The Infamous Burke and Hare: Serial Killers and Resurrectionists of Nineteenth Century Edinburgh

The Infamous Burke and Hare: Serial Killers and Resurrectionists of Nineteenth Century Edinburgh

by R. Michael Gordon

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Overview

Body snatchers and grave robbers were the stuff of Victorian lore, but two real-life culprits took the crimes out of shadowy cemeteries and into criminal court. William Burke and William Hare aided Scottish surgeons competing for anatomical breakthroughs by experimenting on human corpses. As the duo evolved from petty theft to premeditated murder, they unwittingly brought attention to the medical practices of the era, leading to Burke’s death by hanging. This account not only explores the work of the resurrectionists, it reflects the nature of serial killers, 1820s criminal law, and Edinburgh’s early role as a seat of European medical research. Readers interested in the legal aspects of these crimes will find the trial testimony included to be a valuable resource.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780786454563
Publisher: McFarland & Company, Incorporated Publishers
Publication date: 10/21/2009
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 273
File size: 4 MB
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

R. Michael Gordon is the author of several books, and has written extensively on Victorian London and the Ripper phenomenon. He lives in Long Beach, California.

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Introduction 1

I—The Field and the Players
1. Of Supply and Demand in Old Edinburgh 5
2. Of Medical Men and Resurrectionists 19

II—The Many Works of Burke and Hare
3. The Merchandise of “John and William” 37
4. The Risky Murder of Mary Paterson 48
5. The Pace Increases 55
6. The Murders of “Daft Jamie” and Mary Docherty 67
7. Rumors of Murder as the Investigation Begins 76

III—The Legal System Does Its Work
8. A Trial for Burke, But Not for Hare 95
9. Into the Night as the Testimony Continues 112
10. The Testimony of a Serial Killer 133
11. The King’s Justice for a Serial Killer 145

IV—A Postscript for Resurrectionists
12. It Was a Hanging Affair—January 28, 1829 161
13. The Press Takes Center Stage 178
14. The Aftermath of Serial Murder 191

Appendix 1. Witness List for the Trial of William Burke and Helen McDougal 217
Appendix 2. The Complete Testimony of William Hare 221
Appendix 3. Report of the Committee of Investigation as to the Dealings of Dr. Knox with the West Port Murderers 237
Appendix 4. A Chronology of Serial Murder 240
Appendix 5. The Caledonian Mercury—January 1, 1829 242
Appendix 6. The Word on the Street—January 28, 1829 248
Appendix 7. Broadsheet on Burke’s Execution—January 28, 1829 251
Chapter Notes 253
Bibliography 261
Index 263

