“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 Tapping into a wealth of unpublished materials, Rosner meticulously portrays the aspirations of doctors and anatomists, the makeshift existence of the so-called dangerous classes, the rudimentary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.” (Amazon blurb)
Why read The Anatomy Murders?
It’s not possible to grow up in Edinburgh without knowing certain stories. These include the murder of Lord Darnley, the story of Greyfriar’s Bobby and the body-snatching activities of Burke and Hare. I’ve been looking this afternoon for fictional retellings of their nasty little story but coming up empty handed so far. And this book by Lisa Rosner published in 2009 looks like the best non-fiction summary to be read. Of course there also the trials – I do love a primary source – and so if I do take the plunge with this book, I’ll certainly be reading the trial documents too.