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New Screenplay - Burke and Hare

Updated: Jan 20

One of the most popular genres in film and tv is crime yet, to date, no-one has made a decent dramatization of Burke and Hare. John Landis made a pretty poor attempt with a release in 2010 that was neither dark nor particularly funny despite a strong cast while back in 1972, Vernon Sewell directed a pseudo Hammer Horror type movie that aligned more to soft porn than a serious suspense.

Yet here is a story that has just about everything to make a great crime suspense thriller. Serial killers running amok in the filthy 18th century streets of Edinburgh during the early days of police law enforcement and the mass publication of newspapers.

The city, like many across Europe, laid bare the stark contracts between the rich and the poor who lived cheek by jowl at a time when health and hygiene were still not fully understood and adhered to and the average life span was no more that 40 years of age.

Into this mix we have doctors and scientists striving to understand and break the boundaries of knowledge as they attempt to make advancements in anatomy, held back by British laws that restricted the number of cadavers an anatomist could use to educate the increasing numbers of students entering the medical profession.

Like all criminals, when opportunity knocks and there is money to be made, there is no holding back, so I guess it was only a matter of time for the perfect storm to settle in Scotland's capital city during a period known as The Scottish Enlightenment.

Being from Edinburgh, I (along with many others) take it for granted that the story of Burke and Hare is known around the world, (and there are many websites relaying the story) but it is not as well known as one might think.

Only recently I had friends from Madrid staying and one Sunday afternoon I took them on a walk through the Old Town and down the Cowgate extolling the story of one of the earliest recorded incidents of serial killers in Europe (when we normally think of serial killers working on their own).

My Madridean friends had never heard of these murderers and they were fascinated by the story. They were astounded to hear how 16 victims had been murdered over such a short period of time, although it is thought there were many more unrecorded victims who succumbed to the hands of these two killers, who in their own way were caught in their own struggles for survival at a time when there was no benefits system or support for a significantly large percentage of the population and the only option was the dreaded workhouse for those who needed a roof over their head and some food in their bellies.

As is the fate of most criminals, their crimes are discovered and they are apprehended whereupon the Scottish legal system acts fast to set up a trial, but capturing the perpetrators is all good and well but there was very little evidence to connect the murderers to the victims.

That's where King's Evidence came into place. Having William Hare and Margaret Hare provide witness statements accusing William Burke of the murder of Mrs Docherty (their final victim) and Helen as an accomplice to the events, the prosecution now had the chance of getting at least one conviction.

With William Hare and Margaret Hare dodging the noose and double crossing their partners, William Burke and Helen McDougal were now fighting for their lives.

Incredibly, the accused would have some of the best lawyers in the land defending them including the elected head of Scottish lawyers, Sir William Moncrieff for William Burke and the noted Whig advocate and distant relative of Dundas, Henry Cockburn.

These lawyers were smart and knew their way around a courtroom, while there was an undercurrent of politics with the Whigs hoping to embarrass the ruling Conservatives (though political parties were not the same as in contemporary times as they were more aligned to the needs and power of the landowners and gentry).

Burke and Hare lodgings in the West Port

So the trial began on 24rd December and at eight thirty on the morning of Christmas Day, 1828, the jury retired to reach a verdict which only took fifty minutes to reach. It would be no real surprise that one of guilty was found for William Burke while Helen was found not guilty on all charges to which Burke congratulated her with the words "You are out of the scrape".

The tension of the story increases as Burke is hanged on a cold winter's day in January 1829 in front of a street bursting thirty thousand crowd of onlookers wanting their pound of flesh.

Among the audience there is every probability that Sir Walter Scott witnessed the hanging as he was an avid follower of the story and even played a part in ensuring Dr. Knox did not present a talk at the Royal Society. He recorded on the 14th January that he "caused a meeting of the Council of the Royal Society to be called, as Knox, 'whose name has of late been deeply implicated in a criminal prosecution,' proposed to read before that body a paper on anatomical subjects. A bold proposal truly from one who has had so lately the boldness of trading so deep in human flesh! I will oppose his reading in the present circumstances, if I should stand alone."

At the Council "Mr Knox's friends undertook to deal with him," and the paper was quietly dropped.

Later on 4th April 1829, Sir Walter Scott indicated the following. "I have a letter" writes Sir Walter Scott, "from one David Paterson, who was Dr. Knox's jackel for buying murdered bodies, suggesting that I should write on the subject of Burke and Hare, and offering me his invaluable collection of anecdotes! Curse him imperance and dam him insurance. Did ever one hear the like? The scoundrel has been the companion and patron of such atrocious murderers and kidnappers, and he has the impudence to write to any decent man!"

Even with the hanging of Burke, the citizens of Edinburgh were unimpressed that neither Hare or Knox, the anatomist receiving the victims, were tried and convicted and subsequently the burning of effigies and vigilantism permeated through the city while Helen and McDougal were chased out, never to be seen again.

With such facets of an intriguing and dramatic, why has a decent script never been written for television or film?

Using two books as the basis for the screenplay: Burke and Hare by William Roughead published in 1921 and Trial of William burke and Helen McDougal published in 1829, I ventured forth to write a screenplay for television.

This dramatisation follows the journey of fictional character Archibald Johnson, a newspaper reporter who is investigating the criminal activities of the body snatchers in connection with his recent interview of Dr Robert Knox, the successful anatomist who is filling the lecture theatres with his classes.

In the course of his inquiries he is approached by the city fathers to find some of the perpetrators as it is not only causing anger among the citizens but affecting the reputation of the city as it expands.

Johnson enters a rabbit hole of violence and vice in the dark corners of the city's underbelly leading him towards the eventual confrontation with Hare, the capture of the murderers and the eventual hanging of Burke.

The story not only highlights the nature of the murders but also the stark contrast between the social classes. Knox, his family and colleagues live in a world of security, comfort and order. They attend charity bazaars to raise money for the poor while looking down their noses at these unfortunates.

Meanwhile Burke and Hare and their neighbours live in survival mode where there if perpetual suffering and very little privacy. Everyone scrapes a living on a day-by-day basis.

As the four perpetrators follow their chosen path of murder, conflicts and fractures begin to appear in their relationships. Mistrust begins to gnaw at their paranoia even when the money roles in.

Throughout the screenplay there are strong characters set to stamp their authority in the progression of the story.

Sgt Fisher comes across as a no nonsense, brawling police officer not to be messed with. Johnson is over confident in his abilities which lead to a life threatening scene. Hare is psychopathic while Burke is burly but slow thinking.

The women are conniving while the victims are vulnerable and sympathetic.

Spanning four episodes, with each episode approximately one and a half hours long, the tension builds as the story line becomes darker with each progressing scene as it hurls towards the trial and Burke's realization of his predicament.

You can find out more about Edinburgh in the 19th century, colourised photos I have worked on and other snippets on Burke and Hare by clicking here.

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