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MAY 3rd, 2016

Imagine hearing local gossip that a notorious murderer was about to be executed, and that everyone in the vicinity of a homicide was planning to turn out to see the violent culprit punished in Georgian England. Getting to the gallows to secure a good spot would mean having to take an unpaid half-day off work and standing around in the winter or spring cold when most perpetrators of capital crimes were hanged under what was known as the Bloody Code in 18th century society. But it would be worth it because by the time that the Murder Act [25, George II, c. 37, 1752] was passed there was also the promise of seeing the criminal corpse dissected by surgeons. The new capital legislation sentenced convicted murderers to be: ‘hung by the neck until dead, and then to be dissected and anatomised’. So, not only was there a spectacle at the gallows to look forward to, but in the dissection venue there would be a spectacular punishment encore too. Yet, most historical studies tend to stop at the scaffold. Or, rather they did, until scholars working together at Leicester University decided to investigate the bloody business of the Bloody Code and what was involved in “Dissecting the Criminal Corpse”: a theme co-ordinated by Dr Elizabeth Hurren, a medical historian.

L0025917, “Dissection Head in Charcoal” ©Wellcome Trust Library

To engage with the post-execution scene, we first have to image what it was like for contemporaries to attend executions and then try to follow in our punishment sightseeing the huge crowd assembled at dissection venues. We now know from newspapers that upwards of ten thousand people walked with the body cut down by the hangman to the place that the condemned would be cut open. People jostled and hurried along anxious not to miss any punishments done by the surgeons. Although audiences resented highwayman, thieves and pirates being dissected, few protested if the surgeons dissected a murderer or murderess. That mentality reflected the fact that two moral beliefs were sacrosanct for most ordinary people in Georgian England. They respected the first Biblical commandment was ‘Thou Shalt not Kill’ and Lex talionis, the English common law of retaliation that held the  punishment to the condemned body had to reflect the degree of violence a victim experienced, in both degree and kind. If a violent murder had been committed then it was a customary expectation that the condemned had to be punished in an equivalent manner, an eye-for-an-eye. This meant that notorious murders would create spectacular re-enactments of post-mortem ‘harm’. In doing so, what took place was often reminiscent of the format and timing of Classical Greek tragedy that Aristotle once espoused:

Tragedy, is then, an enactment of a deed, that is important and complete and of magnitude, by means of language enriched with rituals, each used separately in different parts [of the play]; it is enacted, not [merely] recited, and through pity and fear it effects relief (catharsis) to such emotions.

Aristotle, Poetics, VI, 1449b, pp. 2-3.

Small wonder perhaps that new research has been rediscovered of people running to the dissection venue anticipating a dramatic theatrical event. But where did they run to, and what did they do when they got there? To answer this question, it has been essential to examine the criminal cases of all those sentenced to dissection, totalling 1,150 murderers, in England and Wales from the Murder Act of 1752 until it was repealed by the Anatomy Act of 1832.

Surgeons had to adopt a penal choreography when the received the body from the hangman. They first checked that the condemned could not be resuscitated. In an era when it was easy to mistake extreme hypothermia for death, it was essential to make sure the condemned was a corpse and not someone in extreme hypothermia. So, Step 1 for the surgeons was to check the medical status of the dead prisoner. Provided they looked superficially to be ‘truly dead’ they then had to be cut open. This again made sure that although social death happened in court, and legal death occurred on the gallows, medical death had to be marked by the surgeon handling the major organs like the heart to make sure it was not beating. If a surgeon was unsure he had the option of checking that there was no pooling of blood in the eyes, sometimes called waggling, indicating the presence of a viable blood pressure; they likewise could test brain activity by injecting hot water into the ear (still a standard technique in many emergency rooms today).

Generally most surgeons monitored heart-lungs-brain activity for about an hour after a body was cut down from the gallows, and they did so at 15 minute intervals. During this crucial time, they watched that blood had stopped coagulating in the veins, and before the onset of rigor mortis the surgeon manipulated the limbs to lay out the corpse flat. This enabled them to make a crucial incision, a cross-like cut, down the chest and across the torso. That exposed the major organs and meant that the surgeon could personally feel the pulse inside the sac of the chambers of the heart to check it had ceased functioning. Sometimes gravity ensured that there was still a blood flow, and so laying the corpse in a prone position (face up) slowed this natural tendency down.

