(Figure story describing the events leading to

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(Figure 1. Death mask of William Burke, sourced from the University of Edinburgh Anatomical Museum image collection courtesy of Malcolm Maccallum) William Burke was publicly hanged on the 28th of January 1829 and the story describing the events leading to his death has remained infamous to this day. Burke lived in a lodging house owned by William Hare and his wife and whilst there, bore witness to the death of a fellow lodger. With the increasing growth in the field of anatomy and high demand for corpses, Burke and his landlord Hare decided to sell the lodger’s body for 7 pounds and 10 shillings to Dr Robert Knox, a private anatomy teacher in Edinburgh. Impressed by the ease of earning such an impressive sum, the two men went on to murder at least 16 people, selling their bodies to Knox. Targeting isolated individuals, they remained undetected until another lodger, after discovering the body of a woman named Docherty in the Hare’s house, reported them to the police. Hare went free in return for providing evidence against Burke , whilst Burke was condemned to death by hanging and was publicly anatomised.   In this paper, I will demonstrate that our fascination with criminals continues to capture the public imagination, even in contemporary society. I shall then, using Burke’s case, explore the defining characteristics of the notorious criminal through comparisons with two other societal figures: the celebrity and the saint.  The University of Edinburgh’s Anatomical Museum holds several items relating to Burke’s case. Amongst these are Burke’s life and death masks and endocranial cast, created for use in the study of phrenology. This pseudoscience was based on the belief that the shape of the head and skull could reveal information about the personality of an individual. The masks of criminals were compared to those of morally good or successful individuals in an attempt to explain their difference. Now, centuries later, after the debunking of this myth, these masks have become haunting souvenirs of the individuals behind criminal actions. In the collection, there is also a notebook made from Burke’s skin – one of several items allegedly made from Burke’s body, including a tobacco pouch and tanned pieces of skin upon which were printed portraits of Burke and Hare.   The popularity of the case of Burke and Hare was monumental with an estimated 25,000 people in attendance at Burke’s hanging.  Due to the fear that crowds would steal or destroy it, his body was not taken to the anatomy hall until the following day. As we no longer practice capital punishment in the UK, least of all public anatomisation or the creation of souvenirs from criminal bodies, it may be supposed that such morbid fascination with criminals and their bodies has dissipated. However, the abundance of popular crime and medical dramas and documentaries shown on television today would seem to suggest that although the way in which we satisfy our fascination with criminals has changed, it has nevertheless persisted through time. This calls into question the status of such individuals in society, a figure that as I will argue, draws parallels from both the celebrity and the saint.   Notorious Criminals and Celebrities  The extent to which we may liken notorious criminals, such as Burke, to celebrities depends on two things: firstly, how the concept of celebrity is defined, and secondly, whether only individuals of merit can have celebrity status. I shall address these considerations consecutively.   The concept of celebrity is tied to capitalist ideology, or at the very least the consumerist ideals which define it. Morgan, for instance, defines the celebrity as ‘a known individual who has become a marketable commodity’ (Morgan, 98). If we accept this definition, celebrities are mass produced commodities of consumer capitalism. This characterisation may make it difficult to apply the concept of celebrity to individuals who predate capitalism. However, this is not to say that a likeness may not be drawn between the celebrities of today and historical figures of recognition. Burke’s case sits on the cusp of the origin of consumer capitalism, however the goods which were produced using the skin from his corpse suggest a commodification of public figures which very much resonates with capitalist ideology. The criminal may also be consumed more abstractly ‘visually, audibly, through the written word’ (Penfold-Mounce, 251). Consistent with the capitalist reading, Penfold-Mounce describes the ways in which we, the public, consume a notorious criminal as ‘tourist-like tendencies’ (255).  The capitalist interpretation of celebrity is also closely tied with media coverage. As Rojek notes: ‘No celebrity now acquires public recognition without the assistance of cultural intermediaries who operate to stage-manage celebrity presence in the eyes of the public’ (10). In Burke’s time, there was not the mass media we have today, but nevertheless, newspapers published articles on key trials and hangings. Furthermore, the vast numbers in attendance at Burke’s hanging is evidence that the public were largely familiar with the case despite the extensive media coverage we may think necessary to propel him to infamy.  Although we can draw parallels between notorious criminals and celebrities, what seems to distinguish the criminal are their immoral actions. However, Rojek argues that both glamourous individuals (associated with favourable public recognition) and notorious individuals (associated with unfavourable public recognition), can both fall into the category of celebrity (10). Rojek, therefore, argues that what distinguishes a celebrity is their cultural impact, not the moral value of their actions. Infamous criminals may therefore be considered celebrities. This comparison illuminates the seeming incongruity between the condemnation of a criminal’s actions in society and our fascination with them, as well as the fame which the individual achieves as a result. Thus, the notorious criminal, like the celebrity figure, is in this sense dehumanised. This distance created between the criminal and ordinary people allows society to behave in ways that would otherwise be deemed unacceptable, particularly if one knew the perpetrator or their victims on a personal level.  The comparison with celebrities accommodates for, but does not explain the reason for our fascination with notorious criminals and their immoral actions. I shall now discuss this key characteristic through a comparison to saints.    Notorious Criminals and Saints   The comparison of notorious criminals to saints may seem counterintuitive – however, both define an identity based on transgressive actions. The saint transcends the bounds of human capability through moral action. Consequently, the saint not only obtains favourable public recognition, but also acquires god-like status. The notorious criminal, conversely, transgresses through immoral action and is often thought of as evil or even the devil incarnate.  This comparison extends beyond a capitalist reading of our fascination with criminals. As Kleinberg states: the ‘market that the saint acts in is not the market of material goods; it is the market of symbolic goods’ (395). The cultural signs of a saint are the miracles he produces that denote spiritual contact. The criminal produces miracle-like signs, in the form of atrocities, which point to a connection with the sacrilegious. This is not to say that we must view our fascination through a religious lens, although much discourse around criminal action may be tied to religious discourse. The criminal may also transgress in a secular, moral sense or simply violate our societal mores. An individual may be transgressive in multiple ways which is clearly illustrated by the death mask of 14-year-old murderer John Any Bird Bell. Considered one of the most shocking at the University of Edinburgh, the mask of the teenage murderer, described as ‘baby faced’, represents an individual who not only transgressed the moral code of his society, confounded preconceptions of childhood innocence by committing murder at such an early age (Kaufman, 507).  The comparison between saints and notorious criminals also captures the distinct link between the transgressive individual and the importance given to their physical body. Relics of saints are commonly collected and are often thought to have spiritual status or therapeutic abilities. Correspondingly, ancient beliefs suppose that the body of a criminal corpse has curative or lucky powers. This relationship is further illustrated in a secular form by the life and death masks created to be used in phrenology. This reveals a second form of dehumanisation that antecedes our continuing fascination with notorious criminals: the criminal viewed as transgressive of human capability. This attitude is shown clearly in today’s crime documentaries, where often it is concluded that any unhappiness in the lives of a criminal is insufficient to cause their actions, and thus an explanation of how they could commit such crimes must be either spiritual or medical (bodily).    Concluding Remarks  This paper is far from exhaustive in its description of our fascination with the figure of the notorious criminal. However, through likening these individuals to celebrities and saints, I have shown that two kinds of dehumanising attitudes create an image of the notorious criminal as something sub-human, a commodity to be consumed. These views, in turn, make criminals into a spectacle and mask the hypocritical public response which, given our attitudes and behaviours would be considered deeply offensive were the individual seen as our equal.  

Categories: Documentaries


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