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Sunday, March 14, 2010

Scotland Confidential

Up the close and down the stair
In and out with Burke and Hare
Burke the killer, Hare the thief
Knox the boy who buys the beef


We are going to start the week off by leaving the under belly of early Twentieth Century New York City to visit the dark side of early 19th Century Scotland with our special guest, Author and Professor of History, Lisa Rosner, who will be delivering her presentation on the infamous Burke and Hare murders this coming Thursday, March 18, at 8 pm, at the Observatory Room, 543 Union Street, Brooklyn, NY 11215

We are fortunate to have her in the studio today to discuss her book:

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.

Dead Guys in Suits: Thank you for being here today Lisa, your subtitle deserves its own Edgar award. How did you come up with it?

Lisa Rosner: Thank you very much for inviting me! And for introducing me to your fascinating website, which has already led to me to new and even darker byways through murder and history.

To answer your question: Finding the right title was harder than writing the book! I’m no good at titles so I had a lot of help from Penn Press. We wanted something short and snappy, but we also wanted something that would link murder and mayhem to medicine and science. Eventually we just threw together our favorite nouns and adjectives from 19th century newspapers – Burke and Hare, true and spectacular, notorious and heinous – and you can see the result.

DGIS: For those unfamiliar with the story could you explain why Burke & Hare are remembered today?

LR: Between November 1827 and November 1828, in Edinburgh, Scotland, William Burke and William Hare killed 16 people – 3 men, 12 women, and 1 child – in order to sell their cadavers to an anatomy lecturer, Dr. Robert Knox. These were the first serial killings to gain media attention, 60 years before Jack the Ripper. The link between murder-for-profit and medical progress has fascinated people ever since. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote a short story based on it, called The Body Snatcher, which was turned into a terrific horror flick in 1945, starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Currently John Landis is filming his own version of Burke and Hare, what he calls “a very black romantic comedy,” starring Simon Pegg, Andy Serkis, and Isla Fisher.

DGIS: Burke even had the extra bonus of having his name turned into a verb. Can you explain what it means to “burke” someone?

LR: Tutorial on burking:

1. First, press down on the victim to compress the chest, so your victim can't expand
the diaphragm to take air into the lungs.

2. Place a hand over your victim's nose and mouth. That, too, will make it impossible
for him/her to breath. Death by suffocation will occur shortly.

3. Oops, I forgot to mention, no one in his /her right mind is going to sit still and
be burked. So, before step 1 (above), be sure to get the victim very, very drunk
until he/she is unconscious and unable to fight back.


DGIS: Darn, I don’t have an eraser, I’ll just have to remember booze then compression. How did you become interested in the “seamy side of medical history”?

LR: I started out doing a form of social history known as “history from below,” in which we look at history from the point of view of students, rather than professors, and patients, rather than doctors. From there it was only a short step to looking at what went wrong in the history of medicine, rather than what went right. It can be very revealing: if you turn over rocks, you can study what crawls out.

DGIS: If I remember correctly, at your presentation you said that you were in Edinburgh doing research and didn’t set out to write the story of Burke & Hare. What was your “Aha” moment that made you say, “I’m doing a book.”?

LR: I was working on a diary of an Edinburgh physician who happened to be a friend of Dr. Robert Knox, the anatomist in the Burke and Hare case (that book became The Most Beautiful Man in Existence: The Scandalous Life of Alexander Lesassier, published by Penn Press). I found entries about Knox in the diary and thought hmmm, what other kinds of previously-unknown Burke and Hare tidbits might there be, buried in one or another archive? The answers became the book.

DGIS: I had always pictured the Edinburgh medical school as a smallish establishment with Dr. Knox the only resident teacher accepting “subjects” but reading your book I find it wasn’t like that at all. There was quite a little competition going on at Surgeon’s Square.

LR: There was, and that wasn’t the only place. Knox and his Surgeon’s Square colleagues weren’t even officially associated with the Edinburgh medical school, which had its own dissecting rooms. There were probably anywhere from 8-10 anatomy lecturers busy at work in Edinburgh at any one time in the 1820s. Between their own research, and their hundreds of students, just imagine the number of body parts!

DGIS: After seeing you speak and reading your Amazon bio, it appears that your passion for the Burke and Hare case was driven by a thirst for the facts and fueled by a thirst of Scotch whiskey. Any specific brand you’d recommend for an evening with your book?

LR: Scotland has wonderful single malt whiskies – the websites list about 80 of them -- and no two taste alike. I prefer the ones from the Islay region. Incidentally my Scottish friends pointed out to me I misspelled “whisky” in the book. I spelled it “whiskey” – that’s the usual American spelling – but in Britain whiskey with an “e” always means Irish whiskey. Scotch whisky should always be spelled without the “e”.

