc, and get their body from the… body… cart, probably, it was yours because you can’t steal what isn’t technically owned.

Two of such Resurrection Men were William Burke and William Hare who sold corpses they… “farmed” I guess, to Robert Knox for dissection and lecture.

In the summer a body fetched 8 pounds. In the winter 10 as nature’s refrigeration meant you could fiddle about inside someone longer and with more frequency. From a practical standpoint, this also meant that protecting graves was good business. Guard towers and fences of course but you could also commission a stone slab to be placed over the grave until the ground was frozen or the body was… too ripe to pick. Iron cages built over graves were another popular option. These had the dual feature of preventing robbing as well as eliminating any “pet cemetery” concerns the family might have.

Speaking of family, Hare and Burke had wives and family. Burke had an abandoned and a current wife. While Hare married a woman described as a “hard-featured and debauched virago”. A virago, by the way, is an old term for a belligerent, ill-mannered, scolding, self-righteous, shrew. Or, a yee-oldie “Karen”. Dedicated drinkers and assholes all, they soon found themselves in need of coin.

Hare’s renter died of dropsy owing him $4. So, like ya do, they waited around until the family gave the body to the gavers, then opened the casket, took the body, filled the casket with wood and rocks and shit that 100% sounds like a body when if you move it, then sold the man’s corpse at Edinburgh University.

I want to take a moment and pause here to say that they didn’t have a pre-existing agreement with anyone. They’d just heard that those nutters in the ivory towers liked fresh meat and were willing to pay for it. So, corpse in hand, they Weekend At Burniesed a body around until an underclassman directed them to Robert Knox who paid $7 for it. One of Knox’s assistants told the duo that the anatomists “would be glad to see them again when they had another to dispose of” and just like that, industry was born.

Now, in their defense Burke and Hare didn’t set out to become serial killers. They were just assholes, greedy, drunken, assholes. But when Hare’s next lodger Joseph, a miller, was stricken ill there was concern about being able to further rent if it became known a plague-ee stayed there. So they did what you do and gave the man whiskey until he was so ill as to be delusional and bed ridden, then put his pillow in the less traditional location of, on top… with force… and waited until profit happened. And it did, Knox rewarded the men with $10 this time—business was, as they say, good.

A note here. Burke was on top of Joseph while Hare smothered him. To them, it was to prevent movement and sounds, to CSI types it meant his chest was compressed preventing lung expansion. This suffocated Joseph without leaving attack marks or other at-the-time detectable signs of murder. Such suffocations would become the dastardly duo’s modus operandi.

The order of the next handful of murders is disputed but in a nutshell Hare had a bed for rent and Edinburgh had plenty of travelers.

There was an unnamed Englishman who came to town to sell kindling and matches who fell ill with jaundice at Hare’s house. They got him sympathy-drunk then did the pillow-pile-on until they were $10 richer. They plied Abigail Simpson, a passing salt seller and pensioner, with enough booze to kill her then took her body to Knox while it was still warm. Having discarded her clothing Hare later noted that

“Dr Knox approved of its being so fresh … but [he] did not ask any questions”.

In February or March Hare’s wife invited another woman into their home and plied her with enough whiskey to pass out. Hare then covered her with a mattress and returned the next morning to find her suffocated. Bank.

So April rolls around and Burke picks up two women at a bar and promises them breakfast at his brother’s house, where they drink two _more_—the story specified “more”—bottles of whiskey and pass out. Hare joins Burke for what he thinks is gonna be a randy time when Burke’s wife busts in the door and accuses him of an affair. So again, Burke and Hare do the only logical thing, instead of admitting to the affair he was totally trying to have they insist it’s all for… something else. The duo lock their wives (oh yeah, one of the women was Hare’s wife) in the kitchen and murder Mary Paterson, the passed out girl and sell her body. The wives … that’s the end of that part of the story so in true choose your own adventure style you can pick from:

  1. They saw what Burke and Hare were all about and decided it was best to just let it go,
  2. Figured “it’s only murder for profit, not like he’s cheating on me” and everyone lived happily ever-after, or,
  3. They were women in 1828 so no one bothered writing their bit of the story down.

As for Mary, her body was delivered, warm, to Knox. They told Knox’s assistant she’d drunk herself to death so… they took the body. Because “why not?” I guess. Knox was delighted at the body and stored it in whiskey for three months before dissecting it. Also because “why not?” I guess…

In mid 1828 Mrs. Haldane, whom Burke described as “a stout old woman” stayed with him so he gave her too much whiskey and killed her. Then, some time later, her daughter came looking for the missing woman, so Burke offered her whiskey to drown her sorrows… then he killed her.