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The Infamous Burke and Hare: Serial Killers and Resurrectionists of Nineteenth Century Edinburgh 3.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
cammykitty on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The title pretty much says what you'll get in this book, the facts behind the career and trial of the Infamous Burke and Hare, although resurrectionists, they were not. If you aren't from the UK, you may not have heard of Burke and Hare. If you are, they've probably become a child story for you. I first learned of Burke and Hare from a Katherine Briggs collection of folktales. In the folktales, usually someone takes a carriage ride next to some stiff old lady, and as they get out of the carriage and it goes on its way, the person realizes the old lady was in fact dead and the drivers were Burke and Hare. The folktales aren't true, but the fact that Burke and Hare were killing people and transporting them to a doctor who was using the corpses for dissection in broad daylight is very much the truth. This book isn't nearly as funny as the folktales, but it is a riveting read. I found myself just as fascinated and appalled by the practices of the medical education community, by the crass classism that allowed the crimes to go unremarked for one and a half years, and the gap between moral justice and legal justice. This is Scotland during the Irish potato famine. Irish immigrants were everywhere. Tenants of boarding houses came and went weekly. The theft of a dead body from a grave was a lesser offense than the theft of a dead person's clothes. Cadavers from Ireland were shipped to the anatomists in boxes marked "books" at least on one occasion. Criminals were hanged in front of their own homes, and if you were lucky enough to be cut down still alive but appearing to be dead, perhaps the law would forget about you. It was a time very different than our own, yet the judge, police and lawyers still faced a dilemma that happens today. Do you arrest your criminal before you have enough evidence? If you don't have quite enough evidence, do you cut a deal with someone who is guilty in order to have a witness? Do you stand by that deal? If a mob wants to finish off someone that is "not guilty" according to the courts, but known guilty by information that was inadmissible, do you step aside and let them?An interesting book, that gives the context for a series of crimes that seem nearly inconceivable. Perhaps not the book for the weak-stomached, but for others, definitely a worthwhile read.
TLCrawford on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Burke and Hare are perhaps the worlds best known grave robbers even though they never, technically, robbed a grave. R. Michael Gordon¿s ¿The infamous Burke and Hare: serial killers and resurrectionists of nineteenth century Edinburgh¿ is not the first work to be written about the pair but I feel it has to be the best. Armed with a wealth of primary material as well as the modern psychological studies of serial killers that were unavailable to earlier writers Gordon is able to explain the pair¿s evolution as serial killers. The story is told in a strict chronological order, first we are introduced to the main actors then the killings are reconstructed as best possible using the available resources. The next part of the story, the trial, at first seemed awkward to me. Here Gordon used only the knowledge of the murders that came out in the court records and ignoring details that he had already told us. However, by using the court transcript Gordon allows us to hear the words of the killers, their accomplices and their enablers, and we are able to build an image of their personalities through their testimony. The problem I originally had with his method was well worth the results. Gordon follows the story to the principles¿ graves and beyond by looking at the cultural effects the story has had from an J. M. Barrie play, ¿The Anatomist¿, to a verb added to our language, ¿to burke¿. One topic that I felt could have been better explained was why the authorities chose to turn a blind eye to body snatching. We hear through the book the Dr. Knox¿s class¿ are popular but not why they were important.¿The Infamous Burke and Hare¿ reads more like a popular history than a scholarly one. Gordon makes good use of primary documents and period illustrations; his sources are well documented and well used. Although he does site several internet sources for peripheral information the core story is told thorough contemporary newspaper accounts and official records. Overall this is a very interesting book and well worth reading.
countrylife on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
With a son in medical school, I am interested in all things medical-education related. This book delves into that era when medical knowledge was exploding, when more cadavers were needed for anatomical and surgical learning, and when grave robbing became a trade to fill that need. Enter Burke and Hare to the meaner streets of Edinburgh. Running a low boardinghouse, a customer expires before paying his bill; they sell his body to one of the lecturing surgeons.¿The point was noted however, that any ailing inmate {of the lodging} might on occasion be converted into cash. Pending this desirable opportunity, they conceived the notion that it was unnecessary to await the co-operation of nature; judiciously assisted, and feeble, friendless wanderer would equally serve their purpose.¿The story itself was interesting ¿ the perpetrators' past history, their crimes, the gradual understanding of their community that something was happening to the poorest among them, the discovery, and the trial. A great deal of historical information is contained in the book ¿ transcripts from trials, testimonies, and numerous confessions; writings from Sir Walter Scott, John James Audubon and others; contemporary drawings, etchings, and newspaper articles; broadsheets, fliers and pamphlets; and appendices galore. (Too much, actually, for this particular reader.)I received my copy through the Early Reviewers program, so I reviewed this book's listing there; I've scoured the cover and looked for evidence inside, but do not find any notice whatsoever that this is an uncorrected proof. Therefore, I'm going to hold it accountable for it's editing problems, and they are pervasive. From the various garden-variety misspellings, to this sentence: The team did not good records of the merchandise they had supplied to Dr. Knox, and certainly the doctor was not, at least officially.(p162) At least one Chapter Note seems out of order. (I didn't follow too many.) Note #50 on page 33, is a quote from Audubon, attributed on the Chapter Notes page to Walter Scott's Wikipedia page. Even with those problems, though, I did appreciate the book. It was enlightening as to medical education issues and contemporary living issues in 1828 Edinburgh.
