The Doctor Dissected: A Cultural Autopsy of the Burke & Hare Murders by Caroline McCracken-Flesher

Jessica Friederichsen


McCracken-Flesher, Caroline. The Doctor Dissected: A Cultural Autopsy of the Burke & Hare Murders. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. 288 pp.


In 1828, in Edinburgh, William Burke and William Hare killed at least sixteen people in order to supply the students of one increasingly successful anatomist, Dr. Knox, with fresh cadavers for dissection. While Burke was hanged for the crimes, Hare turned King’s witness and was permitted to leave Edinburgh. Problematically, Dr. Knox never gave a satisfying explanation for his role in the events. Caroline McCracken-Flesher examines the process by which this history has been absorbed into literature and then investigates the story’s transformations over the last two hundred years. She approaches the story as a traumatic event inflicted on a culture that must be processed to be healed. McCracken-Flesher begins her cultural autopsy with an examination of the historic details that turned the story of Burke and Hare into a lasting cultural narrative, moves into an examination of the process by which the tale was healed, and ends with the story’s afterlife.


The most successful aspect of the book is McCracken-Flesher’s discussion of how a historic event turns from a news item into a lasting cultural memory, which she begins in the first chapter. At first, the details of the Burke and Hare murders do not seem to surprise or shock a public that was already familiar with the problem of supplying a necessary commodity. The impetus that takes Burke, Hare, and Knox into infamy is not the details of the crimes, but the circumstances arising after they were caught. Hare’s escape from justice and Dr. Knox’s silence create an element of uncertainty in the public’s understanding of the events. Increasingly, the story is repeated in newspapers, and increasingly, it appears incomplete. The inability to finish the narrative – to know with certainty – gives a compulsive feeling to the retellings. Dialogue and repetition attempt to cover the incompleteness of the story, but rather than moving the story to closure, the retellings draw attention to what is missing and fix the story in the cultural memory.


In chapter two, McCracken-Flesher describes two connections between this unresolved story and wider social concerns. First, and unsurprisingly, the story is connected to the strange triple service of anatomists in Dr. Knox’s time – they examined the dead, attempted surgery on un-anesthetized patients, and cut the arteries of the recently deceased to prevent them from waking in the grave. Dr. Knox’s refusal to acknowledge a need for greater diligence and responsibility from anatomists connects public dissatisfaction with the known details of the Burke and Hare murders to a more generalized anxiety about the relationships between anatomists, death, and life. Second, Sir Walter Scott compares Scotland under British rule to a body on the dissecting table. This comparison motivates Scotland to oppose the absorption of its currency into the British economic system, and it also ties the anxiety and uncertainty of Scottish identity to the uncertainty of recent events. Even early in its history, the unresolved story can be made to lend its impetus to other concerns, but these concerns cannot resolve the story. Rather the new concerns keep uncertainty alive, and the story gains momentum and longevity.


McCracken-Flesher then analyses three semi-fictional retellings by two authors of the murders in her third chapter. These stories are an attempt to contain the past within genre. By retelling history fiction, the authors are attempting to “confine” history (65). Genre conventions lend predictability and conclusion to a narrative that cannot be resolved within historic discourse and force the actions of real people into the standard evils of the genre. The readers can then transpose their sense of understanding and conclusion from the fiction to the history. Again, the story is used to explore issues the authors are interested in, but even with the freedom of fictionalization, neither author can provide the closure that the historical story demands. These villains cannot be contained by their roles. In some stories, they vanish from the narrative completely. Because of this failure, the stories “point not to plot resolution but to themselves as stories” (67). Both authors insist that they “really” finish the tale (85), but their narratives simply add to the inconclusive repetition.


