The film director digging up the story of two Northern Ireland graverobbers
From An American Werewolf in London to Irish killers in Edinburgh — director John Landis is making a black comedy about two bloodthirsty killers from Northern Ireland who flogged the bodies of their victims for medical research.
William Burke, from Strabane in Co Tyrone, and William Hare, thought to be from Newry, emigrated in the early 19th century to Edinburgh to work as labourers.
They were short of money and long on potential cadavers and turned to murder at a time when ambitious anatomists were keen to get their hands on fresh bodies to dissect.
Their killing spree, in which they murdered 17 people from the lower echelons of Edinburgh society, has long been part of the city’s tourist trail — but Northern Ireland has been slow to claim its sanguine sons.
Landis’ movie Burke and Hare will star comedy actor Simon Pegg as Burke and Doctor Who’s David Tennant has just been confirmed in the role of William Hare when shooting begins at Ealing Studios in London next year.
A spokesman said the tale of Burke and Hare would make perfect fodder for Ealing Studios, the birthplace of classic comedies like The Ladykillers and more recently the revived St Trinian’s movies.
He said: “It really is a gothic comedy in the fine tradition of Ealing Studios — and having John Landis on board makes it even better.”
Landis, who directed An American Werewolf in London and Michael Jackson’s Thriller, has been on a fact-finding mission to Edinburgh, visiting the Royal College of Surgeons where the fruit of Burke and Hares’ labour was showcased on mortuary slabs.
He also met Owen Dudley Edwards, an Irish-born academic and authority on the pair.
Mr Dudley Edwards said Landis had made a lasting impression on him: “He is an ebullient and somewhat unforgettable conversationalist. It is hard to get a word in edgeways. In fact, the only person who would be able to silence him would be Burke or Hare.”
He added that the real history of Burke and Hare contained plenty of elements which would lend themselves to a blackly comic treatment.
“Burke happened upon a drunken old Irish woman who was fighting with two policemen. He said he would take her under his wing by bringing her back, and she wouldn’t bother them again. And that’s precisely what happened.”
A Strabane lad with a flair for the strange business of bodysnatching
Like most parents, William Burke’s father and mother in Urney, near Strabane, had high hopes for their son, sending him to work for a Presbyterian minister whom they judged would be a positive influence.
The clergyman encouraged his charge to join the Donegal militia. William later left the militia and married but tired of domesticity.
He left for Edinburgh to work on the Union Canal, acquiring a new girlfriend en route. The couple moved into William Hare’s boarding house.
When an elderly lodger died without paying his rent, Burke and Hare made a cunning plan to sell his body to doctors for dissection. Thus began their gruesome trade, which quickly escalated into murder.
Their method was to sit on the body to induce suffocation, a modus operandi which subsequently entered the lexicon of murder methods as ‘burking’.
As their body count increased, so did their self-confidence — and the medical establishment colluded, with one doctor turning a blind eye after recognising a prostitute he knew on the dissecting table.
But public suspicions grew as more and more well-known figures were ‘burked’ and the dastardly duo were arrested. Hare, about whom few biographical details have survived, turned King’s evidence.
Burke was publicly hanged and his body dissected. His skeleton remains on display to this day in Surgeon’s Hall in Edinburgh. Hare was released from custody.
What became of him, however, is one of history’s unsolved mysteries.