DGIS: Good to know, thank you. Speaking of your presentation, during your talk two cell phones rang and neither person attempted to turn them off. Did you mentally Burke them? Or have you developed your own technique of permanently silencing someone? Has anyone ever been “Rosnered”? If so what does that entail. You can tell us nobody will turn you in.

LR: My historical research has taught me that murder is not as easy as you’d think – and it’s apt to be messy -- so even rude cell-phone users are safe from me. I’d be very happy, though, if someone invented a cell-phone-zapping ray-gun. Maybe as an iphone app…

DGIS: Ah, so you are open to murdering electronics then, interesting. Once you do one…As an author and researcher one of my favorite parts of your presentation was when you described finding the information on Mary Paterson. I could relate. Why was that so satisfying?

LR: The story told about the murder victim Mary Paterson, from the 19th century to the present, is that she was a beautiful prostitute murdered by Burke and Hare and that her body was recognized by her medical student lover as he beheld it outstretched on the dissecting table. The moral of the story was clearly, She Got What She Deserved. As anyone who has seen a slasher film knows “bad” girls get sliced up.

I knew that I could poke some holes in the story by questioning where it came from. But what was very satisfying was finding hard and fast evidence that it simply couldn’t be true at all. Makes you want to think twice about all those other “bad” girls, doesn’t it?

DGIS: Twice, thrice, depending on how bad they were maybe even four or five times, but anyways in the countless hours you spent at the Edinburgh archives did
You come across any definitive proof the Dr. Knox was the first person
To ever utter the now iconic phrase, ‘Where’s the beef?”

LR: I suspect it was his lab technician/doorman, who testified that on the night of the last Burke and Hare murder, he was out at a “beef steak supper”.

DGIS: In the early 19th century kids were singing the Burke and Hare song, at the close of the 19th century they were singing “Lizzy Borden took an ax and gave her father forty whacks…” In your opinion how come kids in the 1800’s had a much more macabre wit than modern adolescents?

LR: I’m not sure that’s true. Modern adolescents have given us the immortal words:
Great green gobs of greasy grimy gopher’s guts
Mutilated monkey meat
Little birdies’ dirty feet
All these things are very, very good to eat
But I forgot my spoon.

DGIS: Funny how locale plays a part in these things. In Detroit it was:
Great green gobs of greasy grimy gopher guts.
Cut up monkey meat.
Mutilated birdie feet
French fried eyeballs in a bowl of blood. Here comes [neighborhood kid of your choice] with a spoon and that’s not all he/she came with a straw and drank it all.

Since you are a Professor we thought it only proper to turn the tables and quiz your knowledge of both doctors and devils.

1) Which of the following are murderous duos and which are 1970’s musical acts?
A) Seals & Croft
B) Burke & Hare
C) Leopold & Loeb
D) Loggins & Messina
E) Bonnie & Clyde
F) Captain & Tennille


LR: B, C, and E are the murderers. But you left out Hall & Oates, who are (gasp!) on tour this year.

DGIS: Correct. +5 for adding Hall & Oates. -10 for knowing their tour schedule

2) In what’s known as the Abbey Road murders one Maxwell Edison, who was majoring in medicine, dispatched a handful of people. What was his weapon of choice?

LR: A silver hammer. Bang bang.

DGIS: Correct. +3 for correct sound effects.

3) True or False: Without the much maligned grave robbers of the 18th & 19th Centuries there is a good chance that Marcus Welby M.D. would have been Marcus Welby Bloodletter & Leechman.

LS: True.

DGIS: Correct.

LR: And here’s one for you:
If House had been transported back to Robert Knox’s dissecting rooms in 1828 Edinburgh, would he have:
A) Blown the whistle on Knox?
B) Joined forces with Knox?
C) Pushed Knox out of the way to get at the cadavers first?

DGIS: …A...well...he's the guy with cane right? We have no idea. -13 ½ for turning the tables back and asking us something we don’t know.*

4) Complete the song lyric:
“Doctor, doctor! Give me the news I got a, bad case of –“
A) Gout
B) Dropsy
C) Icturis
D) Furuncle
E) None of the above

LR: The correct answer is E) Burke and Hare blues

DGIS: Correct. + 13 ½ for creativity.

5) What is the name of Boris Karloff’s character in “The Body Snatcher” and for extra credit what is his “official” job?

LR: His name is John Gray and he is a cabman. Curiously, Ann and James Gray were the real-life couple who found the body of the final Burke and Hare victim and went to the police, thus ending the murder spree. I suppose the name of Karloff’s character can be considered an homage of sorts.

DGIS: Correct. + 10311828. Well done Professor!

Thank you very much for stopping in Lisa we wish you much success with:

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.
Be sure to check out Lisa's The Worlds of Burke & Hare

* DGIS staff has since Googled both “House” and “doctor” and would like to change their answer to C & A. He would have cut them up to learn what killed them?