Up the close and down the stair,
In the house with Burke and Hare.
Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief,
Knox, the boy who buys the beef.
Burke and Hare,
Fell down the stair,
With a body in a box,
Going to Dr. Knox.
—19th-century Edinburgh jumping-rope rhyme
Between November 1827 to 31 October 1828, a pair of Irish immigrants named William Burke and William Hare, murdered seventeen people and sold their bodies to Doctor Robert Knox. An anatomy instructor to students of Edinburgh Medical College, Knox needed cadavers for his “hands-on” lectures, but was hobbled by a silly little law that limited the supply of medical cadavers to that of executed criminals. Tragically, Scotland was experiencing a severe reduction in executions due to the scaling back of “The Bloody Code” (aka The Death Penalty) in favor of transporting criminals to Australia. As a result, less than six corpses were available to the growing rate of medical students. This gave rise to the carreer of “resurrectionist” (grave robbers, body snatchers) and, very quickly, “anatomy murder”. Which brings us back around to our heroes, Williams Burke and Hare.
With the assistance of Hare’s wife Margaret “Lucky” Laird and Burke’s lady-friend, “actress” Helen McDougal, the Williams became quite skilled in keeping Dr. Knox’s lectures going. They even developed a method of murder wherein they would sit on their drunk or drugged victims and crush their chests, while also smothering them. It was quick and clean, did no damage to the body beyond, you know, death. It came to be called “burking” (a term still used in the United Kingdom today, though it’s applied more to the peaceful or quiet suppression of dissent).
Because neither of the Williams or their ladyfriends could keep their bloody mouths shut, particularly when they were drunk—which, being Irish, was most of the time—they were eventually caught after a certain night when Burke “casually”—as casually as one known for a “ferocious and malignant disposition” [Newry Telegraph, 31 March 1829—Correspondence from the Northern Whig] can be—asked about the health of every single family member of a local business owner. Oh, and when most of Knox’s students recognized the fresh body of a local boy nicknamed “Daft Johnny”. (Knox dismissed this as nonsense and hurriedly removed the face, hands and feet of the corpse.)
Soon, the perpetrators of the “Westport Murders” were arrested (on admittedly thin evidence, according to the local constabulary). The ladies were acquitted due to lack of evidence; Hare struck a deal and pinned then entire mess on Burke, who was then hanged on January 28, 1829. Dr. Knox was never implicated in the affair but lost his standing at Edinburgh and by 1842 had taken a position at the London Free Cancer Hospital. He died quietly in 1862, was buried and was not resurrected. As a direct result of the actions of these villains, The Anatomy Act 1832 passed, increasing the methods of legal means for acquiring medical corpses and putting a kibosh on the incentive for grave robbing and anatomy murder. Little is known of Hare’s post-burking career, but the remains of both Williams ended up at the Edinburgh College, where they can be seen today.
In 1884, the pair were immortalized in Robert Louis Stevenson’s story “The Body Snatcher", which was made into a film starring Boris Karloff and produced by Val Lewton n 1945. In 1953, Dylan Thomas wrote a play inspired by them called The Doctor and the Devils, which was made into a 1985 film directed by Freddie Francis, who had previously directed an adaptation of the story, The Flesh and the Fiends, in 1960 starring Peter Cushing as Dr. Knox. The pair has shown up in one form or another in episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Dr. Who, countless short stories, novels and, as seen at the beginning of this piece, children’s jump-rope chants. Which just goes to show that body snatching takes many, many forms.
Burke and Hare, the latest telling of the exploits of this wacky duo showed up in the U.K., starring your favorite and mine, Simon Pegg as Burke, Andy Serkis as “Hare” (and not a motion-captured creature for a change), Tom Wilkinson as Knox and Tim Curry as Knox’s nemesis, Dr. Monro (who loves nothing more than to carry around new pairs of “display feet” to show to the upper crust). Directing this bloody, nasty, dark and brutal tale is none-other than John Landis. The film also features cameos by Jenny Augutter, Ronnie Corbett, Bill Bailey and a surprise visit from Sir Christopher Lee. Actually, this go-around isn’t dark, or nasty or very brutal. In fact, Landis has described it as a romantic comedy and the titular characters are really the heroes of this film! …Kinda. Depending on your definition of “hero”, I suppose. At the very least, they’re the most loveable serial murderers you’ve seen in a long time.
The lovable, hapless rogues are at the end of their rope (although not yet, literally), failing at numerous con-schemes and snake oil sales, and just when it seems all is lost, they hear about the plight of the anatomy professor. Seeing a hole in the supply end of this particular economics, they ponder the potential when Hare’s wife, Lucky (Jessica Hynes), declares that one of their upstairs tenants has passed on. And needs gotten-rid-of. Stuffing the poor gent into a barrel, the pair roll the fresh body (albeit, one snapped in half in order to fit into said barrel) over to Knox’s castle. Upon inspection, the corpse-poor anatomist offers them a large sum of money to bring him two bodies per week, no questions asked.
