Let Conversation Cease.
Let Laughter Flee.
This is the place where death delights to help the living
— A saying attributed to Giovanni Morgagni, eighteenth century anatomist— said to be copied on the walls of some dissection rooms after the Murder Act (1752) in England—now standard in many pathology rooms around the world

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.

Henry VIII and the Barber Surgeons. Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


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. 

Wednesday 16 September 1767: After waiting an hour in the Lobby of Surgeon’s Hall, got by with great difficulty (the crowd being great and the screw stairs very narrow) to see the body of Mrs. Brownrigg, which, cut as it is, is a most shocking sight. I wish I had not seen it. How loathsome our vile bodies are, when separated from the soul! It is surprising what crowds of women and girls run to see what usually frightens them so much.
— Cozens-Hardy D, editor. The Diary of Silas Neville, 1767–1788. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 1908. p. 205. 15 September 1773 entry.

Elizabeth Brownrigg in Prison. Image from the John Johnson collection. Reproduced under the Wikimedia Commons Creative Commons licence.


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.

The Superficial Muscles of the Thorax, and the Axilla with its contents. Wellcome Images L0033938

Once inside the designated space, different social classes entered by a timed-ticket entry system. On day one, everyone paraded in long queues to see the body cut open. The amount of viewing time depended on the size of the crowd assembled, how many doors there were to enter and exit, and the general capacity of the chosen venue to process people through in an orderly manner. On day two tickets were sold to the educated elite or professionals in a town or city. At night, ladies of the middling-sort could then buy a ticket to see a dissection of the eye, which was considered seemly for their sensibilities. They were not permitted to see a naked torso in the way that females of the labouring poor had access to on day day three the body could then be left to the jurisdiction of the medical men and their apprenticed pupils. Only then would the penal surgeon proceed to a full-scale dissection.
— Project Blog: The Bloody Business of the Bloody Code - Dr Elizabeth Hurren

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.” 

The corpse of the late Earl Ferrers was exposed to Publick View on Tuesday evening to a great Number of Spectators in a Room up one pair of stairs at Surgeon’s Hall in the Old Bailey – A large Incision or Wound, is made from the Neck to the bottom of the Thorax or Breast, and another quite across the Throat: The Abdomen or lower part of the Belly, is laid open and the Bowels are taken away.
— The London Evening Post, 6–8 May 1760, Issue 5072, Page 1, column 2.

Lord Laurence Earl Ferrers lying in his coffin at the Surgeon's Hall after being hanged for the murder of Mr Johnson his Stewart. Wellcome Images L0040865

Burke and Hare suffocating Mrs Docherty for sale to Dr. Knox; satirizing Wellington and Peel extinguishing the Constitution for Catholic Emancipation. Wellcome Images L0019663

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.

WHM146809 Portrait of William Wilberforce (1759-1833), 1794 (oil on canvas) by Hickel, Anton (1745-98). © Wilberforce House, Hull City Museums and Art Galleries, UK. Out of copyright

Portrait of Alexander Wedderburn, 1st Earl of Rosslyn (1733-1805). Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Breaking open a house generally attended with murder, as robberies in France were, the criminals there knowing that the commission of the one crime was to receive no greater punishment than the other.
— Lord Loughborough, Lord Chief Justice of the Common Pleas, arguing why dissection must not be extended to crimes other than murder.


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. 


Hall of the Barber Chirurgeons Newcastle 1830

A man thought to be dead arising from a table in a laboratory and frightening the proprietor. c18th. Wellcome Images L0022244

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. 




A break down of the 1150 condemned bodies sentenced to death with post-mortem punishment under the Murder Act, circa 1752 to 1832. Elizabeth Hurren, Dissecting the Criminal Corpse: Staging Post-Execution Punishment in Early Modern England (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016). 





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

BODY TEXT: Patrick Low