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Notorious Murders, Black Lanterns, and Moveable Goods

Transformation of Edinburgh's Underworld in the Early Nineteeth Century

By Deborah A. Symonds

Publication Year: 2006

The year 1828, when William Burke, William Hare, and their wives murdered nearly a score of Edinburgh's poor and sold their bodies, offers us many more examples of entrepreneurial criminals in Edinburgh's Old Town. Young thieves ransacked a warehouse for tea, women pretending to be prostitutes lifted gentlemen's watches, and fine linens disappeared from washerwomen's houses. What Symonds reveals here is a shadow economy where the most numerous of all criminals and thieves practice their trade not out of poverty and misery, but because it is their trade. Symonds argues that the trade of thievery, far from being either static or a symptom of misery and sign of revolt, was a very lively economic sector, the freest market of all, and one that shifted and shadowed the larger legitimate economy. The community of laborers and petty fiddles, especially of visitors like drovers, might be tolerated, if done cleverly, but murder and theft, especially from local business, was more unsettling. But the entrepreneurial spirit was never more alive, or perhaps more valued, because it could easily substitute for capital in the shadow economy.

Published by: The University of Akron Press


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Title page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. ix-x

This book began when I read William Roughead’s The Murderer’s Companion, because I wanted to read about nineteenth-century Edinburgh after working in earlier Scottish records for many years. I knew the streets where his Scots murderers had lived; I had lived in the neighborhood in the 1970s, before the coal soot on the buildings was...

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pp. xi-xiv

After dark on a spring evening in 1828, three people equipped with a “dark lantern” and some skeleton keys broke into a storage cellar in Whiskey Row, in an old street called the Cowgate in Edinburgh’s Old Town. The thieves were looking for tea but had to content themselves with hams, double Gloucestershire cheeses, raisins, orange...

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pp. 1-20

1828 might seem an inauspicious year to choose as the basis of a discussion of anything so grand as a transformation, which certainly implies that something very old has been markedly superseded. There were no great acts of Parliament, no treaties, no great riots or famines in 1828. No European wars began or ended. Yet the larger world...

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1. The Notorious Murders in the West Port in 1828

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pp. 21-51

Edinburgh’s West Port, a neighborhood outside the old west gate of the city, was the home of the murderers. It extended west from a part of the old city known as the Grassmarket, which in 1828 was a warren of tenements and closes (alleys) surrounding a large central square. The Grassmarket and the neighboring closes running off the High...

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2. Common Thievery in the Old Town in 1828

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pp. 52-73

Lucky Log stopped the Grays on their way to the police, and consequently knew just as much as M’Dougal about the trouble ahead. It is inconceivable that she would not have urged Hare to see where their self-interest lay, and urged him to join her in turning king’s evidence once all four had been jailed. Log lived in a neighborhood, or...

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3. The Spectacular “Burke mania” Trial

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pp. 74-100

The public frenzy that ensued after that Sunday in 1828 when the Grays reported Docherty’s murder had much to do with the history of spectacular criminal trials and popular fascination with the criminal underworld. But many citizens in Edinburgh saw, or believed they were seeing, a new kind of crime that shocked them deeply. So it...

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4. The Criminal Household

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pp. 101-125

The household of Burke, Log, Hare, and M’Dougal was as makeshift as the neighborhood that housed them, and it is with that neighborhood that we will begin. The West Port, bordering the old western entrance to the city, was a newer addition to Edinburgh’s Old Town, separated from the Grassmarket by a few yards and three hundred years. Early...

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5. The Transformation of the Shadow Economy

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pp. 126-141

The editor went on to discuss “the regular system of murder” that was “organised” by Burke, Hare, Log, and M’Dougal, finally calling it “wholly without example.” One suspects that, coming on the first page of a hurriedly written popular tract, this was no great insight, but a reflection of one aspect of common discussion in early...


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pp. 142-165


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pp. 166-174


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pp. 175-180

E-ISBN-13: 9781935603740
E-ISBN-10: 1935603744
Print-ISBN-13: 9781931968270
Print-ISBN-10: 1931968276

Page Count: 167
Illustrations: 1 line drawing, 1 graph, 10 photos
Publication Year: 2006

OCLC Number: 652307972
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Notorious Murders, Black Lanterns, and Moveable Goods

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Subject Headings

  • Edinburgh (Scotland) -- Social conditions -- 19th century.
  • Edinburgh (Scotland) -- Economic conditions -- 19th century.
  • Theft -- Scotland -- Edinburgh -- History -- 19th century.
  • Informal sector (Economics) -- Scotland -- Edinburgh -- History -- 19th century.
  • Crime -- Economic aspects -- Scotland -- Edinburgh -- History -- 19th century.
  • Murder -- Scotland -- Edinburgh -- History -- 19th century.
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