BURKE'S LAST WITNESS by Caroline Dunford
The true story of the world's first serial killers...
Burke’s Last Witness is a poignant haunting psychological drama which delves into the mind of notorious serial killer William Burke as he awaits his execution. Using accounts from his 2-day trial in 1828, this telling of the story will challenge the common perception about who the main protagonist was in the deadly partnership between William Burke and William Hare.
Burke is not a simple retelling of the duo's 16 murders. Set in the death-cell of cold, dank Calton Jail days before his execution in front of 25,000 people, Burke languishes with only his jailor Captain Rose for company.
This chilling novella follows the last few days of Burke’s life as he awaits his public execution. Chained and racked with cancerous tumours Burke unburdens himself to the honourable Captain Rose who strives to understand why these two men committed such atrocities.
Burke’s Last Witness is an novella developed from the popular play (also written by CJ Dunford) which has toured widely and to great critical acclaim.
Wind whipped across the execution site. Hugh Rose's outlook from the platform across the Lawnmarket was dizzying. From the five-storey tenements on both sides every window was open and out of them hung four or more people apiece, yelling and waving their hats. The rumours that people were making money from the execution by selling viewing space was obviously true. At their back loomed the forbidding shadow of St Giles Cathedral, a silent witness to much of the city's bloodshed and death, but in his imagination dark and sternly disapproving.
Burke’s Last Witness tells the tale of the last days of William Burke as he languishes in an Edinburgh jail in 1828, days before his hanging - a jolly affair, as executions tended to be in the early days of the nineteenth century, apparently watched by 25,000 people. The book centres on Burke’s relationship with his jailor - Captain Hugh Rose - and through this telling, the reader gains an insight into the mind of Burke.
As in all truly great books, the reader is challenged to put themselves in Burke’s position, amongst the filth and despair and desperation, and to at least understand his crimes, even empathise with him.
William Burke and William Hare were accused of being responsible for the deaths of at least fifteen individuals, selling the corpses to the teaching hospitals of Edinburgh. Hardly a business plan to be proud of, but like I said, times was hard. And this book brilliantly brings to life the awful conditions in which the lowest in society existed. Reading this book was like stepping into a time machine, and stepping out into an Edinburgh of 1828, redolent with all the smells, the sights, the suffocating confinement and utter, utter desperation.
As the blurb on the book mentions, Dunford used actual accounts from Burke’s trial in the writing of this book. And she does so in such a way as to bring Burke to life in all his grim complexity, his conversations with the erstwhile indomitable Captain Rose leaving the latter doubting everything he ever believed in.
For example, this an extract from early in the book after a discussion between Burke and Rose in which Rose accuses Burke of being a ‘monster’:
Rose began to protest, but Burke cut him off. ‘The difference between us is that I’d move heaven and earth to keep those I loved out of such a place as this.’
Rose shifted uncomfortably. ‘You’re twisting my words.’
‘Not at all,’ replied Burke calmly. ‘Hare and our two women were all I cared about in this world. I took no delight in the murdering. I’ve heard some men get into the enjoyment of killing, but not I. But the truth is, it caused me no pain either. Everyone outside our little band was - well outside. Not one of us. They were hardly real.’
‘That’s a terrible way to think.’
‘Ah Captain, if you but knew it’s the way most folk think. They just do not admit it - even to themselves.’
BANG. Captain Rose, who has his own very real problems to deal with, is left reeling once again.
Burke’s Last Witness is a book in which the reader has no choice but to look into the eyes of Burke and face their darkest selves.
Rose becomes an everyman and, so cleverly is this book written, the reader becomes Rose.
And there is no escape.