Burke & Hare’s Last Victim |The Final Days of Margaret Docherty

After discovering the rich rewards of selling cadavers to anatomists when one of William Hare’s lodgers, an old soldier named Donald, died without paying his rent, Burke and Hare soon realized they were on to a good, if not very lucrative, idea. 

They would spend the next 10 months of 1828 murdering 16 forgotten inhabitants of Edinburgh and get paid for it in return.

Burke and Hare killed their final victim, Margaret or Mary Docherty on the eve of All Hallows, 31st October 1828. Just like their other victims, she was plied with liquor and then suffocated with a carefully placed hand over the nose and mouth. The discovery of Docherty led to the downfall of Burke and Hare, ending in the execution of Burke on 28th January 1829. 

Margaret Docherty, Burke & Hare's Last Victim
Margaret Docherty Burke & Hare’s Last Victim | NY Academy of Medicine

This post just looks at Burke and Hare’s last victim, Margaret Docherty. If you want to dig deeper and discover the full history of their murder spree, then head over to my other post on the Burke and Hare, The Edinburgh Murderers to discover more about how much money they made, who on earth were they, and of course, what happened after their trial.

Finding Burke & Hare’s Last Victim

Burke and Hare found their last victim, Margaret Docherty when Burke befriended her in Rymer’s grocer’s shop, near Tanner’s Close, Edinburgh. Pretending that his mother was also named Docherty, Burke gained Margaret’s trust before luring her back to his lodging house.  

Having already wandered the streets of Glasgow looking for her son Michael, Margaret, also known as Ma’, was now in Edinburgh, trying to locate the boy in an area that would be completely unfamiliar to her.

Unfortunately, Margaret’s wandering took her into Rymer’s, a shop selling basic provisions that just so happened to also offer a ‘wee dram’, if you asked nicely at the counter.

Located on the West Port, not too far from Tanner’s Close, calling into Rymer’s was a regular morning habit of William Burke’s, taking a ‘wee nip’ of a morning to set him on the right course for the day. 

It was on a typical morning such as this, the morning of the eve of All Hallow’s to be exact, that Margaret wandered into Rymer’s begging for charity. 

Burke immediately recognized the signs of a potential next victim. Docherty was alone, begging for charity, and most importantly of all would not be missed if she were to suddenly disappear. The charitable Burke quickly sprung into action.

Offering Margaret a drink, he delighted in telling her that his mother also came from Margaret’s hometown, Inishowen, and that, guess what, her name was Docherty too! Oh the joy on poor Margaret’s face, to have discovered in her hour of need a fellow countryman and a possible relation at that.

Little did she know that befriending Burke would be the worst mistake she would ever make. 

Burke’s offer of breakfast and a drink back at his house could not have come at a more timely moment for Margaret. She was no doubt cold, tired, and feeling utterly helpless in being unable to find her son.

She willingly accepted Burke’s generosity.

William Burke’s House, Westport, Edinburgh

William Burke's House  in Tanner's Close, Westport, Edinburgh
Ground Plan of William Burke’s House | NY Academy of Medicine

Once safely inside Burke’s house, located a few streets away from Tanner’s Close, Margaret Docherty was introduced to the rest of the ‘family’. Helen McDougal, Burke’s wife, and Burke’s current lodgers James and Ann Grey, along with their infant child.

A cozy little set-up by all accounts.

As the day wore on and preparations for the evening Halloween celebrations were beginning, Burke informed the Greys that the bed that they rented from him would be needed that night for their visitor, a relative from his mother’s hometown, Margaret Docherty. 

Offering to pay for alternative lodgings at Hare’s rooms for the evening, the Greys reluctantly accepted and prepared to move out for the night. 

With some comings and goings by the Greys for clothes, and Helen McDougal for what can perhaps be presumed for alcohol, by 9 pm things had settled down somewhat with Burke and Hare, together with their wives and Margaret were drunkenly celebrating Halloween.

Murdering Their Last Victim: Margaret Docherty

As the night wore on, neighbours are said to have heard shouting and fighting coming from Burke’s rooms at around 11:30 pm. Although this appears to have been a common occurrence, Hugh Alston, a nearby neighbour recalls what he thought were shouts of:

For God’s sake get the police, there’s murder here!

But unfortunately, no police could be found. And all went quiet at Burke’s house. 

Margaret was never to stir again for while she lay unconscious on the floor, Burke and Hare put their murder method into action and took the opportunity to dispatch her.

After learning from their mistake of presenting a fully clothed body to Dr Knox when their lucrative sideline was just getting started, the pair immediately stripped Margaret of all her clothes, hiding her naked body under a pile of straw in the corner of the room. 

With the deed done, Burke made his way quickly to the home of David Paterson, Dr. Knox’s assistant who lived close by in the West Port to arrange the collection of the body as, he informed Paterson, had ‘procured something for the doctor’.

