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The Woman Who Loved a Body Snatcher

A jury’s acquittal failed to derail a community’s diagnosis momentum.

Key points

  • Sensational crimes trigger expections that fuel beliefs about ultimate results.
  • In 1828, a woman was acquitted of helping her lover kill people to supply bodies to an anatomist.
  • The townspeople had anchored so firmly in her guilt that they rejected the jury's decision; emotion trumped legal reasoning.
Drawing by K. Ramsland
Rendition of Helen MacDougal
Source: Drawing by K. Ramsland

When I visited the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh recently, I discovered a special exhibit, “Anatomy: A Matter of Death and Life.” I couldn’t resist. The big attraction was the area reserved for the story of William Burke and William Hare, the infamous body snatchers. I’ve included them in several books on historical serial murder, and here were descriptions of each of the 16 murder victims, as well as details about the defense of a 33-year-old woman, Helen MacDougal, alleged to have been involved.

The latter caught my attention. She rarely comes up in the accounts. The mother of two from a previous relationship, she'd hooked up with Burke, a married man separated from his family in Ireland. MacDougal was tagged as a member of “the degraded class.”

Reportedly, multiple attorneys jumped into the high-profile case. Hare became the Crown’s star witness, trading loyalty for immunity from prosecution. Henry Cockburn, considered one of the country’s best legal minds, represented MacDougal. He insisted there was no proof that she knew or did anything related to the three murders in the indictment. Burke backed this up and Cockburn achieved an acquittal. As the judge commented to MacDougal before her release, a “not proven” verdict didn’t mean she was innocent. Indeed, she wasn’t safe anywhere in town thereafter, as her association with Burke (who was convicted), ensured the perception of guilt by association.

The angry townspeople could see for themselves the cramped quarters in West Port where the murders occurred. She had to have known. Before she even stood trial, the cognitive processes of anchoring and diagnosis momentum were in full force in the community. Anchoring is about sticking with the original idea, despite new information that could change it. In the medical field, diagnosis momentum means that once a diagnostic label has been assigned, it’s difficult to view the patient’s symptoms differently. In Edinburgh, people had made up their minds and no jury was going to dissuade them. Mobs stormed every place MacDougal tried to hide, with the intent to kill.

I’ve accepted that relatives of serial killers are often in the dark, even when bodies are stored in the residence (it has happened). Psychopathic killers can be skilled deceivers. But in this case, I tend to think MacDougal knew that her partner was not just a middleman between anatomists and grave robbers. I wonder why the jury discounted some crucial witness reports.

Let’s back up a little for context.

In 1604, King Henry made it illegal to steal a corpse. Yet as the medical establishment grew more sophisticated during the 19th century, anatomy teachers needed more than the four corpses they received per year from the gallows. Some students raided cemeteries or hired "resurrection men" to dig up fresh graves. Anatomy lecturers often purchased these specimens.

Hare and his wife ran a boarding house on Tanner’s Close in the West Port area of Edinburgh. Burke and MacDougal arrived one day and ran into Margaret Hare on the street. Burke knew her and agreed to move into her place. He became Hare’s business partner.

When an elderly boarder who owed Hare money died from natural causes in 1827, they delivered the corpse to an anatomist, Robert Knox, who paid well for a fresh body in good shape. The payment refilled Hare's pocket and gave him an idea: just kill some. The trick was to present a body that had no bruises or wounds, because it commanded a higher fee, especially if fresh.

Hare and Burke looked for easy prey among vagrants, sex workers, and people already ill or addicted to booze. The predators would get their victims into a vulnerable position, such as getting them drunk, and either grab them in an arm lock around the throat or sit on them while holding their nose closed. This came to be known as "burking.” They smothered one woman with a bed sheet, and a man with a pillow. Over the course of nine months, they murdered 16 people and sold their corpses.

At one point, Margaret thought Helen might become a leak, making Burke anxious enough to take her away for a while. But they returned, moved into an adjacent house, and resumed their morbid business. Finally, they were caught, appropriately on Halloween. Burke and MacDougal were hosting a couple, the Grays. These two wondered what had happened to an elderly woman they’d seen at the house. MacDougal lied about her absence. But the woman’s body, hidden under straw on a bed, was beginning to smell. Mrs. Gray found it. MacDougal tried to bribe her and her husband to keep quiet. Margaret Hare attempted to get them to a tavern "for drinks." The Grays went instead to the police, who found the corpse already delivered to Knox.

Burke was hanged. His corpse was turned over to the anatomists at Edinburgh University to be publicly dissected. His skin was tanned and made into items like wallets and business card holders, and his skeleton was put on display. It’s in the exhibit.

I happened to be staying directly across from a pub where Burke and Hare met some of their targets before taking them home. Although the boarding house itself was razed in 1902, renditions of it were part of the museum exhibit. I tend to agree with the common sentiment: It’s difficult to believe that the women who lived there had no idea what their partners were doing, especially since the corpse that caught them was barely hidden and they’d attempted to silence the couple who’d discovered it.

MacDougal’s acquittal was likely the result of a skilled defense rather than a case of actual innocence. She did know that a murder victim was in her house. For women who had little means of support, it was likely easier to accommodate, even facilitate, their partner’s criminal acts than to leave him and set off on their own. MacDougal reportedly refused to betray Burke by testifying, so perhaps her commitment to him helped her to minimize the crimes.

Several accounts turned up of her fate, and one holds that she was recognized and murdered by a mob of women. It's not corroborated. We also don’t know which account of Hares is correct, but he apparently had no easy time of it. Mobs attacked him as well. Margaret managed to get to Belfast. She, too, had a hand in it, and she seems to be the one least touched by the consequences.

References

Edwards, O. D. (2010). Burke and Hare. 3rd ed. Birlinn.

Ireland, T. (1829). A report on the trial of Burke and M’Dougal. Edinburgh.

McNee, J. (1829). Trial of William Burke and Helen MacDougal. Robt. Buchannan.

Morgenstern, J. (2015, Sept 15). Cognitive errors in medicine. https://first10em.com/cognitive-errors/

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