ElizabethChapman on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
In the early 19th century a revolution in medicine was taking place. Teaching the new science was lucrative and prestigious and the need for well-trained, professional physicians meant that students flocked to Edinburgh -- the preeminent center for surgical and medical education.Anatomical training centered on lectures in which medical professors would dissect cadavers before large audiences of students, which could number more than 500 in a single class. The burgeoning demand for medical training created enormous pressure to find bodies to use as subjects for these lectures. In the 1800s the idea of ¿donating one¿s body for science¿ was far in the future -- by law the only cadavers available for research and teaching were those of executed criminals. Demand for bodies far exceeded supply. Something had to give ¿ and it did.Common law at the time placed no value on dead bodies, so grave-robbing was not a crime as long as you stripped the deceased and left behind their clothes and any valuables that had been buried with them. A brisk trade in body snatching developed and dealers in these wares became known as resurrectionists. It was a very lucrative business as lecturers would pay up to 10 pounds (on occasion even more) for a suitable subject. Sometimes medical students themselves would dig up bodies for the classroom. But even with all the busy resurrectionists, the price for bodies continued to rise.Enter William Burke and William Hare. Both were members of the working poor and they met at a cheap and dismal lodging house, Tanner¿s Close, run by Hare. The fact that the dead bodies could be sold for ready cash was well-known in Edinburgh. When a lodger named Donald died at Tanner¿s Close without paying his rent, Burke and Hare hit on the idea of selling his body to make up for the lost income.Before long they realized they didn¿t need to wait for lodgers to die a natural death to realize a windfall and they began murdering people for profit. It should have been obvious to the medical men that the bodies on offer were suspiciously fresh ¿ but given the competition for good dissection subjects, no questions were asked. Burke and Hare committed 15 murders before they were caught.Author R. Michael Gordon tells the story of the murdering duo in The Infamous Burke and Hare: Serial Killers and Resurrectionists of Nineteenth Century Edinburgh. The topic should be fascinating, if grisly. Unfortunately, Gordon is a poor and disorganized writer, which greatly detracts both from the macabre aspect of the events (if that¿s what you¿re looking for) as well as his book¿s value as a good history (if that is your preference). Gordon is more interested in Burke and Hare as serial killers than the underlying issues ¿ the implications of the clash between science and ethics, the psychological justifications of immoral acts, the costs of the birth of modern-day medicine (from which we all benefit), the underlying reasons for the cultural conditions that enabled a certain type of person to go missing without comment from the authorities.Gordon has amassed a great deal of information on Burke¿s trial and the press coverage surrounding both the legal proceedings and the public outcry targeted at the murderers, the medical community, and the perceived (and probably real) cover-up. To me this was by far the most interesting aspect of the book. And to be fair, I probably should have realized this wouldn¿t be a thorough social history or a careful look at one period in the evolution of medicine. Interesting enough if you want to do your substantive thinking without much help from the author ¿ Gordon has supplied enough detail that you can raise your own questions and weave your own conclusions. But not a nuanced work of intellect.
catscritch on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Although I knew the story of Burke and Hare, I had no real understanding of the dynamics that made such crimes possible. R. Michael Gordon gives the facts of why, how and who clear and comprehensible (if not reprehensible). Sprinkled with actual newspaper reports and trial transcripts, you want to pick up a pitchfork and join the townspeople seeking justice anew.
loumarday on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I found this book morbidly fascinating but not entirely engaging. It seemed a bit over done to me and by that I mean...repetitive. I did not need to hear I don't know how many time what their "usual style" of killing was. Nor did I need to be reminded constantly that the wives were accomplices, I got that too. Where was the editor on this book!? This may have found a better home as a shorter piece of writing in a magazine. That being said, I thought the underlying story - not the writing - was the key here. That they were so brash and unconcerned with getting caught is what kept me reading. Or that the surgeons and medical students never questioned where the bodies came from was amazing to me.I started to find myself more amused by the numerous typos found throughout the book, for a published piece of work it reading needed one more proofreading.