- The Anatomy Murders: Being the True and Spectacular History of Edinburgh's Notorious Burke and Hare and the Man of Science Who Abetted Them in the Commission of Their Most Heinous Crimes
Over 180 years since William Burke was hanged in Edinburgh's Lawnmarket for the suffocation of Margaret Docherty, the sixteen murders that he and his [End Page 507] accomplice, William Hare, committed for the purpose of selling cadavers to the surgeon-anatomist Robert Knox continue to excite the public imagination. In the past decade alone at least five popular histories of the case have been published, most of them, like similarly lurid accounts of early-nineteenth-century "resurrection men," confined to the "true crime" sections of book stores.
Given its striking cover and somewhat sensationalist title (albeit one that knowingly references the literary conventions of the period), the average book store employee could be forgiven for shelving Lisa Rosner's book alongside such populist fare. But to do so would be a mistake, for Rosner is a first-rate academic, author of perhaps the best single account of medical education in turn-of-the-century Edinburgh as well as an excellent account of the life of Alexander Lesassier. She is thus superbly placed to write a scholarly account of the Burke and Hare story.
This is not to say that Rosner is unaware of the popular appeal of her subject. The Anatomy Murders is a hybrid text, designed to satisfy both popular and academic tastes. It has references but no numbering; it draws upon a rich historiography but eschews direct textual engagement with named scholars. For the most part it is highly successful in this endeavor, situating Burke and Hare within the wider social, political, and intellectual context of early-nineteenth-century Edinburgh while also painting a rich and engaging picture of the Old Town and its denizens.
The Anatomy Murders opens with a brief but informative introduction that explores the history of the Burke and Hare story itself, suggesting that by the mid- to late nineteenth century it had come to perform a specific kind of cultural work, conjuring an image of the "bad old days" before the "march of intellect" had caught up with political rationalism and social responsibility. In eleven elegantly crafted chapters Rosner then proceeds to tell her own version of the story, beginning, as it were, at the end, with the discovery of Margaret Docherty's murder. Many of these chapters employ a similar conceit, using a particular victim, or set of victims, as a jumping off point for a more expansive contextual study of topics such as the competitive world of anatomical education, contemporary debates about poverty, morality and welfare, phrenology and the naturalization of criminality or forensic science, and the investigative process. On occasions the narrative also segues into biographical detail, such as with her excellent account of the peripatetic career and eclectic interests of Robert Knox. The penultimate chapter details the trial of Burke and his partner Helen M'Dougal, the former's execution, and the mysterious fate of William Hare (who had been granted immunity from prosecution in return for testifying against his accomplice). Meanwhile the final chapter examines the impact of the scandal on the career of Robert Knox. In these two chapters, as throughout the book as a whole, Rosner's judgments are nothing less than fair and balanced. Burke and Hare were neither criminal masterminds nor gothic monsters; their murders simply brought in an income neither they nor their dependents were willing to forego. Likewise, Knox was neither a gullible dupe nor a cynical Svengali but rather a deeply ambitious man who chose to ignore a glaring but highly inconvenient truth.
Rosner's study is not without its faults, however. The compromise between academic and popular styles occasionally leads to an unevenness of tone, exemplified [End Page 508] by her use...