grassmarket etching 1841 historic picture

Edinburgh’s Daft Jamie

Vulnerable Adult James was he murdered because he was Autistic?

daft jamie article

The Anatomy Murders Corpse of the Day–James Wilson, alias Daft Jamie

One of the most despicable acts in the series of Burke and Hare murders was the killing of Daft Jamie. Young James Wilson wandered the streets of Edinburgh “barefoot and bareheaded, in all sorts of weather.” Perhaps that was why he was known in and around the Surgeon Square area as Daft Jamie. If he had frequented fancier quarters, Jamie may have been called eccentric. In any case he was not actually mad. Apparently, he had what is known as savantism. While Jamie’s unusual behavior kept him from regular employment, he could easily perform amazing feats of calculation. Jamie could name the day of the week of any given date in exchange for such small tokens of appreciation as food, drink, snuff and the occasional dinner reception. Jamie was a well-known neighborhood character. He never begged. And his mother and sister did their best to care for him in spite of his penchant for roaming the streets.

Considering Jamie’s remarkable presence within the community, he was a surprising choice of victim for William Burke and William Hare. It was said that Hare’s wife, Margaret, “who had none of Burke’s practical sense of a successful murder plan,” selected Jamie as he was wandering in the Grassmarket one chilly October day, looking for his mother. His peculiar halting gait, shoeless feet and general confusion made him stand out as prey. Using their typical M.O., Burke and Hare urged Jamie to drink, even though he was a teetotaler. When the homicidal pair attempted to “burke” Jamie, he struggled fiercely as any a sober man in his twenties would. Daft Jamie could not be burked, but he was killed in the end by more brutal means.

After Burke and Hare sold Jamie’s remains to Dr. Robert Knox, one of Knox’s colleagues, Dr. William Ferguson thought he recognized the corpse of the popular young man. Jamie’s disappearance had been noticed almost immediately. People had see his clothing on the backs of strangers and feared the worse. Amid the gossip, Dr. Knox insisted that his newly acquired cadaver was not the body of James Wilson. So burking business as usual continued.

If a beloved character such as Daft Jamie wasn’t safe from the likes of Burke and Hare and their less than particular client, Dr. Knox, then perhaps no one was safe. Who or what would finally bring the killing to an end?


Grassmarket Pictures 2019


You’ll find the answer, and plenty of fascinating history in The Anatomy Murders: Being the True and Spectacular History of Edinburgh’s Notorious Burke and Hare and of the Man of Science Who Abetted Them in the Commission of Their Most Heinous Crimes by Lisa Rosner.

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