The Edinburgh Dead: Who’s Really Real

As a sort of addendum to The Edinburgh Dead photo-trailer, I thought it’d be fun (for me, anyway) to run through a few of the people, and maybe a couple of the places, appearing in the novel that – it might surprise some folk to learn – I didn’t make up, but plucked from the real and true history of the city.

Burke and Hare, of course.  Don’t need much of an introduction for most people: infamous murderers, who killed at least 17 innocent folk and sold their corpses to the anatomists of Edinburgh for dissection.

All I’ll say about them here is that I think, despite its notoriety, their story has actually received less popular attention than it deserves.  Jack the Ripper is often thought of as the first ‘modern’ serial killer, but Burke and Hare predate him (whoever he was) by decades, and there is – to me, at least – something fascinatingly modern about their crimes.  They killed for financial gain, in the ‘service’ of famed and ambitious scientists, preying on the vulnerable.  When their misdeeds became known, the public uproar was pretty much unprecedented, and prefigures the kind of media-driven hysteria we see nowadays, including exclusive confessional newspaper interviews, exhaustive reporting of every gory detail, public disorder and so on.

Robert Knox, who the hero of The Edinburgh Dead, Adam Quire, encounters in Surgeon’s Square, is entirely real, and his appearance and demeanour in the novel are – as best as I could manage – historically accurate.  Self-important, abrasive, with only one good eye and a collection of gruesome anatomical specimens.  He did, as described in the novel, treat injured survivors of the Battle of Waterloo during his early years as a surgeon, and was, by 1828, by some distance the most successful and sought after private teacher of anatomy in the city. (A remarkable oddity of the time: there were plenty of such private teachers, operating outside the established University – or any other institution – busily dissecting cadavers for the edification of paying students).

And he was, as the novel hints but does not fully describe, undone by his hubris and his … let’s call it, to be charitable, morally questionable judgement.

And I’ll add in passing that Surgeon’s Square, was, of course, a real place.  It’s been more or less completely built over nowadays (by University buildings), but there’s a plaque on a wall pointing out its site.

Robert Christison.  Easily my favourite discovery in the course of research for the novel.  This guy was, if you ask me, remarkable.  In a lot of ways, I’d have liked to give him an even bigger role to play in The Edinburgh Dead than he has, just because I find him so interesting.  He was one of the great pioneers of what nowadays we would probably call forensic medicine, almost before it existed as a clearly defined concept.

In The Edinburgh Dead we see him pretty early in his career, when he was becoming recognised as a serious expert on things like poisoning.  (He even took poisons himself to more thoroughly understand their effects).  He went on to greatness, producing definitive texts and eventually even being appointed a physician to Queen Victoria.  A perfect example, in many ways, of the fruits of the inquiring, imaginative ambition that took hold of Edinburgh’s thinkers in the late 18th and early 19th centuries: he went after the secrets that the emerging scientific understanding of the human body unlocked, and applied them to the real world.

His expertise led him to be involved in many high profile criminal investigations, including that resulting from the misbehaviour of Burke and Hare.

James Robinson really was in charge of Edinburgh’s police force in 1828, and was indeed a former military man.  What happens to him in the course of the novel is, broadly speaking, what actually happened to him in the course of that year, though it didn’t necessarily happen for precisely the reasons I suggest.

Andrew Merrilees (Merry Andrew) was a real bodysnatcher, as were his cronies Spune and Mowdiewarp.  (They all sound to me like refugees from Gormenghast).  They provided the esteemed anatomists of Edinburgh with a great many fresh corpses.

They’re examples of what you’d call the ‘professional’ corpse-thiefs: a criminal underclass that emerged to service the needs of the professors.  Bizarrely, at least as many corpses were dug up and stolen by the anatomists themselves – or more often their over-enthusiastic and infatuated students – so you almost had two different classes of bodysnatcher operating at the same time: the dodgy and distinctly unsavoury criminals, and the highly educated ‘amateurs’ who moonlighted as dastardly resurrectionists.

The Holy Land, the Happy Land and the Just Land.  I wish I could take credit for making these places up – or at least inventing their names – but I can’t.  They were real, and notorious tenements (i.e. apartment blocks, for anyone not familiar with the term) populated almost entirely by prostitutes, their pimps and assorted criminally-inclined hangers-on.  I have shifted them slightly from their historical timing, since the references to them actually place them a little bit later than 1828, but I don’t actually know when they acquired their unpleasant reputation so it’s not toally inconceiveable they were as I describe them even in 1828.

They’re all named, as I say in the book, with ‘dour irony’, since not a one of them was remotely Holy, Happy or Just, but for what it’s worth, the Just Land was allegedly not quite as bad as the others, since it contained only prostitutes, with no pimps.

The Dancing School was also a real place, but also one I’ve moved back in time a bit, just because I thought it was kind of fun.  As in the book, the teaching of dancing was in fact pretty low down on its list of priorities.

John Ruthven is not real.  But his (presumed) ancestors were.  There were at least a couple of members of the high-ranking Ruthven family, back in Scotland’s past, with a dark reputation for dabbling in the arcane.  They seem to have escaped any of the then-popular punishments for those accused of witchcraft, but got in various kinds of trouble on account of their political manouevrings and conspiratorial tendencies.

And there’s more – quite a bit more – but that’s probably enough for now.  Can always come back to some further examples of historical truth some time in the future, should it seem like a good idea.  Those wanting more on the historical background to the novel can always browse the rest of The Edinburgh Dead photo-trailer.


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