Then there was Effy. She was a “cinder gatherer”. They dug through people’s trash to find stuff worth selling to other, weirder, people. So he lured her into a barn with offers of whiskey and killed her.

Come June the duo killed “an old woman and a dumb boy, her grandson”. The grandmother they killed in the usual fashion but the boy, being mute, they just normal-style, whiskey-free killed because, again, these people are just the worst. Each warm body would fetch $8 at Surgeons’ Square—a farmer’s market for bodies. Yes, really.

Toward the end of June Hare made some more money and was starting to dress a little too well. Enraged to be left out Burke and Hare came to blows and wouldn’t reconcile until October over a nice cup of, you guessed it, killing people.

‘Twas harvest season and the two were intent on just that. They killed a wash-lady, one of Hare’s in-laws who stayed just a little too long, and a mentally disabled, crippled, boy from town. The boy’s name was James Wilson, 18, and he was known in the town, standing out for his limp. Which is why one of Knox’s students recognized him. Obviously, this was a problem so Knox elected to dissect the boy well ahead of schedule… for… innocent person reasons. He also removed the body’s head and feet before showing his students the autopsy. Which is, again, just for like… science and stuff. Still the damage was done and rumors began to spread about Knox and his unsavory deeds.

The final victim would be their undoing. Killed on Halloween—of course—Margaret Docherty was a middle-aged Irish woman Burke had lured into a lodging house and offered her whiskey. At one point he left the woman with his wife while he went to fetch Hare. Meanwhile, two additional lodgers, Ann and Hames Gray, were kinda put out by all of this and asked the others to stay with Hare instead and left to do… something… while the rest moved their stuff to Hares. Later, upon returning, the Grays saw both men, their wives, and Margaret dancing drunk in the street. At some point Hare and Burke got into a fist fight, because whiskey, but they quickly reconciled, because whiskey. Finally, they killed Margaret and put her body in a pile of hay at the foot of the lodger bed… because whiskey.

The next day the Grays returned to pick up some stuff they’d forgotten the night before. Eventually they got into the room and, looking around, found the body in the hay and fled to the police. Realizing they were boned, tried to bribe the Grays, who would have none of it so they disposed of the evidence… by selling the body to Knox for $10. Of course the police showed up and while there was no corpse to habulous, there was plenty of blood, the woman’s bloody clothing, and signs of a fight. After Hare and Burke gave wildly different accounts of the preceding night the police knew something was up and went to Knox’s lab where the Gray’s identified the body of Margaret.

With a body, some dudes caught in a lie, and plenty of coin to explain a motive Burke and Hare were arrested along with their wives. Being a woman he was let go shortly after being arrested. She immediately went to buy some whiskey but was met with an angry mob who chased her to a safe house… which they then laid siege to, unlimitedly running her out of town never to be heard from again. Mrs. Hare was let go and attempted to make her way back to Ireland, but was recognized by a mob and chased into a police station. The officers managed to get her booked onto a Belfast-bound ship, after which, she was never heard from again.

Hare was released a month or two later, he’d been kept under lock and key for his own protection. As with the wives he was set upon by mobs more than once and taken into police custody for protection. Eventually, the cops escorted him to the edge of Edinburgh and told him to keep walking until he got to England. He never arrived.

On January 28th of 1829, Burke hanged in front of a crowd bigger than Trump’s inauguration. Some 25,000 people turned up. Those who lived near the gallows sold tickets to lean out their windows and watch, some fetching as much as 25 pounds. On February 1st the corpse was made available for viewing in the form of a public dissection by Professor Monro. Students and academics were seated in the college’s atrium but there was such interest in the macob affair that a riot broke out and visitors had to be grouped by 50 and walked through the upper terrace for a time before being shuffled out much like they do with the Supreme Court now.

During the dissection Dr. Monro reserved some of Burke’s head-blood to write his autopsy notes and a few letters. His skeleton is still available to view at the Anatomical Museum at the Edinburgh Medical School. His skin was used to bind a book, also available for viewing, because why not I guess… again.

For Knox’s part, he pleaded ignorance and, I’m sure, absolutely nailed it. His reputation was ruined, mobs burned effigies of him outside his home, and he lost his position at the school. Local law enforcement didn’t arrest him as they had “seen no evidence that Dr Knox or his assistants knew that murder was committed in procuring any of the subjects brought to his rooms”. He floated around Great Britain for a while, teaching here or there until people recognized him. He tutored for a while, doing private dissections in his home for people until the country’s academic authorities revoked his ability to issue credits. Eventually, he wrote a few terrible books and died in 1862.

