Murder & Mayhem: it started with unpaid rent

Crime SceneA tale of how rent arrears sparked a murder spree.

 
In 1827, William and Margaret Hare were running a boarding house in West Port, Edinburgh. On 29 November, their lodger Donald died of dropsy, owing £4 in back rent.
 
Hare bemoaned his financial loss to his friend and lodger, William Burke. Together they decided to recoup some of Hare’s losses by selling Donald’s body to Dr Robert Knox, a surgeon and anatomy lecturer from Edinburgh University.
 
In the 19th Century, Edinburgh had become one of the leading European centres of anatomical study. At the time there was a shortage of legitimately-acquired cadavers for study and teaching, as Scottish law required corpses used for medical research should only come from those who died in prison, suicide victims or from foundlings and orphans – giving rise to grave-robbing and the emergence of ‘resurrection men’ and illicit trade in exhumed cadavers. As a result of the scarcity, Dr Knox didn’t ask too many questions and paid Hare £7.10s for the body.
 
By selling the corpse the Hares not only recouped their £4 in lost rent but made a tidy profit – which sparked an idea.
 
There was another lodger in the house who was unwell, but not deceased – yet. The man was plied with whisky and then suffocated. Once again, Dr Knox paid handsomely for the body. It was a profitable enterprise for Burke and Hare, earning between £8 and £10 for each corpse.
 
More lodgers were similarly disposed of and when they ran out of paying guests they started inviting drunks, beggars, prostitutes and others into their home where they were promptly dispatched.
 
In 10 months at least 16 people were murdered by Burke and Hare in what later became known as the West Port Murders.
 
The scheme collapsed in October 1828 when a couple of guests in the house discovered a body stashed under a bed and alerted the police, who arrived and found no body. After a tip-off, they discovered it on the slab awaiting Dr Knox’s anatomy class.
 
After being arrested, Hare turned on Burke in return for immunity from prosecution. Burke confessed and was hanged (his body was also dissected and his skin tanned and made into various items such as calling card cases). The case against Burke’s mistress, Helen McDougal, was deemed ‘not proved’.
 
The Hares were set free and Knox was never prosecuted for his role. The fate of William Hare is unknown but there are many stories about his demise. As for Margaret Hare, she was shipped back to Ireland and Helen McDougal is rumoured to have emigrated to Australia.
 
While the Hares could certainly contend for the title of the worst landlords in history for the trail of murder that stemmed from unpaid rent, tenant death is not as uncommon as you might think.
 
In fact, we receive between 15 and 20 claims relating to the death of a tenant every year.
Discovering that a tenant has passed away at the property can be very traumatic for both the Property Manager and landlord, as it is no doubt for friends and family of the deceased – and it can also result in unexpected costs, as these claims illustrate.
 
An agent in Queensland received notice from the police that the tenant had passed away at the property. Although the tenant, who was on a periodic lease, was up-to-date with their rent (they had set up a direct debit), it took eight weeks to locate family to arrange to remove the tenant’s belongings from the home. The policyholder received $2,360 to cover the eight week period where the home could not be re-let.
 
Tragic circumstances led to a Western Australian landlord facing not only loss of rent but also a damage bill. The tenant was in arrears and a breach notice was issued. When the tenant failed to make any contact with the PM, the agent went to the property and found that the tenant had committed suicide. The policyholder was paid a total of $4,875 in lost rent, covering the two weeks the tenant was in arrears, five weeks’ loss of rent while the property was repaired and an additional six weeks’ re-tenancy once the repairs had been finalised. Biological cleaning of the property along with replacement carpets and blinds and repainting costs resulted in a further $8,200 in damages being claimed.
 
While tenant death is something no-one likes to think about – and often wouldn’t even consider to be a risk at their investment property – it is a sad reality that many landlords and Property Manager's will face. Landlord insurance cannot alleviate the emotional toll the passing may take, but it can ensure that financial losses do not add to the burden.