Elated at the prospect but unsure how to go about achieving their weekly goal, the Williams stop off for a pint and it’s there that Willie Burke meets and falls in love with Helen McDougal (Isla Fisher). The former prostitute is currently pursuing a career in acting, hoping to some day produce an all-female version of MacBeth. If only she could find a financier...
Returning home, joy-upon-joys, a drunken Lucky declares that their last tenant is so close to death he just needs to be reminded to shove-off. And that’s when the duo sits down (upon dying Joseph) and invent “burking”. Out of tenants but not ideas, our heroes set out to ply their new trade to greater or lesser success. Soon the money is rolling in. Hare begins saving up for his own funeral parlor, while Burke fancies himself as Helen’s future backer (and fronter, if he plays his cards right and you get my meaning).
Landis’ Burke and Hare follows the timeline and methods, more or less, of the real duo’s history, but plays around with the rest of the details for additional fun. For instance, while it’s true that Charles Darwin was a student of Dr. Monro’s for a time, rather than assisting in acquiring legal corpses for the obsequious surgeon, he was so disgusted by the man’s attitudes toward dissection—including showing up for business meetings still covered in the red of his trade—that it turned Darwin off medicine entirely, switching his attention to Naturalism and Natural History. (So you creationists out there should focus a little more of your bitterness onto Monro.) There is no evidence to support the film’s depiction of Monro’s literal foot fetish, and even less evidence to support that Hare did anything with his life following his betrayal of Burke, let alone establish a thriving funeral parlor. And the idea that Willie Burke was just a sweet, lonely lad with flexible scruples may well be the biggest fabrication of them all. But none of that should bother you unless you’re one of those anal compulsive experts on resurrectionists. And if you are, you undoubtedly have much bigger things to worry about.
Much has been made about Burke and Hare being John Landis’ first feature film in over ten years, but while that’s true, it isn’t like the famed director has been treading water all these years, what with his work on documentaries, episodes of The Masters of Horror, etc., so don’t call this a “comeback”. At least not to his face. Burke and Hare is a far cry from the chaos of The Blues Brothers and An American Werewolf in London. Instead, it has the restrained absurdity and dignified slapstick of the classic Ealing Studios like The Lavender Hill Mob.
In fact, Ealing has had a bit of a resurgence in the last decade, thanks to the remake of the mysteriously-popular “St. Trinian’s Girls” movies. For further connection, “St. Trinian's” writers Piers Ashworth and Nick Moorcroft penned the B&H screenplay, Pegg’s (and Wright’s) landmark Shaun of the Dead and Neal Marshall’s The Descent were shot on the Ealing lots. By Landis’ own admission, “This is very much my attempt to make an Ealing comedy, in the very black tradition of Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Ladykillers, where the whole cast murders one another.” (“Burke and Hare behind the scenes”, The Telegraph, Horatia Harrod 04 Oct 2010) According to Serkis (in the same article), Landis wanted the Burke and Hare dynamic to be “like an evil Laurel and Hardy”, and since the actors are getting along so well, we, as an audience, can forgive the nasty murder and corpse-abuse.
One final bit of geekery before we move on: most of the gory body parts were supplied by none-other than friend-of-Landis-and-horror-fans-all, Greg Nicotero. “You gotta pull favours in this industry, there’s no money”, said Pegg (same piece).
Like the majority of the Ealing Studios’ films, Burke and Hare is amusing but not hilarious, romantic but not saccharine, and has a slower pace than our modern deficient attention spans are used to without being boring. Sometimes the European and American sensibilities clash—we’re much more appreciative of the emptying of bed pans onto characters, moreso when the gag is repeated. We also appreciate it when our anti-heroes drop the “anti” in the third act, so that instead of one William betraying the other, the latter makes a noble sacrifice for the former. Whether or not we Yankees get the cameo by William Wordsworth or the numerous anachronisms is really beside the point. So, too, is the film’s message “who’s more evil, the killers or the doctors?” It’s not like those things will stifle enjoyment.
What will stifle enjoyment, or even the opportunity to decide, is the fact that Burke and Hare has come and gone in the United Kingdom, available on PAL DVD and Blu-Ray, the closest we here in the states can come to the film is to stream it on Amazon On-Demand. No formal DVD release date has been announced, let alone a theatrical screening. We, as a nation should protest. May I recommend petitioning the holders of the U.S. rights, IFC Films? We should all send them a fresh corpse to make our point.