So there ya have it. The pursuit of knowledge is noble indeed, but be careful what side industries you create. You never know when you might inspire some nutters to whiskey-kill travelers.

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burke_and_Hare_murders
  • https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofScotland/Burke-Hare-infamous-murderers-graverobbers/

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Fairy Coffins


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Shortly after Aarons story takes place a group of rowdy boys went roaming the countryside outside of Edinburgh, looking for rabbit dens. This was early July of 1836 in an area known as Arthur’s Seat. These three boys came across an adventurer’s dream in the form of a cliff side cave, what they found inside would confuse the Scotts for generations. Inside the little cave were 17 little coffins measuring about an inch wide and 4 inches long and inside each coffin was a carved wooden figure dressed in hand stitched clothes.

These boys carefully documented everything and carefully exhumed the tiny coffins… Oh wait no, they were young boys… So instead they roughly dug them up and threw them at each other, not even kidding, more than half of the coffins and occupants were destroyed in the cave. Had I been their age I might have done similar because these were all wicked creepy. The remaining coffins and corpses? The surviving coffins were retrieved the “next day” by the boys’ schoolmaster, one Mr. Ferguson, who was a member of a local archaeological society. The coffins were still unopened at this point, the reporter Robert Chapman added, but “Mr. Ferguson took them home in a bag and that evening he settled down in his kitchen and began to prise the lids up with a knife…. Mr. Ferguson took them to the next meeting of his society and his colleagues were equally amazed.” Quickly word spread.

“London Times, July 20, 1836:

That, early in July, 1836, some boys were searching for rabbits’ burrows in the rocky formation, near Edinburgh, known as Arthur’s Seat. In the side of a cliff, they came upon some thin sheets of slate, which they pulled out.

Little cave. Seventeen tiny coffins. Three or four inches long.

In the coffins were miniature wooden figures. They were dressed differently in both style and material. There were two tiers of eight coffins each, and a third one begun, with one coffin.

The extraordinary datum, which has especially made mystery here:

That the coffins had been deposited singly, in the little cave, and at intervals of many years. In the first tier, the coffins were quite decayed, and the wrappings had moldered away. In the second tier, the effects of age had not advanced so far. And the top coffin was quite recent looking.”

This mystery quickly took root and was called the Fairy Coffins. The only comprehensive study yet made of the “fairy coffins” strongly indicates that all postdate 1800, and that the odds favor a deposit or deposits made after about 1830—within about five years, in other words, of the discovery of the cache.The study was carried out by Allen Simpson, a former president of the Royal Scottish Society of Arts and currently a member of the faculty of History and Classics at Edinburgh University, and Samuel Menefee, senior associate of the Center for National Security Law at the University of Virginia.

As to who did the carving, Simpson and Menefee point out that “the most striking visual feature of the coffins is the use of applied pieces of tinned iron as decoration.” Analysis of this metal suggests that it is very similar to the sort of tin used in contemporary shoe buckles, and this in turn opens the possibility that the coffins were the work of shoemakers or leatherworkers, who would have had the manual skills to make the coffins but would have lacked the specialist carpentry tools needed to make a neater job of it.

The carved bodies were seen to be incredibly uniform, believed to be adapted from a set of carved soldiers, the eyes of the figures were carved open so they don’t believe they were originally corpses. All of this evidence leads the experts to believe that our “Fairies” were entombed some time in the 1830’s. Beyond that, there isn’t much more known, except of course the theories…

Simpson and Menefee note, “the significant feature of the burial is that there were seventeen coffins.”They hypothesize in their book;

“that the problem with the various theories is their concentration on motivation, rather than on the event or events that caused the interments. The former will always be open to argument, but if the burials were event-driven—by, say the loss of a ship with seventeen fatalities during the period in question—the speculation would at least be built on demonstrable fact. Stated another way, what we seek is an Edinburgh-related event or events, involving seventeen deaths, which occurred close to 1830 and certainly before 1836. One obvious answer springs to mind—the West Port Murders by William Burke and William Hare in 1827 and 1828.

Considering beliefs such as the alleged mimic burial given to Scottish sailors lost at sea, it would not be unreasonable for some person or person, in the absence of the seventeen dissected bodies, to wish to propitiate these dead, the majority of whom were murdered in atrocious circumstances, by a form of burial to set their spirits at rest. While it is always possible that other disasters could have resulted in an identical casualty list, the West Port murders would appear to be a logical motivating force.”

Since they published their book in 1994 the theory has grown but no real proof has connected the two events.


I’m Aaron, and I’d like to thank all our listeners, supporters, and my co-host.

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