Of Matters Criminous
August 24, 2011 9:14 PM   Subscribe

“Before me as I write lies an inch-square bit of brown leather --- not, you would think, an inspiring subject for a tale. But perpend. This fragment of human skin, for such it is, has been since 1829 in the possession of three persons only: The original owner, my grandfather, and myself. Inconsiderable in size and unimpressive of aspect, it was nevertheless potent to influence the direction of my future studies… While yet a small boy, my grandfather would often show me by request this singular relic and I never wearied of hearing how he came by it. As a matter of history, its first proprietor, the late Mr. William Burke of Edinburgh, in the circumstances hereafter to be related, was publicly anatomized, his carcass thereafter flayed, his hide tanned, and his skeleton by order of Court preserved in the Anatomical Museum of Edinburgh University, where it remains as a memorial of his infamy even unto this day. Mr. Burke’s integument being cut up into sortable parcels to suit buyer’s tastes and exposed for sale by private bargain, my grandfather, who was then but a young man, invested a modest shilling’s worth. Wealthier purchasers bought larger lots --- I have heard that the late Professor Chiene had a tobacco pouch made of this unique material. Personally, despite my predilection for crime, I prefer India-rubber.” --- "The Wolves of the West Port"

So begins William Roughead’s description of the careers of the infamous resurrection men Burke and Hare. Confidante and friend of Henry James and sometime crusader for justice alongside Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, William Roughead was a Scottish solicitor whose interest in and write-ups of criminal trials led to a career as one of the earliest true crime writers (and, according to Alexander Wolcott, a place on the bedside table of Franklin Delano Roosevelt).

Using primary source material such a trial transcripts and contemporary newspaper accounts, Roughead’s filigreed style---by turns arch, ironical, censorious and sly---raised shivers from cold cases as far back as the 16th century and into the 20th, including the yet notorious Burke and Hare and Madeleine Smith (previously, links broken).

His essays were much anthologized on both sides of the pond during the 1930s and 40s ---leaving him with a tangled bibliography, a lot of which is out of print. Your best offline bet for a taste of the master is Classic Crimes, which contains twelve of his juiciest cases and was reprinted in 2000 by New York Review of Books, with an intro by Luc Sante (a contemporary review can be found here).

But for those who wish a free sample, hidden in the nooks and crannies of the internet can find some of his rarer, public domain works available for kindle and or pdf consumption including:

Glengarry’s Way, a full accounting of several famous Scottish crimes and trials going back as far as the 1600s

Notable British Trials: Dr. Pritchard
(with pictures of the supercilious medico par excellence)

Notable British Trials: Deacon Brodie

(Can’t resist a quote: “It is nearly 120 years since Deacon Brodie played out his two-fold part at the west end of the Luckenbooths one grey afternoon of October, 1788…here he was born and lived, man and boy, robber and decent burgess, for many reputable years; here his old father passed away, happy in the possession of so excellent a son; and from hence did that son essay that ‘last fatal’ adventure, the issue of which, for him, was discovery and the scaffold.”)

His first book, Twelve Scots Trials

The Trial of Mary Blandy, on a 18th-century heiress, her rascal of a fiancé and her luckless father

And, for preview on Google Books UK, The Murder’s Companion, in which may be found “The Wolves of the West Port.”

Bonus Link, to play in the background while you’re downloading all these pdfs: Science Writer John Emsley talks about the history of poison as a murder weapon on NPR’s Fresh Air.
posted by Diablevert (12 comments total) 71 users marked this as a favorite
Great post. Thank you, Diablevert!
posted by tumid dahlia at 9:23 PM on August 24, 2011

Last year I read The Italian Boy, which covers a lot of related ground. Resurrection men are a fascinating subject and I'm looking forward to reading the links.

(Also to seeing the new movie about Burke and Hare, which I've been excited about since I read it was coming out.)
posted by immlass at 9:46 PM on August 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

nb: RSL = a club for Australian ex-soldiers, no matter which conflict they served in.
Now the Australian Government is to be asked to investigate how the head got from the bloody Gallipoli conflict to Victoria.

Mr Altintas said yesterday: "We would like the Australian and Turkish Governments to decide what happens to it and maybe for the Australian Government to investigate who brought it back here."

