ANATOMISATION & DISSECTION
In order to attach a ‘peculiar mark of infamy’ to the ‘horrid crime of murder’, the Murder Act of 1752 dictated that criminals should, after execution, either be sent to the Barber Surgeons to be anatomised and dissected or gibbetted (hung in chains). Of the two punishments dissection was far more commonly used in the period between 1752-1832 (as the chart below illustrates). The work of this project has shown that this post-mortem punishment was a carefully choreographed public spectacle and as important, if not more, than the execution itself.
A TRIP TO THE BARBERS:
The practice of dissecting criminal corpses itself was not new in 1752. The bodies of executed felons had long been the sole provision of the Barber Surgeons. In 1540, Henry VIII passed an edict allowing The Worshipful Company of Barber Surgeons the bodies of 4 executed criminals per year for the purposes of anatomical instruction. This was their sole annual provision and did not include the many unincorporated anatomists across the country who, effectively, had no legal access to bodies. Unsurprisingly, practices up and down the country had a drastic shortage of cadavers for medical instruction and often used illicit means to meet their demand. The Murder Act of 1752 went some way to remedying this problem but, as will be shown, did not entirely solve the shortage.
SEEING THE DEAD: CHOREOGRAPHING THE CRIMINAL CORPSE
Dissections were often hugely popular spectacles, with vast numbers in attendance in the procession from the execution and in the days following in which the body was put on public display. Accordingly, access to view the anatomisation and dissection of the condemned body was ticketed and often dependent on ones social standing. One of the findings of this project is that, owing to the large public demand to see the criminal corpse, these spectacles were carefully choreographed events.
Particular cases garnered more attention than others, in 1760 Earl Ferrers became the last Lord to be hung in England (5th May, 1760 at Tyburn). His body was put on display at Surgeon's Hall and attracted great attention from the public. Similarly, at the 1827 dissection of William Corder at the Shire Hall in Bury St Edmunds, newspapers noted that the Barber Surgeons’ “first anatomical duty was to try to accommodate ‘5,000’ people determined to accompany the body on its post-execution journey.” They went on to note that “the anxiety to see Corder’s body was as great as at his execution: crowds flocked around the doors.”
Despite the provisions of the Murder Act body supply was still far short of what Surgeons required. Indeed, this project has found that between 1752-1832 there was, on average, only 12 criminal corpses, per year, sent to the surgeons of England and Wales. There were some notable exceptions, particularly in and around times of war. Most notably, in 1817, two years after the huge demobilisation of troops following the end of the wars in France, 24 corpses were made available. These severe shortages led to a rise in body snatching and grave robbery, a phenomenon that arguably reached its grim nadir in Edinburgh in the late 1830’s, with the bodysnatchers Burke and Hare.
Owing to these shortages and the increasing public horror at the work of the body snatchers over the course of the late eighteenth century there were numerous legislative attempts to extend the punishment of dissection to crimes other than murder. One of the intentions of these moves was to create a steadier flow of cadavers for medical instruction, as surgeons were still very short of bodies despite the provisions of the Murder Act. William Wilberforce was a leading figure in promoting these calls for reform, but all his attempts failed. The prevailing argument against extending the punishment, was that it would lose its terror if it was not reserved for the most heinous of crimes.
DISSECTIONS IN THE REGIONS
The locations in which dissections were carried out varied widely from region to region. In this sense it is difficult to talk of a unified experience of dissection across the country. Unlike London, with its purpose built Surgeon’s Hall, elsewhere dissections took place in venues as diverse as Shire Hall lobbies and smaller medical dispensaries to private surgeons' premises and even gaols. The only notable exception was in Newcastle, which had its own Barber Surgeons Hall from the late eighteenth century. However, all of these venues shared one common feature and that was their physical and thus symbolic proximity to the Sentencing Courts.
Previous criminal histories have tended to leave the condemned corpse hanging on the gallows. This ignores an intrinsic part of the intended punishment in the eighteenth century and early nineteenth century. Just as the execution was a popular public punishment spectacle so was the dissection and anatomisation. Often attracting large crowds, these events had to be carefully choreographed. Whilst we cannot speak of a uniform experience of dissection and anatomisation there were marked similarities in practice up and down the country. Similarly, there was a marked fear of the work of Surgeons by many members of the public, a fear that can arguably still be seen in the ongoing reluctance to adopt an opt-out system of organ donation.
POST MORTEM PUNISHMENTS 1752-1832
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SUGGESTED FURTHER READING
RELATED PROJECT PUBLICATIONS
Elizabeth Hurren, Dissecting the Criminal Corpse: Staging Post-Execution Punishment in Early Modern England (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016). Fully Open Access
Banner Image: Wax Anatomical Model (Made 1771-1800). Wellcome Trust Images L0058207