McCracken-Flesher makes a good case in chapter four that connects Dr. Knox to the famous Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Robert Louis Stevenson had previously characterized Dr. Knox in “The Body Snatcher,” but in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the doctor finally speaks, resolving the sixty year silence. The fraught standing of anatomists in 1828 was mirrored by chemists in 1886, and readers familiar with Dr. Knox could easily read him into Dr. Jekyll’s admission of wrongdoing that closes the novella. For the first time, the doctor admits his part in the plot. The fictionalized doctor can speak for the now-dead Dr. Knox, and so the trauma is clarified and begins to heal. While Stevenson’s tale was not the first tale told about Dr. Knox, it is the first time new information is made available, even if that information is fictional. The story does not now disappear from memory, but from this point forward, there is a shift in the types of stories told.


Part of chapter five is devoted to the post-Stevenson retellings in popular entertainment, which no longer have gaps in the narrative with which they must contend. Now, Burke, Hare, and Knox in melodrama and film keep the story alive in cultural memory, but the story is no longer problematic. Because of the unproblematic nature of the narrative, the authors in chapter five can successfully contain the narrative within genre, unlike the authors in chapter three. The villains in these melodramas remain central to the plots, remain villains, and are caught and punished. There are still texts being produced today that use these characters in this way. Two texts in chapter seven examine the redundancy of these many Burke, Hare, and Knox stories, but they must use other cultural markers – Dr. Who and the modern-day anatomist von Hagen (of Body Worlds) – to do so.


The other part of chapter five describes the way that Scottish dramatist James Bridie disturbs this peace. His play The Anatomist (1930) examines the complicity of the people around Knox by focusing on fictionalized people in Knox’s life and their relationships with the doctor. None of these characters escapes the patterns of “groupthink” (130) or the willful ignorance that allowed the Doctor to engage in his business in the first place. The play leaves the story as unresolved and problematic as it was in 1828. Bridie reinvests it with the elements of dialogue, uncertainty, and dissatisfaction that characterized its earlier manifestations. Bridie’s play treats the story of Dr. Knox very differently than the other texts produced after Stevenson’s, and perhaps it is this tension that helps keep the story’s momentum.


In chapter five through seven, McCracken-Flesher works to recover the story’s Scottish heritage. Despite its dialect and precise place in Scottish history, Bridie’s play is less interested in “the difference of nations than the similarity of individuals” (137). Because it is the audience, rather than the characters, that question Dr. Knox, the audience becomes the population of 1828 Edinburgh for the duration of the play, and the play is exported from Scotland to be known and possessed by other people and places. In chapter six, the story again becomes a metaphor for Scottish political concerns. In Alasdair Gray’s humorous Poor Things (1992), the dissecting room’s subject-patient comes to life, but she refuses to see herself as victim or to submit to the control of the doctor or his friends. Taken in the context of Sir Walter Scott’s use of the dissected body as a metaphor for Scotland under British rule, this living patient soothes anxieties of a different sort and becomes a symbol for Scottish resilience. The Scottish nature of the story is complicated by the reaction of Scots to the texts McCracken-Flesher analyses in chapter seven. The many Burke and Hare plays offered at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and the Burke and Hare tourist attractions bring in tourist dollars, but perhaps because of the story’s previous use as a symbol for Scottish independence, they also offer Scots the opportunity to consider the commodification of Scottish history and culture.


McCracken-Flesher’s book is accessibly and wittily written. She provides the reader with enough cultural context and narrative information to follow her argument. The trauma that was Burke and Hare was not inflicted as a result of the crimes, but because of the doctor’s silence. Knox once argued that each human fetus must pass through the stages of the genus’ development (105), and McCracken-Flesher conflates cultural and personal processes by arguing that the Burke and Hare murders have had to be resolved by the creative filling-in of that silence. The multitude of stories written since 1828 have all been an effort to fill that silence, but dialogue begets dialogue, and the story was re-written, rather than written, into popular memory.




Jessica Friederichsen graduates in Spring 2012 with an MA in Comparative Literature from the University of Alberta.  Her thesis examines adaptation, popular culture, and personal identity.



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