L0033938, “The Superficial Muscles of the Thorax, and the Axilla with its contents”, ©Wellcome Trust Library

The surgeon then at Step 2 got their assistant to swill the body down with camphor and a basic cleaning agent. The condemned generally stank of faeces, urine, sweat, semen (in men), menstrual blood (in women), dirt, and lice, which evacuated from all bodies at the fatal moment on the gallows. The risk of contagion and the danger of blood poisoning were thus always present for the surgeon in the dissection room. An additional hazard was the stomach contents. The Murder Act stated that prisoners should only be given bread and water before execution. This was a sensible recourse given that prisoners that ate a large meal would then have food festering in the stomach in death. If a dissector accidentally cut into the stomach or intestines, the smell would have literally knocked them flat. Still, it was difficult to avoid the fact that all bodies stank to some extent. Dissecting the criminal corpse was a bloody and smelly business.

The question then for the audience assembled was how long in the punishment room would they be permitted to stay. This depended on three decisive factors: first the general condition of the body; second the class of the people assembled; and third the capacity of the dissection space to contain its audience. Very few dissection spaces resembled that of the London Company of Barbers and Surgeons located next to the Old Bailey in London. One new finding has been that the types of dissection spaces commandeered outside of the capital varied a lot in provincial life. They included requisitioning the main hall of courts at Shire Halls in the Midlands; making use of small dispensaries located in the centre of towns in the Northern counties; adapting a waiting room or morgue at a newly built voluntary hospital in the Home counties; or requisitioning the business premises of surgeons or making use of a gaol in outlying areas of the West Country and Cornwall. In order words, the research team have found that Surgeons Hall in the capital was only copied in Newcastle, and all other dissection venues were mutable places of punishment in the English provinces. They were public spaces that opened their doors temporarily and then closed them again once a dissection was finished. Historians have seldom thought enough about where to see a dissection outside of London, especially after 1804 when more bodies became available from the gallows in the provinces than the capital.

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 one. One attraction often noted in newspapers was that male murderers tended to have an erection on the gallows, and generally anatomists tried to stage manage this whilst the dead body was in a physical condition known as primary flaccidity before rigor mortis set in. They likewise did not like to talk about the physical fact that murderesses underwent spontaneous menstruation and often their wombs collapsed on the gallows. Execution was an unsavoury business and this mean that surgeons worked fast to get the body under their control before putrefaction rotted the corpse.

So, by 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. The general term ‘dissection’ was then a lot more complicated to enact than standard histories have tended to convey. It involved first an autopsy (called anatomisation), then seven potential cuts to the corpse (a dissection), until that is it was dismembered extensively (a process known as cutting on the extremities to the extremities). By the end it would be a bloody mess and there would be little identifiable human remains left to bury. Even so, brains that had been decapitated were preserved and became known as collar heads. Skeletons were also sent for cleaning and rewiring. Often a torso might become a wax model. Parts of the body likewise became an intrinsic part of the criminal’s afterlife in a medical museum culture. Seldom did the condemned ever simply disappear in death.

Gossip about criminal stories, the sights, smells, sounds, and emotions experienced, in time created a community memory. Above all, the experiential elements of the dissection drama being staged made the bloody mess of the Bloody Code a fascinating feature of the Murder Act in ways that merit closer historical scrutiny today.

Dr Elizabeth T Hurren is Reader in Medical Humanities and History at the University of Leicester ( She is renowned as an international scholar of the history of the body, with wide-ranging research interests in death, dying and poverty studies. In 2007 she published in the prestigious Royal Historical Society Series, Protesting about Pauperism: Poverty, Politics and Poor Relief in late-Victorian England. This was followed in 2013 by her ground-breaking study entitled Dying for Victorian Medicine: English Anatomy and its Trade in the Dead Poor, 1832 to 1929, short-listed for the British Medical Association’s Book of the Year Prize in 2015. Her latest book, now in press with Palgrave Macmillan, is Dissecting the Criminal Corpse: Staging Post-Execution Punishment in Early Modern England. It will be published on open access in June 2016. Elizabeth was editor of Wellcome History from 2012 and continues to be a board member of Family and Community History, as well as historical consultant for Historic Royal Palaces, London.