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The Anatomy Murders: Being the True and Spectacular History of Edinburgh's…

by Lisa Rosner

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511401,049 (3.25)12
This text situates the story of Burke and Hare against the social and cultural forces that were bringing early 19th-century Britain into modernity. Each of the murder victims provides a window on a different aspect of this world in transition.
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The Anatomy Murders by Lisa Rosner is a detailed account of the 16 murders committed by William Burke and William Hare in order to provide cadavers for the dissection labs of Edinburgh anatomists, primarily the surgeon Dr. Robert Knox. Using a method that comes to be known as "burking," the crime becomes infamous not only because of its macabre nature, but also because of the social and cultural impact it has on the practice of dissection and modern medicine.

Using one or two of the murders per chapter as illustrations, Rosner addresses social and cultural issues connected with the crime. These topics include what life was like for the lower classes of Edinburgh during the 1820s, the culture of medical practice and the taboo of dissections, and the developement of the concept of modern law enforcement. This approach is accessible to many readers, as it puts many of the individual murders into the context of society at large, helping the reader to understand how such a crime could occur.

Rosner also skirts of the issue of responsibility for the crimes. While it is clear of who the actual perpertrators are, Rosner ponders what factor or segment of society is most to blame. Is it the desperation of the poor, and the negligence of the rich? Is it the anatomists, who chose not to ask questions, or is it society, who could not accept the need for anatomical instruction?

Naturally, there are no easy answers, but Rosner does a good job of presenting all sides and maintaining a neutral tone. The major flaw of the text is one that plagues many histories, in that some of the subjects discussed become bogged down, and it sometimes feels as if the historian is simply rephrasing arguments. In spite of this, I recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in the history of medicine from a social viewpoint, or for the most ardent fans of true crime, who wish to learn more about one of the first crimes to grip the popular imagination. ( )
1 vote greeneyed_ives | Jan 13, 2011 |
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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.
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This text situates the story of Burke and Hare against the social and cultural forces that were bringing early 19th-century Britain into modernity. Each of the murder victims provides a window on a different aspect of this world in transition.

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