Strand 1: The Criminal Justice System and the Criminal Corpse

Strand Researchers: Professor Peter King and Dr Richard Ward

Although criminal justice historians have analysed the physical and public nature of punishment in the period before the reforms of the early nineteenth century, there is little research on punishment after execution. The two main forms of post-execution punishment in Britain – hanging in chains, and dissection and anatomisation – were in use in a limited way by the seventeenth century but peaked in the period between the introduction of the Murder Act in 1752 - which first established dissection and hanging in chains as a systematic punishment for murder - and its repeal in the 1830s. Using this period as its primary focus, Strand 1 will investigate the ways in which the social, symbolic, and even political powers of the criminal corpse were harnessed for the ends of criminal justice.

The skeleton of Elizabeth Brownrigg, displayed in a niche at the Royal College of Surgeons. Engraving.

Wellcome Images. V0013496 

Dr Tulip's Anatomy Lesson on the body of the criminal by Rembrandt (1632). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Strand 2: Harnessing the Power of the Criminal Corpse in the Expanding Anatomical and Medical World of Georgian Society

Strand Researcher: Dr. Elizabeth Hurren, University of Leicester

The dissection of dead bodies has been one of "medicine's defining practices, the symbol of its commitment to science, its power to transform and control nature" Historical opinion however differs about whether the dissected body was an object of entertainment, a new mode of natural historical enquiry, or a grisly spectacle. The criminal body could be both medical commodity and material locus of public engagement. At Cambridge, for example, corpses were cut for three audiences. The medical fraternity first studied each cadaver's medical features; educated townspeople next paid a fee to view the lifelike qualities of the skeleton; finally the crowd bought tickets to watch the punishment of deviance "dissected to its extremities".

Strand 3: Placing the Criminal Corpse

Strand Researchers: Professor Sarah Tarlow and Dr Zoe Dyndor, University of Leicester

Led by Professor Sarah Tarlow, Strand 3 complements the research of Strand 2 by tracing the journey of the criminal corpse towards the contexts of display on the gibbet and in the museum, and through to its ultimate burial. After execution, transport, dissection or exhibition, where does the body end up? Archaeological and landscape studies of these questions help us to examine popular and non-discursive beliefs about the criminal body.

Strand 3 addresses two key areas:

1. Hanging in chains. The historical geography of gibbet sites will be mapped for English counties, with the aim of determining which features informed site choice. Variables such as the location of the crime, relationship to parish boundaries, local topography and viewsheds will all be recorded. The particular landscape of gibbets and scaffolds in London will also be examined, where the factors informing the location of display might have been different.  Where locations of gibbets can be established, field study and historical cartography will be used to record natural, political and historical features of the site. Key questions here are what factors determined the location of a gibbet, and how did the presence of the gibbet affect the personal and social geographies of those who encountered them?

2. Burying the criminal corpse. Only very few human remains which have been subject to anatomical dissection or gibbeting are known archaeologically: what happened to the rest? The second part of this Strand aims to locate the final resting places of executed criminals and asks which factors determined the ultimate destination of the criminal corpse? It will consider the significance of personal and social identity, nature of the crime, manner of death, physical characteristics of the body and other variables.

Hanging of WIlliam Kidd. 1837.  Source THE PIRATES OWN BOOK, BY CHARLES ELLMS. Image courtesy of WIKIMEDIA COMMONS.

A caza de dientes (Out Hunting for Teeth), 1799, Francisco Goya (1746–1828).  Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

A caza de dientes (Out Hunting for Teeth), 1799, Francisco Goya (1746–1828). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

STRAND 4: The Dead Sustaining Life: Criminal Corpses in European Medicine and Magic, 1700-1900

Strand Researchers: Professor Owen Davies and Dr Francesca Matteoni, University of Hertfordshire

There is a long history of the medical use of 'criminal corpses'. The bodies of executed malefactors held particular potency in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. While several of the magico-medical uses of criminal corpses have received attention by historians, folklorists, and anthropologists, they have never been studied together to reach a deeper understanding of the significance of the medical potency of the criminal corpse. Furthermore, the subject has been little studied by historians beyond the early modern period. Led By Professor Owen Davies, Strand 4 will investigate how the curative powers of the criminal corpse were harnessed in the historiographically-neglected period 1700-1900.

