dissection, medical crime, bodies, body snatching
Last year, while visiting to the Surgeon’s Hall Museum in Edinburgh, I was both fascinated and shocked to see what must be one of the most notorious exhibits in Britain’s medical museums: the notebook made of the skin of the “anatomy murderer,” William Burke. Two centuries after Burke and his accomplice William Hare were tried for the murder of sixteen people, whose bodies they sold to anatomists in medical schools in Edinburgh, the story of their crimes and the anatomical trade that their crimes enabled retains this same capacity to both fascinate and shock.
Lisa Rosner’s The Anatomy Murders provides a meticulously researched and wonderfully written account of Burke and Hare’s grisly and lucrative trade, situating it very carefully in the particular cultural context in which it took place. If Burke and Hare became “the first serial killers to capture media attention,” as The Anatomy Murders claims, it is not simply as a result of the exceptionality of their crimes, but also as a reflection of the particular cultural and institutional historical circumstances in which they took place.
The nineteenth-century history of the anatomical trade in corpses has recently been the focus of a number of important scholarly studies, which have skillfully drawn attention to its broader cultural implications. From Ruth Richardson’s Death, Dissection and the Destitute: The Politics of the Corpse in Pre-Victorian Britain (2001) and Michael Sappol’s A Traffic of Dead Bodies: Anatomy and Embodied Social Identity in Nineteenth-Century America (2002) to Helen MacDonald’s Human Remains: Episodes in Human Dissection (2005) and Possessing the Dead: The Artful Science of Anatomy (2010), such studies have been exemplary in demonstrating how the development of anatomical research took place within the context of a much wider network of legal practices, medical institutions, cultural beliefs, and economic systems.
Rosner’s The Anatomy Murders is a welcome and valuable contribution to this field. It is the first full-length scholarly study of the Burke and Hare case, and it draws on a formidably wide range of original archival research to reveal previously unrecognized aspects of this case and to correct common misapprehensions about a number of the victims and events. Rosner’s book is an impressive combination of exhaustive archival analysis and a page-turning good read. [End Page 672]
A particular strength of this book is Rosner’s account of the history and practice of anatomical research and education in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Edinburgh. This part of her study is clearly enriched by Rosner’s earlier books: Medical Education in the Age of Improvement: Edinburgh Students and Apprentices, 1760–1826(1991)and The Most Beautiful Man in Existence: The Scandalous Life of Alexander Lesassier (1999). Rosner carefully shows the extent to which the commercial trade in corpses was fuelled by an intense competitiveness between private practitioners and lecturers. The portrait of Dr. Robert Knox—who received and paid for the increasingly fresh corpses Burke and Hare brought to his door, without troubling the men for explanations—is nuanced and finely drawn, revealing how ambiguous and implicated his own professional practice was without simply villainizing his behavior.
For me, however, the most remarkable part of The Anatomy Murders is not its account of the institutional practice of medicine or the legal handling of the Burke and Hare case, but rather its extraordinarily rich study of the nineteenth-century poor in Edinburgh. In recounting how Burke and Hare identified and gained the trust of their potential victims, Rosner reveals a wealth of detail about the culture and community of the Edinburgh slums in which Burke and Hare lived and provides an unusual insight into their manner of life. We are walked through both Burke and Hare’s accommodations: the layout of their residences, the way they were furnished, their style...