The media and the public relish a good murder. They – we – are particularly fascinated by multiple murder. It was ever thus. Sixty years before London, and the rest of Britain, was shocked by the atrocities of Jack the Ripper, Edinburgh was shaken by the deeds of Burke and Hare. Contemporary newspapers were full of the events; early ‘true crime’ books covered them; there were plays and, in the 20th century, movies.
As befits the murders, Lisa Rosner’s vivid new book – subtitled 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 – never lets the action slacken. However, this is not pulp non-fiction but a serious analysis based on a wide and impressive range of primary sources.
William Burke (1792–1829) and William Hare killed for money. As a rule they got their victims insensible on strong drink and suffocated them so as to ensure no tell-tale marks of violent death. The fresh corpses were then bundled into chests, loaded on carts and wheeled round to the teaching rooms of an eminent anatomist, Dr Robert Knox. No questions were asked either by the doctor or his assistants; without a regular supply of corpses, often from the gallows or from the resurrection men who robbed fresh graves, the training of surgeons would have slowed considerably. Each corpse fetched between £8 and £10, a tidy sum for Irish immigrants like Burke and Hare, for whom labouring might bring in as little as eight pence or a shilling a day.
Rather than offer a straight chronological account of the events, Rosner uses each chapter to explore a different aspect of the story. The lives of Burke and Hare introduce the reader to the harsh life of Irish migrants and the manner in which the pair initially sought what might be called an honest living. Dr Knox’s career as a military surgeon in South Africa is sketched with a telling portrayal of his attitudes to his social superiors and inferiors.
The life of one of the victims, Mary Patterson, enables a discussion of the popular trope of the young medical student who recognises his beautiful lover dead on the dissection table. The chapter on the “dangerous classes” is, perhaps, the weakest; the terminology with which Rosner engages here might be a little anachronistic and the development of the “new police” meant significant changes after the murders rather than, as implied, before. The murders of an old woman and her grandson lead the reader into Knox’s practices of dissection; it is a superb exposition, but not for the faint-hearted.
Rosner’s dissection of early 19th-century Edinburgh and its murky underside is as deft as Dr Knox’s work on his cadavers. She has produced a meticulously researched, highly readable slice of social and medical history.
Clive Emsley is professor of history at the Open University. His latest book is The Great British Bobby: A History of British Policing from the 18th Century to the Present (Quercus 2009)