Hear Ye! Gruesome Murders, Terrific Book
Professor of History
On Thursday, October 27th, Lisa Rosner (HIST) gave an excellent presentation entitled “The Horrid and True Story of the Burke and Hare Murders.” Lisa, as many of you already know, is a Professor in the Historical Studies program. She has been at Stockton since 1989, teaching a wide array of courses in European History and the History of Science and Medicine. She has published three monographs, several textbooks, and umpteen articles.
Lisa’s presentation focused on the book she published last year, The Anatomy Murders, with the quite tremendous and 19th century-esque subtitle, “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 – Hear Ye! Hear Ye!” Well, I added the last bit, but it seemed to fit. [To go to the website associated with the book, click here.]
Lisa likes to look at the seamier side of the history of medicine. Her first monograph, Medical Education in the Age of Improvement, didn’t do this, it is true, but her second one certainly did – honing in on the scandalous life of Alexander Lesassier – who was dubbed “The Most Beautiful Man in Existence!” Hear Ye! Hear Ye! She also likes to approach the study of medicine from the bottom up, describing the people who were affected by changes in medicine, rather than merely describing the feats and medical advances of the various physicians and practitioners. Thus, in The Anatomy Murders, Lisa pays close attention to the lives of all those who ended up being the victims of Burke, Hare and their accomplices.
Historiographically speaking, the work is important for casting new light on events that have been shrouded in myth, not to mention the Edinburgh mist, rumbling in off the Firth of Forth. My former advisor at Edinburgh University, Owen Dudley Edwards, wrote an earlier study of the murders, and, truth be told (because he certainly relished these kinds of myths and possibly contributed to a few), there was a lot left unearthed after his study. But Lisa has left no stone unturned. Where an individual murdered by Burke and Hare has previously been recorded as a prostitute – an early example of blaming the victim, perhaps – Lisa has shown that she could not have been; where the Edinburgh physician was sufficiently respectable that he could evade full blame for the events (even among historians), Lisa has shown that he must have known what was going on – if he was an anatomist with any pretensions to being qualified to teach at the University. In the process, one comes away with a clear sense of medical, legal, and social practices at a very formative period in the development of an urban community.
The talk was well attended, and it was particularly nice to have Margaret Lewis’s students from her anatomy class in attendance. This led Lisa, turning on a dime to respond to the interests of her audience, to take an approach that was closer to CSI than the standard historical presentation. This made the talk engaging, and fun, if at times a little gruesome, and it revealed the interdisciplinary connections embedded in Lisa’s work, and her facility with different disciplinary discourses. All in all, it was an excellent performance from a prolific and gifted scholar.
Thanks to Lisa for sharing her work with us. Next up, we hear from Joe’l Ludovich. Hear Ye! Hear Ye! The presentation, entitled "The Brian Dennis Project," will be on Thursday, November 11.