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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

Publication Year: 2010

Up the close and down the stair,
Up and down with Burke and Hare.
Burke's the butcher, Hare's the thief,
Knox the man who buys the beef.

—anonymous children's song

On Halloween night 1828, in the West Port district of Edinburgh, Scotland, a woman sometimes known as Madgy Docherty was last seen in the company of William Burke and William Hare. Days later, police discovered her remains in the surgery of the prominent anatomist Dr. Robert Knox. Docherty was the final victim of the most atrocious murder spree of the century, outflanking even Jack the Ripper's. Together with their accomplices, Burke and Hare would be accused of killing sixteen people over the course of twelve months in order to sell the corpses as "subjects" for dissection. The ensuing criminal investigation into the "Anatomy Murders" raised troubling questions about the common practices by which medical men obtained cadavers, the lives of the poor in Edinburgh's back alleys, and the ability of the police to protect the public from cold-blooded murder.

Famous among true crime aficionados, Burke and Hare were the first serial killers to capture media attention, yet The Anatomy Murders is the first book to situate their story against the social and cultural forces that were bringing early nineteenth-century Britain into modernity. In Lisa Rosner's deft treatment, each of the murder victims, from the beautiful, doomed Mary Paterson to the unfortunate "Daft Jamie," opens a window on a different aspect of this world in transition. Tapping into a wealth of unpublished materials, Rosner meticulously portrays the aspirations of doctors and anatomists, the makeshift existence of the so-called dangerous classes, the rudimentary police apparatus, and the half-fiction, half-journalism of the popular press.

The Anatomy Murders resurrects a tale of murder and medicine in a city whose grand Georgian squares and crescents stood beside a maze of slums, a place in which a dead body was far more valuable than a living laborer. Listen to an interview with Lisa Rosner at the Penn Press podcast web page.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

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Introduction: The Burke and Hare Murders

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pp. 1-8

Though neither was native to the city and both are long gone, William Burke and William Hare remain two of Edinburgh’s most famous residents. Over a twelve-month period they killed sixteen people—three men, twelve women, and one child—in a murder ...

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Chapter One: The Corpus Delicti

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pp. 9-24

The corpus delicti—literally, the corpse that formed the material evidence for the charge of murder—was discovered on Saturday, November 1, 1828. In life, it had belonged to Madgy or Margery or Margaret Docherty, also known by her married name, Campbell ...

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Chapter Two: The Anatomy Wars

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pp. 25-52

The first corpse in the series was not murdered, William Burke said, but instead died of natural causes in late November 1827, less than a year before the final victim met her demise. That first body had belonged to a man named Donald, who succumbed to dropsy...

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Chapter Three: Burking Invented

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pp. 53-78

Who was the first murder victim? According to Burke, it was Abigail Simpson, from the nearby village of Gilmerton, who came to lodge in Hare’s house. She sold salt and camstone, a kind of limestone popular for whitening windowsills and stairs. After drinking for...

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Chapter Four: Sold to Dr. Knox

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pp. 79-99

Burke and Hare never learned the names of their next two victims, murdered sometime in February or March 1828. The first was “an Englishman, a native of Cheshire,” Burke remembered. He was a tall man, about forty, with black hair and “brown whiskers, mixed ...

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Chapter Five: Based on a True Story

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pp. 100-125

The most notorious cadaver, and the first to arouse conjecture outside of Knox’s notebook, arrived at his dissecting rooms some time during the second or third week in April 1828. In life, she had been Mary Paterson, aged about eighteen, and she lodged with Isabella ...

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Chapter Six: The Dangerous Classes

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pp. 126-146

Some time during the spring of 1828, “a stout old woman,” Elizabeth Haldane, turned up at Margaret Hare’s lodging house in Tanner’s Close. According to Burke, she “had but one tooth in her mouth, and that was a very large one in front.” Thomas Ireland’s West Port Murders...

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Chapter Seven: Anonymous Subjects

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pp. 147-167

By late spring, the agricultural season had started and the West Port was crowded with immigrants. That meant fewer, rather than more, opportunities for murder, as the house in Tanner’s Close filled with lodgers. Yet Burke and Hare took their opportunities where ...

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Chapter Eight: The Criminal Mind

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pp. 168-186

The summer of 1828 appeared to mark another shift in Burke’s and Hare’s behavior, toward even more reckless targeting of potential cadavers. They saw one opportunity in a drunk woman being dragged to the West Port watch house by two policemen. Burke, seeing...

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Chapter Nine: Crime Scene: Edinburgh

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pp. 187-211

The murder of James Wilson, better known as Daft Jamie, marks another departure from the pattern. Jamie was an established and popular figure on the streets of Edinburgh, where he wandered, barefoot and bareheaded, in all sorts of weather (Figure 16). Rumors ...

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Chapter Ten: Day in Court

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pp. 212-244

The cadaver was a male subject, thirty-six years old, not very tall, but muscular and well built. In life, it had belonged to William Burke, laborer and shoemaker, “whose hands,” according to West Port Murders, “were more deeply dyed in innocent blood than those of any...

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Chapter Eleven: All That Remains

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pp. 245-269

The final cadaver was not dissected, but instead was buried on December 29, 1862, intact, in Brookwood Cemetery, in Surrey, England. In life it had belonged to Robert Knox, anatomist and public lecturer, most recently pathological anatomist to the Cancer Hospital...

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Cast of Characters

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pp. 271-275

In legal documents, people were identified by all the names they were known to have used, as well as all the names that other people used to refer to them. Many sources therefore list all known aliases and nicknames, as well as maiden names of married women. I have included...

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pp. 277-300

All accounts of the murders take as their basis the Trial of William Burke and Helen M’Dougal, before the High Court of Justiciary, at Edinburgh published by the Edinburgh printer and bookseller Robert Buchanan. The first printing arrived in Buchanan’s bookstore on

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 301-318


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pp. 319-326

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pp. 327-328

The help and encouragement I received from friends and colleagues made writing this book a delight. I would like to thank all the people who assisted and encouraged my research in Scotland: Michael Barfoot, Adam Budd, Gayle Davis, and Steve Sturdy, Edinburgh ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780812203554
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812221763

Page Count: 336
Publication Year: 2010