The discovery of the head had left him "wondering if there are others lying around".

By mid-morning yesterday, his RSL sub-branch office, which doubles as Melbourne's Turkish Community Centre, had taken many phone calls from members of the Turkish community "quite distressed by it".

"They've been a bit angry that this has happened," Mr Altintas said.

He described the removal of the head as "shameful" and "lacking respect", but did not believe it would damage the relationship between Australia and Turkey, which had been strengthened by the shared history of Gallipoli.

"I don't believe it will stir up conflict. This is something that happened a long time ago," Mr Altintas said. But he pointed out: "This head had relatives."
Such as a neck, shoulders, and a body, to name but a few.
Mr Altintas, whose grandfather fought at Gallipoli, said he was grateful to the unnamed grandson for "showing morality" and returning the head, and would like to shake his hand.
But not the hand that touched the head.

posted by uncanny hengeman at 10:33 PM on August 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

(Also to seeing the new movie about Burke and Hare, which I've been excited about since I read it was coming out.)

Seen it. It was absolutely terrible.
posted by tumid dahlia at 10:54 PM on August 24, 2011

“Before me as I write lies an inch-square bit of brown leather --- “

Now, that's how you start a horror story.
posted by Termite at 11:57 PM on August 24, 2011 [3 favorites]

(Also to seeing the new movie about Burke and Hare, which I've been excited about since I read it was coming out.)

New? That came out aaaages ago!
(It's only once in a blue moon that that ever happens, so I have to milk it while I can)
posted by Gordafarin at 3:28 AM on August 25, 2011

Yeah, I haven't seen the movie either and I'm a bit leery of it. I had hopes when I first heard of the project, but it seems like they got the tone wrong, among other things...I think you could make a good movie about it, but the honor would have to be pure black; to introduce a note of goofiness is to lose all the horror of the crime, and the horror is why it's telling.

That's what I like about Roughead --- his style is pretty ornate, to the point where I could see people finding it off-putting (perpend and all). But what he does very very well is manage to balance a poetic sense of atmosphere with the grounded detail that gives you a sense of how eople actually lived their lives. That's really tough to do, to have the imagination and narrative touch to bring across the horror of the crime and yet have the characters not slip into archetypes. It's all in the little details --- his description of the murder of Mary Patterson in "Wolves," for example; there's so much in there that gives you a sense of the nitty gritty of how class worked in that society, of how the poor lived and how a prostitute crossed those class barriers, and also that shivery little detail about the sketch that opens up a window on the psychology of Knox, the doctor. You couldn't make it up, and it takes a special talent to show you what it means...
posted by Diablevert at 6:00 AM on August 25, 2011

Humor, not honor. Sigh, phone.
posted by Diablevert at 6:02 AM on August 25, 2011

New? That came out aaaages ago!

That's all right, I've been waiting for aaaages to see it! I wish the advance (for me) reports were better; it struck me as potentially very good or kind of awful for the kinds of reasons Diablevert mentions.
posted by immlass at 6:08 AM on August 25, 2011

Of all the colorful synonymns for murder or execution (garotte, defenestrate, crucify, etc.) only two appear to be truly eponymous: "guillotine" (to decapitate with a device designed for that purpose)" and "burke" (to smother with a pillow); although "assassinate" comes close. Maybe if Jack Kevorkian's name was shorter, death by assisted suicide would be described eponymously as "to kevorkian".
posted by Herodios at 7:00 AM on August 25, 2011

Fantastic post.

I read Classic Crimes a number of years ago, and remember judging the first story, "Katharine Nairn", to be the best true crime account I had ever come across. My opinion hasn't changed. He wrote a longer report of the trial which he described as "one of the most attractive in our criminal annals". Someday I'll track down a copy...
posted by BigSky at 10:18 AM on August 25, 2011

Thanks very much for this. I had actually been looking for exactly this type and period range of true-crime stories on Gutenberg -- specifically about America, but I'll take the non-American subject matter gladly, especially when the style is that steep archaic Victorian diction that I love and shouldn't.
posted by Countess Elena at 5:35 PM on August 25, 2011

« Older Justice Clarence Thomas v President Barack Obama   |   Wikipedia oral citations Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments