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 (review)
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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 (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010) 328. pp $29.95

Ten years ago, a book like Rosner’s Anatomy Murders would not have been considered appropriate for review in a journal like this one. For a clue about why, readers need only look to its subtitle. Yet in the current climate of academic valuation (in the United Kingdom, at any rate) in [End Page 449] which public engagement constitutes a prime measure of “impact,” Rosner’s book presents a useful vehicle for exploring a core issue on which jih reviewers are asked to focus: Does the work’s research design showcase innovative interdisciplinary methodology?

The question for this review to raise, though not to answer, is whether a work that combines the accessibility of popular history with the academic historian’s trademark claim to authority, archival prowess, constitutes in itself an “interdisciplinary method”? Rosner’s account of the familiar story of Burke, Hare, and Robert Knox, an anatomist and race theorist and their primary client, certainly has qualities that make the case. She demonstrates a sure grasp of the social, cultural, and medico-political contexts of her story. Another strength is her eye for clever narrative construction. The book is structured into chapters that “travel, cadaver by cadaver, through the fateful twelve-month period” (7), with each chapter featuring a victim and a salient theme. This approach, a simple chronological account with thematic interest, makes for compelling reading. Moreover, Rosner’s careful, at times imaginative, use of archival material enables her to question not merely the accuracy of received accounts but also their very conditions of production and circulation.

An example of these qualities in action is Rosner’s first substantive chapter, which situates Burke and Hare in the context of a competitive medical education market, in which lecturers used whatever leverage they could to attract paying students. A good supply of dead bodies was one such attraction, secured either by institutional monopoly or by the efforts of individual anatomy lecturers and their students until the development of a commercial trade in corpses during the 1820s. This terrain is familiar to medical historians, yet Rosner manages to use the archives to add interesting detail—as when she uses the account book of Knox’s assistant to demonstrate the extent of Knox’s immersion in the body trade, or when she cites a letter from the Lord Advocate to customs officials urging release of a confiscated shipment of Irish cadavers to demonstrate the tacit support of Scottish officialdom for the trade.

Archives are also central to Rosner’s attempts to re-visit the life stories of Burke and Hare’s victims, nowhere more effectively than in the case of Mary Patterson, “the one Burke and Hare murder that everyone remembers, its elements repackaged and incorporated into both fiction and annals of true crime” (105). The received version of Patterson’s demise, Rosner observes, injected an erotic charge into the anatomy murders: the story of a beautiful, promiscuous young girl delivered into the hands of her murderers by her own immorality, her corpse ultimately recognized by her medical student lover on Knox’s dissecting table. In Rosner’s view, this telling was forged from disparate sources that were then “condensed into a narrative whole greater than the sum of their evidentiary parts” (108). To go beyond these “suspect” sources, Rosner turns to a series of institutional records, most ingeniously those of a local [End Page 450] reform school for penitent girls, which recorded the admission of “Mary Patterson aged 16—daughter of Peter Paterson, Mason” (116). From this source, Rosner suggests an alternative identity for Mary—not the abandoned, fallen woman of legend but one struggling for respectability under difficult circumstances, who was supported, and ultimately mourned, by family and friends.

The book’s principal shortcoming can be summarized succinctly— little, if any, engagement with relevant scholarly literature. The upshot is a number of weak individual chapters—for example, on urban poverty...


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