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On This Day... 6 November 1828: The real Mary Paterson

By Alexander Clapperton, November 6, 2014 - 3:56pm
A contemporary illustration of Mary Paterson (not drawn from life)

On the evening of the 5th of November 1828, a woman by the name of Janet Brown read in the Edinburgh Courant of the arrest of William Burke and William Hare on suspicion of murder. She was shocked, both men being known to her, and with growing dread recalled that it was in their company that she had last seen her friend, Mary Paterson, six months previously. The next morning, she went to the police and was able to identify several items of clothing as belonging to Mary, allowing the police to add her name to the growing list of Burke and Hare's victims.

Mary's story was seized upon by the journalists of the day as a kind of cruel morality play: it was widely reported that she was a well-known prostitute, and that she had been identified by the student who was to dissect her: that student being formerly one of her clients. Such reports typically concluded that Mary's end was the inevitable consequence of a life lived in sin.

In fact, there is no evidence that Mary had ever been a prostitute. Though poor, she was a beautiful, well-known and liked young woman who had come to Edinburgh from Glasgow to work as a maid, and had entered into a relationship with a student at the medical school. When she fell pregnant by him, the young "gentleman", being engaged to marry, broke off the affair.

She carried her pregnancy to term, and during her confinement lodged with a friend of hers, Helen MacDougal, and her "husband" William Burke. After delivering a healthy boy, she applied to and was accepted by the Edinburgh Magdalene Asylum, leaving her son in the care of another friend.

The Magdalene Asylum, located discreetly off the Canongate, was something between a refuge and a reformatory. It had been set up in the 1790s as an institute to which women who were in peril of falling into a life of criminality could turn to bring them back into acceptable society. The only conditions set on applicants were that they be judged genuinely penitent and capable of being reformed. The asylum trained and supported its inmates until they could be placed in a position of employment in a reputable house.

Mary spent several years in the asylum, and was finally discharged on the 8th of April 1828, looking forward to a brighter future. To celebrate her reformation, Janet Brown met her upon her release and took her for breakfast. She could not possibly have known that in leading her to their mutual friend William Burke's lodging house on the West Port to dine, Brown was leading her to her death.

Burke, now living with William Hare and the pair's wives, had been murdering people for several months, to sell their corpses to the anatomist Robert Knox. He provided the two women with ample food and good cheer in the form of a couple of bottles of whisky. Mary eventually passed out, and Brown left her in the care of Burke and MacDougal. When she returned, the girl was gone: MacDougal claimed she and Burke had left without saying where they were going.

Janet Brown spent weeks searching for her friend to no avail: as far as anyone knew, Mary had simply disappeared. In fact, when Janet asked of her whereabouts, Mary was lying hidden under a straw mattress only feet from where Janet had seen her last. She had been smothered in her sleep by William Burke, and she was transported later that evening to the offices of Doctor Robert Knox in Surgeon's Square. Less than a day after she had been released from the Magdalene Asylum, her body was being preserved in a tank of whisky by Knox, who was so impressed by her beauty that he had several local artists visit his office to have sketches of her made.

Mary might, at least, have been spared the final indignity of being dissected, either by her former lover or Doctor Knox. Knox made the mistake of showing off his acquisition to fellow surgeon Robert Liston. Being an extraordinarily charitable man who frequently operated in the slums on those who had been turned away by the hospital, Liston was as familiar with the underclass of the Old Town as if he were one of them. In a letter to a friend, he claimed to have immediately recognised the girl and, incensed by Knox's smugness at his possession of her, to have promptly punched him to the floor and had her remains removed for burial.

If this was the case, it seems he neglected to alert Janet Brown to his discovery. She only found out what had become of her friend in the course of Burke's eventual trial and, in the aftermath, did all she could to defend Mary's memory from the lurid stories woven around her by the sensationalist newspaper writers and novelists for whom the whole story was a tremendous gift. It was to no avail: the legends were already being spun, and it made a more satisfying moral homily if Mary was a victim whose death, while tragic, was the consequence of a wicked life.

In many respects, the writers who promulgated these fables missed the most important point: Mary was a well-known, well-liked and relatively respectable resident of the Old Town, and yet her disappearance was completely ignored by the authorities, as were those of most of the other victims. Burke and Hare are often pictured as being cunning villains, carefully selecting their prey to minimise the risk of being detected. In truth, they were outragously opportunistic, killing whomever they stumbled across when they were short of money, and barely lifting a finger to cover their tracks. They had even kept the clothing of almost every one of their victims in their own home, allowing Janet to finally discover Mary's fate.

It was official apathy over the disappearence of members of the lower classes from the slums which allowed Burke and Hare to continue killing for another six months after Mary Paterson was murdered. They claimed sixteen lives in total (twelve of whom were women), but only Burke stood trial, and was tried only for the murder of their last victim (one Mrs Docherty, whose body was the only one recovered). He later confessed to his part in all of the murders, including Mary's, which had fetched the pair eight Pounds.

After the facts of the case were laid out, many asked how it could have happened. Sir Walter Scott summarised the cause of Burke and Hare's success, with these bitterly frank words:

"Our Irish importation have made a great discovery of Economics, namely, that a wretch who is not worth a farthing while alive becomes a valuable article when knocked on the head and carried to an anatomist; and acting on this principle, have cleared the streets of some of those miserable offcasts of society, whom nobody missed, because nobody wished to see them again."

Janet Brown might have disagreed with Scott's last point, but it's reasonable to assume that he meant "nobody who mattered".