Why, when a beautiful girl is murdered, are people so quick to assume that it must somehow have been her own fault?
That has been the unfortunate fate of Mary Paterson, killed by Burke and Hare in April 1828, her body sold to anatomy lecturer Dr. Robert Knox. As if it were not bad enough to be burked at the age of 18, preserved in alcohol for three months and then dissected, she has also been saddled with a reputation as a notorious prostitute.
First claimed as “a person of disorderly life…cut short in her sinful career,” by an oft-quoted, though unreliable contemporary source, she was recently, and as unreliably, characterized in the Scotsman as “a voluptuous beauty whose body was for sale…” who “would hitch up her skirt in the shadows of Edinburgh’s Canongate.” Artists’ renditions of at least two different naked women circulated, each purporting to be the “true” Mary Paterson stretched out on the dissecting slab; and the rumor spread by word of mouth, and later through fiction and film, that she was recognized by her medical student lover as he stood, scalpel in hand, ready for the morning’s work.
But the very fact that Mary Paterson’s cadaver was beautiful makes it highly unlikely that she was the kind of homeless streetwalker implied by the Scotsman, and one of her friends spoke out against the contemporary rumors; “she may have been ‘irregular’ in her habits,” but “not so low as she has been represented.” The excellent Edinburgh archives confirm this, as they document the admission of Mary Paterson into the Magdalene Asylum, a kind of reform school for penitent prostitutes, at the age of 16.
This was a sign of “irregular” habits indeed, but not of notorious prostitution, because the archives also document that she left the Asylum less than week before her murder. She had no time in her brief life to embark on a “sinful career,” or to form a liaison with Burke or medical students. She was not “asking” for death: it came to her simply because, one April morning, she encountered a murderer on the Canongate.
Lisa Rosner is Professor of History at Stockton College, Pomona, NJ, where she is also Interim Director of the South Jersey Center for Digital Humanities. Anatomy Murders, the third book in her Edinburgh Trilogy, has allowed her to delve ever-deeper into the seamy side of early modern medicine. For more on Burke and Hare, including animated walking tours through 1820s Edinburgh and a re-creation of an anatomical dissection, visit http://burkeandhare.com.
IMAGE: Canongate Edinburgh Looking West, Thomas Hosmer Shepherd (c.1810 to c.1842)