Deborah A. Symonds. Notorious Murders, Black Lanterns, and Moveable Goods: The Transformation of Edinburgh's Underworld in the Early Nineteenth Century. Akron: University of Akron Press, 2006. xvi + 180 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-931968-27-0.
Reviewed by Gordon Pentland (School of History, Classics and Archaeology, University of Edinburgh)
Published on H-Albion (November, 2007)
Anatomizing Edinburgh's Underworld
The grizzly murders of sixteen individuals in 1828, whose bodies were sold for handsome prices to a celebrated anatomist at Edinburgh University, have long exercised the talents and captured the imaginations of historians, novelists, and playwrights. Deborah Symonds's book, in spite of its title, is largely concerned with these so-called "West Port Murders," which are indelibly associated with the names of two immigrant Irishmen--William Burke and William Hare.
Symonds's principal concern is to integrate this oft-told episode into a wider picture of the criminal underworld of the Athens of the North during the crucially important (yet peculiarly under-researched, at least in terms of Scottish history) decade of the 1820s. To begin with, the author contextualizes her own work with fairly short historiographical sketches of both the history of crime and criminality and the history of Scotland in the long eighteenth century. The chapters then address the following: firstly, a close narrative of the murders themselves up to the arrest of William Burke, William Hare, Lucky Log and Helen M'Dougal; secondly, a whirlwind tour, via a number of case studies, of the modes of the criminal underworld of which the murderers were a part; thirdly, the trial of William Burke and Helen M'Dougal and the various attempts to overcome Hare's immunity and prosecute him as well; fourthly, a detailed reconstruction of the household and business model of the body snatchers; and finally, a chapter which identifies the murders and the response to them as an episode illustrative of rapid change in the nature of crime and its relationship to the economy.
Overall, the book has a curiously unbalanced feel. A great deal of ink is spilt in reconstructing the murders and the trials, which the author does through engaging narratives supplemented by interesting analysis and insights. There is, however, little original to say about these events themselves, which have been covered in numerous older histories and, more analytically, in Owen Dudley Edwards's splendid Burke and Hare.
A greater share of the book might profitably have been lavished on the areas in which Symonds does have new and interesting things to suggest. Indeed, the book is at its best in the final two chapters, in which the author raises a number of intriguing questions including a detailed examination of how the household in which all of the conspirators lived played an active part in events and an investigation of the roles played by Burke and Hare's female accomplices. Indeed, viewing the West Port Murders through the wider lens of female criminality and examining not only the women's roles in the commission of the crimes but their symbolic roles in the trials and thereafter, is perhaps the most refreshing and interesting aspect of the book. Symonds is also impressive in the imaginative reconstruction of 1820s Edinburgh, where, for example, a program of improvements and bridge-building quite literally re-made parts of the Old Town as an "underworld."
Developing angles of inquiry such as this and giving more space to the issues raised in the second chapter might have allowed Symonds to reach more satisfying conclusions. As it is, the claim that the episode reveals deep conflicts over and transformations within both the commission and reception of crime in the early nineteenth century raises useful questions but cannot answer these convincingly on the basis of the forensic evidence gleaned from the Edinburgh records for a single year.
. Owen Dudley Edwards, Burke and Hare (Edinburgh: Polygon Books, 1980).
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Gordon Pentland. Review of Symonds, Deborah A., Notorious Murders, Black Lanterns, and Moveable Goods: The Transformation of Edinburgh's Underworld in the Early Nineteenth Century.
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