One of the benefits of writing about serial killers is you meet some really nice people.
That, at least, is how Lisa Rosner sees things.
Rosner, a history professor at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey in Galloway Township, is author of "The Anatomy Murders: A History of the Notorious Burke and Hare Murder Case." The book details the story of a pair of 19th-century criminals who turned to slaughter to make a killing in the emerging - and lucrative - market for medical school cadavers.
On Sunday, she'll speak about the book at Atlantic Cape Community College in Mays Landing. She expects the event will be attended by people who are fascinated by serial killers - and that's not a bad thing.
"I keep meeting people who are very interested in serial murders, and they are the nicest, sweetest people," said Rosner of past book events. "I'm not surprised that people are fascinated. We like to live lives that are well-ordered. What happens is that serial killings are an intrusion into our very ordered lives by something very horrific. The dark corners of the bedroom are very fascinating because you don't know what is there."
It was an interest in the history of medicine, not some fascination with mass murder, that led Rosner to write the book.
Armed with a quick wit and a doctorate in the history of science, the 52-year-old Rosner teaches classes on the history of medicine and science. She's the author of books about the life of medical students in 19th-century Edinburgh - then a world center of medical study - and on the diaries of a 19th-century Edinburgh doctor.
It was while researching these two projects she became interested in the Burke and Hare case. Although well-known among afficionados of serial murders, the yearlong killing spree by these two Irish immigrants in 19th-century Edinburgh has not had the same impact on popular culture as the Jack the Ripper murders that occurred in London nearly 60 years later.
Unlike the Ripper, whose motives for murder may never be fully understood, the two Irish men approached killing as strictly a business proposition.
In the early days of modern medicine, medical schools used the corpses of executed criminals for dissection. But, by the time William Burke and William Hare found themselves in Scotland, laws had become less Draconian, and the supply of hanged men and women could not keep up with the demand from medical schools and instructors.
One of these instructors was a Dr. Robert Knox, who was willing to spend as much as
10 pounds - about $500 - for a good corpse.
"He didn't intend murder, but he did need to attract students to his classes," Rosner said. "If he spent 10 pounds for a corpse, he might attract three or four students who would each spend 10 pounds to study with him."
Burke and Hare stumbled into murder when they sold the body of someone who had died of natural causes and learned how much money they could make.
Both men were "tradesmen and laborers. For them, 10 pounds would be six months of very hard work," Rosner said. Unwilling to wait for nature to supply them with more corpses, the men decided to take matters into their own hands. They began luring transients to Hare's lodging house, getting them drunk and then suffocating them. This technique, which left little evidence of foul play, is now called "burking." The term has even earned a niche in American popular culture: an episode of "CPI" was titled "Burked."
The pair had killed 16 people before lodgers at Hare's house discovered the body of one of the victims stuffed beneath a bed. Burke was hanged following a sensational trial that saw Hare strike a deal to testify against him. Knox also escaped prosecution, though his reputation never recovered.
One of the chilling things about the murders, Rosner said, is the randomness with which the killers chose their victims.
"These are people who were simply going about their business. They accepted a drink from a friendly stranger. It wasn't that they were rich, it was just that their cadavers had a value that outweighed the value of themselves," she said.
Researching her book, Rosner found "a wealth of information," including court documents and letters that not only let her tell the story of the killings, but also to talk about the victims and the medical culture of the period.
Rosner isn't the first author to be fascinated by the killings. A story by Robert Louis Stevenson was inspired by the murders, and several films reference the crimes, including 1945's "The Body Snatcher," starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.
"Animal House" director John Landis is reportedly working on a film about the killings that is to star Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis.
"It is a well-known story among people who like this kind of thing," Rosner said. It's also a well-known story in her own house, where the Voorhees author's husband and two children are well-aware of Rosner's penchant for the dark side of medicine.
"I've built my reputation looking at the seamy underside of medical history," Rosner admits. "I love murder mysteries, but I don't think of myself as a particularly creepy person."
Contact Steven V. Cronin:
Lisa Rosner, author of "The Anatomy Murders: A History of the Notorious Burke and Hare Murder Case," speaks 2 p.m. Sunday at the William Spangler Library on the campus of Atlantic Cape Community College, 5100 Black Horse Pike, Mays Landing. Admission is free. For more information, call 609-343-4918.