Lisa Rosner


On her book The Anatomy Murders (now in paperback)

Cover Interview of February 26, 2012

The wide angle

The Burke and Hare anatomy murders were a sensation in their own day, the first serial killings to be reported in the popular press. The story traveled wherever newspapers were sold, throughout Britain and across the Atlantic, all the way to the American frontier. It was the basis for a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson, called “The Body Snatcher,” later turned into a movie starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. There have been other movie versions as well, the most recent being John Landis’ Burke and Hare, just released on DVD in the United States in December (2011).

One reason why the case appeared so chilling in the 1820s—and still does today—is that unlike most murders, there was no personal relationship between the perpetrator and victim. That is, these weren’t crimes of passion, or bar room brawls that went horribly wrong. Burke and Hare made no distinctions: one person’s cadaver was just like another’s, and so anyone, anywhere, could end up “burked” on a dissecting table. A man might come to town on his lawful business, a woman might stop for the night in respectable lodgings, but all their prudence could not guarantee their safety. People feared that anyone could become a murder victim, because there was literally a price placed on every head.

In the modern world, this fear has been incorporated into the urban legend of people waking up in a strange hotel room missing a kidney. And the value of a modern human body, with all saleable parts intact, has been estimated between $100,000 and $400,000.

My own interest in the story comes from my scholarly work as a historian of medicine. The Burke and Hare case raises hard questions about medical progress. We are all in favor of scientific experiment when it improves our own health care, but can it come at too high a price? Even as we draw the line at murder, do we ignore other dubious practices? Black market sale of body parts? Medical experimentation on human subjects without their knowledge or consent? Miracles of modern medicine routinely available to the rich, but not the poor?