Medicine, Murder and Money – the true tale of Burke & Hare

Published On December 1, 2009 | By Joe Gordon | Comics, Reviews

Burke & Hare

by Martin Conaghan and Will Pickering

Insomnia Publications.

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“first of all, despite the rumours being bandied about, I am not a resurrection man”

Those chilling words, uttered in a flat, emotionless voice during William Burke’s confession immediately change your views on the whole Burke & Hare affair. The standard tale of Burke and Hare as grave-robbers still holds in popular culture, despite considerable evidence to the contrary.

But here, in this great little graphic novel, Conaghan and Pickering tell a ghoulish tale, a true tale, not of grave-robbing rogues (the resurrection men mentioned above) but of cold-hearted, calculating serial killers, whose loyalty to each other extended only as far as the pair remained at large.

William Burke and William Hare killed 16 people between 1827 and 1828 in Edinburgh, selling the bodies on for anatomical dissection to Dr Robert Knox, a successful anatomist whose need for bodies far outstripped those legitimately available to him. They were eventually captured, but as the evidence against the pair was not conclusive, Hare was offered, and accepted, immunity from prosecution and it was Burke that went to his death at the gallows in 1829 whilst Hare and Knox both escaped justice. In an  ironic twist, his body was publicly dissected at Edinburgh Medical College and his skeleton, death mask, and various items made from his tanned skin are still on display in the college’s museum to this day.

The graphic novel is a mere 60 pages long, but it reads much longer than that. It’s easily something you can and will read in one sitting, but also should prove to be something you’ll revisit many times. It’s a genuinely great debut graphic novel from Conaghan and Pickering.

The tale is told with short, factual based chapters, that start with Burke’s confession and take us back to the beginning; of Burke’s first meeting with Hare and the subsequent discovery of an old man dead in their lodgings that triggered the year long spree of murder that both men would carry out. Men, women and children, were suffocated in a manner which later gave us the term “Burking“; asphyxiation of their usually drunk victims by sitting on their chests, covering the mouth and nose and forcing the jaw up – a method calculated to leave no visible marks and allow the bodies to be sold to the medical profession. (Even here, Hare’s part in the crimes is forgotten it seems.)

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(The crime itself, in all it’s cold, calculated brutality. From Burke & Hare by Conaghan and Pickering. Published Insomnia Publications.)

According to Burke, it was Hare’s proposal that that initial body be sold to the doctors. Of course, since much of the narrative is based upon Burke’s confession, and his understandable desire to paint Hare in the worst light possible, Hare comes across in much of this as the instigator behind the crimes. But Burke’s obvious feelings of betrayal and injustice are quite understandable: Hare, with his decision to turn evidence, got off completely free, and following Burke’s hanging we see him board a carriage to take him away from the scenes of his crimes. His whereabouts from that moment are mere speculations, although the final page of the graphic novel, albeit a purely fictitious scene, does tie it all up nicely with a final meeting of Hare and the third principal player in this sordid tale; Dr Robert Knox.

Knox, to most readers, will be guilty of many things, up to and including aiding and abetting the murders. To have Burke & Hare regularly turn up at No. 10 Surgeons Square with bodies described by Knox as “remarkably fresh” and not even question their origins strikes most of us as questionable at he very least. But, as with so many historical events, a touch of the gentry and a little money goes a long way to keeping a guilty man out of the courts.

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(The third man in the Burke & Hare story, the man without whom…… Dr Robert Knox. From Burke & Hare by Conaghan and Pickering. Published Insomnia Publications.)

Conaghan acknowledges From Hell in the first page of his appendix, although he’s at pains to point out that he deliberately set out merely to present the facts “in as straightforward a fashion as possible“. And he does so brilliantly. Yet, in his writing, and with the subtle and effective artwork by Pickering, we are still treated to a thrilling and genuinely chilling tale of serial killers preying upon the weakest sections of society and, in telling the tale from Burke’s confession, we are immersed in the mind of a murderer. It’s not pleasant, but it is truly engrossing. It’s also genuinely chilling at times, just as it should be; the moments where Burke quite calmly recounts the murders, one after another, always ending with some iteration of the phrase “and she was disposed of in the same manner” really manage to convey the real horror of what was done, thanks to Conaghan’s writing and Pickering’s evocative artwork.

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(A few panels that perfectly capture both Pickering’s artwork and Conaghan’s story – the brutality of Burke and the cold, cold repititon of that phrase; “disposed of in the same manner”. From Burke & Hare by Conaghan and Pickering. Published Insomnia Publications.)

But the influence of From Hell is very visible in Pickering’s sketchy, black and white artwork. Whether a conscious decision or not, the art has the look and feel of Eddie Campbell. And I certainly don’t mean that as a criticism. To tell the story with a factual bent but to get the intrigue, emotion and sense of great evil that Burke & Hare has is in no small part down to Pickering’s artwork.

Once the story is done we have an extensive appendix section where Conaghan breaks down the book page by page giving us insights into the voluminous amounts of research he undertook, background to the tale and much more. It’s not essential to read the appendix, the Burke and Hare story more than holds up on it’s own. But once you have read the appendix, you’ll want to revisit the story with these new insights.

Burke & Hare includes pinups from Frank Quitely, Gary Erksine and Colin MacNeil, among others and features a quite magnificent cover by Rian Hughes. But they’re mere trappings to the main draw here; the simply brilliant of Burke & Hare, with Conaghan and Pickering’s excellent graphic novel taking a factual based look at one of the darker moments in Edinburgh’s history, stripping away the oft misunderstood folk-lore surrounding these two iconic figures and delivering a ghoulish, yet fascinating account of murder, history, medicine and greed.

For a preview of the book there’s a Myebook available here. And once you’ve done that, you’ll be wanting to buy a copy of the book right here; Martin and Will talked to us recently about the book and you can read their thoughts and see some of the pages here.

Richard Bruton.

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About The Author

Joe Gordon
Joe Gordon is ForbiddenPlanet.co.uk's chief blogger, which he set up in 2005. Previously, he was professional bookseller for over 12 years as well as a lifelong reader and reviewer, especially of comics and science fiction works.