The Anatomy Murders

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

Lisa Rosner
Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 336
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    The Anatomy Murders
    Book Description:

    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 Tapping into a wealth of unpublished materials, Rosner meticulously portrays the aspirations of doctors and anatomists, the makeshift existence of the so-called dangerous classes, the rudimentary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.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0355-4
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Introduction: The Burke and Hare Murders
    (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 spree which ended only with their arrest in November 1828. The motive was profit, for Edinburgh was a major center of medical education, and lecturers would pay high prices for “subjects,” that is, cadavers for dissection. The means was a form of suffocation. Assisted by Hare’s wife, Margaret, and Burke’s companion, Helen M’Dougal, the two men enticed their...

  4. Chapter 1 The Corpus Delicti Margaret Docherty or Campbell
    (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, who thereby acquired the sad distinction of initiating the murder investigation into Burke and Hare. Because testimony concerning her death figured prominently in the later trial, we know more about her than any of the other victims. Madgy Docherty, as we will call her, was a small woman between forty and fifty years old, originally from Donegal in...

  5. Chapter 2 The Anatomy Wars Donald, the “Old Pensioner”
    (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, the morbid overabundance of fluid in the tissues. Burke described him as an “old pensioner,” but he died shortly before his quarterly pension was due, owing £4 to his landlord, William Hare. Later accounts described the Hares’ lodging house in Tanner’s Close in the direst terms—“a dirty, low, wretched close . ....

  6. Chapter 3 Burking Invented Joseph the Miller, Abigail Simpson
    (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 much of the night with Hare, she lay, insensible, “on her back in the bed,” and Hare “then said that they would try and smother her in order to dispose of her body to the doctors.” According to Hare, the first murder was Joseph, a miller, also one of his lodgers, who was “very ill, lying...

  7. Chapter 4 Sold to Dr. Knox “A Native of Cheshire,” “Old Woman”
    (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 with gray hair.” He sold tinder, “spunks” as it was called in Scotland, and was probably a kind of regular transient, traveling between the outskirts of the city and its inner closes. He stayed at the lodging house in Tanner’s Close, and Burke remembered that he had jaundice and lay “in bed very unwell.” Perhaps his...

  8. Chapter 5 Based on a True Story Mary Paterson or Mitchell
    (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 Worthington in Leith. She had been out the night before with her friend and fellow lodger Janet Brown. According to Worthington, Paterson was “much given to drink,” and Brown, in her late twenties, had spent ten days the previous June in prison for being “Drunk disorderly & creating a crowd.” William Burke had comparatively little...

  9. Chapter 6 The Dangerous Classes Elizabeth Haldane, Margaret Haldane
    (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—where she is referred to as “Mary” Haldane—described her as “a dissipated character, who used to infest the Grassmarket and neighbour-hood,” but Burke claimed he knew “nothing farther of her” than her name when he found her “asleep among some straw” in Hare’s stable. “She had got some drink at the...

  10. Chapter 7 Anonymous Subjects “Effy the Cinder Gatherer,” “Old Woman and Grandson,” “Woman Murdered by Hare”
    (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 they could find them, like the cinder gatherer whose name, Burke thought, was Effy. “She was in the habit of selling small pieces of leather to him, as he was a cobbler,” which “she gathered about the coach-works.” That did not keep him from taking her “into Hare’s stable,” and giving her “whisky to drink until she was...

  11. Chapter 8 The Criminal Mind “Drunk Old Woman,” Mrs. Hostler, Ann M’Dougal
    (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 them, said, “Let the woman go to her lodgings.” The officers said “they did not know where she lodged,” to which Burke responded that “he would take her to lodgings.” They “gave her to his charge,” and he took her to Hare’s house. Burke said that they “murdered her the same way as they did the others,”...

  12. Chapter 9 Crime Scene: Edinburgh James Wilson, alias Daft Jamie
    (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 later circulated that he “had been for some time watched by the gang of murderers, and marked out as one that might be easily taken off without exciting suspicion.” But he did not fit the usual profile of the Burke and Hare murder victims at all, being young—probably in his twenties—vigorous, and not much given to...

  13. Chapter 10 Day in Court William Burke
    (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 other homicide recorded in the calendar of crimes.” Arrested, with Helen M’Dougal, William Hare, and Margaret Laird or Hare, he was tried, with M’Dougal, for the murder of Margaret Docherty or Campbell on December 24, 1828. The case was covered in exhaustive detail in newspapers and broadsides, in West Port Murders, and in Trial...

  14. Chapter 11 All That Remains Robert Knox
    (pp. 245-270)

    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 at Brompton, London. It is an irony of nineteenth-century medical history that few anatomical lecturers chose to donate their own bodies to science, and though Knox had cited lack of cadavers as one of the “obstacles which impede the progress of anatomy in Great Britain” he chose a churchyard over the dissecting table for his own remains. He had...

  15. Cast of Characters
    (pp. 271-276)
  16. Notes
    (pp. 277-300)
  17. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 301-318)
  18. Index
    (pp. 319-326)
  19. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 327-328)