If you want to head down a rabbit hole or are unsure about the murder method used by Burke and Hare, then I think you’ll find my post the Simple Art of Burking interesting. In it, I look at how Burke and Hare killed their victims, and how the press whipped up a frenzy about this particular style of murder.

Finding The Body Of Margaret Docherty

While Burke was running through the streets of Edinburgh in an invisible triangle between his house, Paterson’s and Knox’s anatomy school in Surgeons’ Square, the Greys were making their way home for breakfast. 

Suspicious as to why the Docherty wasn’t there when they’d arrived, they quizzed Burke’s wife, Helen McDougal.

[I] threw her out’ was her reply. She’d been getting ‘over-familiar ‘ with her husband and she didn’t like it. 

On being left in the house on their own later that morning, the Greys could no longer hide their curiosity about the lump under the straw in the corner. Ann Grey had previously been warned and told ‘keep out [of] there’ by Burke earlier that morning so already she was more than a little curious as to what they were hiding. 

It was Margaret’s lifeless arm that was first discovered and on clearing the straw away, the full realization of what they were seeing slowly dawned on them. They were staring at the murdered body of Margaret Docherty. 

When confronted by the discovery, Helen McDougal offered the Greys a cut on the deal if they would only keep their mouths shut. If Mr Grey could just…

Hold his tongue and she would give him a few shillings, and if he would be quiet, it might be worth £10 a week to him

A similar bribe was also offered to Mrs Grey but the pair had a conscience and after a short delay in the pub, went in search of the police.

How Burke & Hare Were Caught?

In the time between Grey fetching the police and returning back to their lodgings, Burke was busying himself purchasing a tea chest from Rymer, the grocer, and delivering Margaret’s body to Dr Knox. 

Wedged into a tea chest, with her hair neatly tucked inside and her body covered in a little straw, Margaret prepared to make her journey to Surgeon’s Square. The lid was nailed shut, and the chest roped for added security.

On arrival at Surgeons’ Square, Burke and Hare were given a small payment in lieu of the body being inspected by Knox the following Monday. Each received £2 10s. Back at Burke’s lodgings, their murdering empire was in the process of crumbling down. 

This price was relatively low considering the price Burke and Hare had gotten for their other victims. If you want to take a deep dive and look at the profits involved in selling bodies for dissection, then take a look at my post ‘Making a Killing: How Much Money Did Burke and Hare Make?’

James Grey had returned with Sergeant John Fisher, meeting Burke and his wife McDougal on their way up the stairs. When all four entered the house and the search in the straw began, it didn’t take long to discover that the body was gone. 

On Sunday morning, 2nd November Lieutenant Paterson, together with Seargent John Fisher, visited Knox’s assistant David Paterson at his home in the West Port and accompanied him to Surgeons’ Square in search of Margaret’s body. 

She was found, still boxed up in the tea chest.

Her naked body doubled up inside.

Sentencing William Burke, The Edinburgh Murderer

Execution of the William Burke
Execution of the William Burke | Wellcome Collection

The trial of the murderers caused something of a sensation in Edinburgh that Christmas and on Christmas Day, the Lord Justice-Clerk donned his black cap and passed his sentence:

That Burke to be taken to the Tollbooth of Edinburgh and fed on bread and water only, until Wednesday, 28, January, when he was to be taken to the common place of execution in the Lawnmarket and hanged by the neck until dead, after which his body was to be delivered to Professor Monro to be publicly dissected and anatomized

Burke was executed in front of a large crowd on 28th January 1829. His body was indeed sent for dissection, and can still be seen in the University of Edinburgh’s Anatomy Museum at Teviot Place.

The rest of Burke is scattered around Edinburgh and its environs, causing just as much of a sensation now as he did back in 1829. 

You can discover exactly where William Burke’s skeleton is and other ‘bits’ of him, including bits of his brain and a book made out of his skin in my blog post The Murderer William Burke: Finding His Skeleton’.

But, lets not forget that there were two men involved in the murders and the other, William Hare, turned King’s Evidence and was set free.

To find out what happened to William Hae, take a deep dive into my post by the same name, What Happened to William Hare? Did he return to Ireland or was he killed while serving time as a convict in Australia?

Books About Burke And Hare

There have been so many books written about Burke and Hare that it can be difficult to know where to start.

I have just two on my bookshelves, one by the authority on Burke and Hare, Owen Dudley Edwards, and another by one of my favourite authors, Brian Bailey.

Dudley Edwards’ book, The True Story of the Infamous Burke and Hare’ ( available via Amazon) is well-researched but I find it a little heavy going in places and personally prefer a lighter read.

For that reason, I chose Brian Bailey’s ‘Burke and Hare: The Year of The Ghouls (Available via Amazon). Bailey’s book is more the type that I can sit down and actually read, rather than use as a reference guide.

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