Sabtu, 28 Januari 2012

Bad landlords in history: the Hares

The Institute of Tenancy Culture Studies presents a study in an allied field: Bad Landlords in History.


In the 1820s, in Tanners Close, just off Edinburgh's West Port, Margaret Hare ran a lodging house. Her husband, William, was, like many of the lodging house's clientele, a labourer, employed digging out the Edinburgh-Glasgow Union Canal (actually, he was Margaret's second husband, and formerly a lodger in the same house).

(Old Edinburgh)

Sometime in 1827, one of the Hares' lodgers, a dissipated veteran called Donald, died, owing 4 pounds in rent. What's a landlord to do?

(a) give him a decent burial - brotherhood of man and all that;
(b) inform the relevant charities - it's their duty to do something; or
(c) get your husband and one of his mates to sell the poor man's corpse to an anatomist for dissection in front of a paying audience?

Margaret Hare choose (c).

So William and his mate, William Burke, another navvy on the canal, filled Donald's coffin with bark and hauled his body over to Edinburgh University, where they found Dr Knox, surgeon and private anatomy lecturer, who happily paid 7 pounds 10 shillings for the body and didn't ask too many questions.

The transaction thus completed, what's a landlord to do?

(a) repent and confess the whole sordid business to the authorities;
(b) try never to think of it, or Dr Knox, ever again; or
(c) consider who amongst your lodgers would make a good corpse for sale?

The Hares choose (c).

Another of the Hares' lodgers, an old miller named Joseph, wasn't dead yet, but he was sick – so William Hare and William Burke plied him with whisky, then suffocated him. Knox paid well for the corpse. With no more likely candidates amongst the lodgers of the house, the Hares began inviting drunks, beggars, prostitutes and other indigents into the house, to be dispatched by Hare and Burke, and their corpses sold to Knox for dissection.

This enterprise came undone in October 1828, when a couple of guests in the house discovered the body of Margaret Docherty, with whom they'd shared a drink just the previous night, stashed under a bed. The police were alerted, but found no corpse at the Hares' lodging house; but when they later called on Dr Knox, there was Docherty's body on the slab, ready for anatomy class.

William Hare was arrested, along with Burke. What's a landlord to do?

(a) confess and pay the price of one's crimes;
(b) exercise one's right to silence; or
(c) do a deal for immunity from prosecution in return for becoming the Crown's principal witness against one's co-accused?

William Hare choose (c).

Faced with Hare's evidence, William Burke confessed, was found guilty and, on this day 183 years ago, taken to the public gallows and hanged. The Hares went free. (But not entirely unpunished. So the story goes, William Hare was shamed, set upon by a mob, blinded and eked out his days as a beggar. As for Margaret Hare - what's a landlord to do? She emigrated to Australia.)

If the tone of our account of Burke and the Hares is a little jocular, that's because it's a form of self-preservation: the horror of these crimes is difficult to contemplate. In the course of a year they murdered not less than 16 persons, and subjected them to indignities beyond death, all for filthy lucre. Writers and artists have been fascinated: Burke and the Hares have inspired a Robert Louis Stevenson story, no less than seven films, and numerous mentions in Ian Rankin's tenurially significant Rebus novels.

Indeed, the first poetical response to the crimes was probably that of the trial judge, who sentenced Burke not merely to be hanged, but to be thereafter dissected in the same anatomy theatre as his and Hare's victims. And so he was, with the presiding anatomist writing in blood taken from Burke's head and his flayed skin tanned and tooled into a card case. Burke's bones and skin remain on display in museums in Edinburgh today.

And this whole bloody history sprang from a poor lodger's rent arrears, and the greed lurking in the hearts of two bad landlords.