In a previous post (Historical Writing – Fact or Fiction?) I talked about using research as a tool to help create realistic descriptions of everyday life. Generally, what I’m interested in is detail that adds authenticity to the story, rather than using characters who actually existed (although some of my books feature brief appearances by the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle, Nicholas Culpeper and Charles I). However, one of the times when I have written about real people was in my stage play ‘The Body in the Bag’, based on Edinburgh murderers Burke and Hare.
At the time, I was having a bit of a creative crisis and had trouble with endings (I later realised this was because I was trying to write stuff I wasn’t really interested in, but that’s another story). With Burke and Hare, I wanted to see if I could use the story to write a complete play. Since I already knew the ending (William Burke gets hanged), all I had to do was fill in the rest. Easy (ahem).
As a framework for the play, I used one of the confessions made by Burke (he made two), as a basic chronology of events. Since contemporary accounts seem to point towards the fact of Hare being the ringleader, my slant on the tale was to look at it from Burke’s point of view, and whether or not he’d been coerced into taking part in the murders. It’s quite clear he did kill people on his own as well as with his partner, but even when the last killing (of Marjory Docherty) was brought to the attention of the authorities by guests at Hare’s lodging house, there was a distinct lack of actual evidence pointing to the murderers. The powers that be needed someone to step forward and give a ‘true’ account of the murders and Hare, being the most forceful of the pair, took the initiative and dropped his pal in the crap, leaving Burke to take the blame and the rope. The image below shows Burke’s death mask (left) and Hare’s life mask (taken during the trial).
Writing about real people in this way gives authors a chance to explore and imagine. Clearly, we can’t know what Burke thought about or how he spoke, and the only words we have that we know he actually said, are those written in his confessions and the court records. We have a reasonable idea of what he looked like from contemporary sketches and his death mask, but we don’t know what he sounded like, how he dressed day to day, or what sort of man he was (apart from being a murderer, of course).
Historical evidence and detail are a great place to start, but I’ve always thought the job of a writer was simply to make things up, so unless I need actual facts, that’s exactly what I do.
William Burke was hanged on January 28, 1829, in Edinburgh’s Lawnmarket, watched by several thousand spectators.