Elizabeth Byrd – Rest Without Peace (Pan 1976: originally MacMillan, 1974)
Edinburgh, 1828 – after they sell their first corpse to Dr. Knox with no questions asked, death brings a new way of life to Burke and Hare. Roaming the rat-infested, stench-filled squalor of the Old Town, they and their bawdy common-law wives lure harlots, drunks and tramps into Hare’s lodging house and suffocate them, so that trainee surgeons can practice their skills.
Burke had the nightmares, Hare the melancholies, but a dram helped and the dead could not come back – if the candle burnt all night ….
“… the desecration of holy ground – thank God there’s no such sin on our souls”.
Strange that the names Burke and Hare are synonymous with body-snatching when the pair never did an honest night’s grave robbing in their lives. Burke, inclined to give himself airs, evidently deluded himself that, by smothering the low-lives he lured to Tanners Close, he and his companions were selfless martyr’s to the advancement of medical research: And as the conniving Hare reminds him: “Besides, it’s mucky, dirty work. And dangerous, with the spy towers and all, and watchers with rifles. It’s a business for fools, I’m thinking.”
Given the abundance of ghoulish melodrama in the accepted story of their antics, it’s going to be pretty difficult to improve on the ‘facts’ in a work of fiction and, but for one ghostly visitation and a sequence in which Hare rapes a corpse repeatedly until the rats have gnawed her face, Elizabeth Byrd rarely indulges poetic licence to the maximum. Rest Without Peace is a dramatisation of the Westport murders which fleshes out the lives of the more anonymous victims and makes play on the abject poverty of the Edinburgh slums where the drink has claimed just about everybody to the point where, from the moment its denizens awake, they need a dram merely to function. As Burke warns Hare, Maggie and Nelly, when, following a party on Saturday they realise they’ll be dry for several hours until the Pub opens: “Never again must we be without drink. It was terrible…. If we should become careless from not drinking, it would be the end of us.”
It’s decided that Burke and the women should snare their victims for, as Burke diplomatically points out to his partner “your face … is a little strong for some tastes.” The plan is simple: pick up some poor bastard off the street (“No children under eleven. I’m not after being sure, but I think they bring less”), bring them back to the lodging house, ply these grateful guests with drink and smother ’em. As the corpses are bought on a no-questions-asked basis, they get away with it for the best part of a year, murdering at least fourteen men, women and children. Hare even fits in a few solo ventures and bashes a dogs brains out with a shovel. If Burke hadn’t grown careless and the others too greedy, it’s difficult to see how they’d ever have been stopped as the law didn’t have an inkling what was going on.
Burke, while far from being a sympathetic character, is nowhere near as loathsome as Hare who eventually sells him out when offered a pardon if he’ll incriminate his partner. But even he has his standards: “I’m sure as hell not sitting on nobodys face in public!” he storms, when Burke tells him of his plans to expand ‘the business’. Hare’s woman, Maggie is no less disloyal, advising her husband that, being a Scot, Nelly is untrustworthy and that they should kill her too. Surprisingly, Dr. Knox is a peripheral figure, seldom seen until the trial is over and the mob take to burning effigies of ‘Auld Cyclops’ in Surgeons Row. His arrogance sees him through even if his career proves impossible to salvage.
Burke and Hare. Dr. Jekyll & Sister Hyde just wouldn’t have been the same without them.