Using ethnographic sources, newspapers, and medical literature from the period, Strand 4 will explore the extent and nature of the use of criminal corpses to cure and protect the living in Britain, and Western and Northern Europe more generally. Identifying religious and cultural influences on the various healing and magical traditions will be central to the analysis. 

Strand 4 takes three methodological approaches:

  1. Regional comparative analysis. How far was the British healing/protective corpse tradition part of a broader set of shared medical practices and beliefs in northern Europe? Comparative analysis will also be informed by anthropological literature on the healing power of criminal corpses outside Europe.
  2. Historicising folkloric material: applying the methodologies and analytical tools of the historian to the voluminous but fragmented folkloric material, assimilating it with other historical sources and thus placing it in socio-historical contexts.
  3. Detailed case studies will be used to explore broader themes.

Strand 5: The Criminal Corpse in Pieces

Strand Researcher: Dr Shane McCorristine

British and Irish primary sources attest to the fascination which the criminal corpse in pieces exerted in both 'high' and 'low' literary cultures between 1750 and 1850. Building on recent interdisciplinary research into dismemberment as well as theoretical perspectives on relics and magical thinking, in Strand 5 Dr Shane McCorristine will place ideas about crime, superstition, and disembodiment within their historical context.

Strand 5 follows the criminal corpse as it travelled through high and low cultures, and was disseminated in literary fiction. Eighteenth and nineteenth-century British fiction is full of criminal bodies in the form of punished corpses, vengeful ghosts, powerful relics and symbols of worldly debt. McCorristine builds on recent interdisciplinary research into dismemberment, as well as theoretical perspectives on relics, fetishism, and magical thinking, in order to look at how ideas about crime and superstition travelled from culture into literature and vice versa.  A thorough study of this kind has been lacking due to the diversity of sources, the interaction with folklore and popular culture, and historic disinclination for interdisciplinary approaches.


Strand 6: The Criminal Corpse Remembered: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on Power, Agency, Values and Ethics

Strand Researcher: Dr Floris Tomasini

The criminal corpse was the locus of great ambiguity. Apparent contradictions in historical attitudes towards it, examined in the other strands, will inform Dr Floris Tomasini's enquiry in Strand 6 into the multiple meanings of the criminal corpse over time. This also involves a comparative analysis between past and present, providing deep historical roots for contemporary anxieties about the treatment of the dead.

Strand 6 has two parts. Part one is an investigation of themes that illuminate the conceptualisation of power, agency, values and ethics implicit in previous strands. The following themes will act as a historical prism for conceptual analysis:

  • the criminal corpse as an object of deterrence and vilification (Strand 3)
  • the criminal corpse as a subject of profane burial practices (Strand 3)
  • the criminal corpse as a locus for retributive justice (Strand 1)
  • the criminal corpse as an object of medical knowledge (Strand 2)
  • the criminal corpse as an object of spectacle and public entertainment (Strand 2 and Strand 3)
  • the criminal corpse as a curative agent for healing and transformative power (Strand 4) 
  • the criminal body as re-presented through cultural fears and desires (Strand 5)

Part two builds on investigation of the historical roots of the criminal corpse. This Strand extends the conceptual analysis of part one to contemporary contexts where ethical issues around the treatment of the dead remain. The objective is to trace change and continuity in our treatment of the corpse from the more distant past. Whereas the profane in the past is often associated with the burial locations of the criminal corpse (Strand 3), contemporary anxiety about the treatment of the dead relocates profanity in the unethical post-mortem practices of the medical establishment on the vulnerable and innocent, as illustrated by the public inquiries at Alder Hey Hospital and Bristol Royal Infirmary. When post-mortems were performed on the corpses of children, their parents were often deceived and consent procedures bypassed. For the parents, children's corpses were remembered (literally and figuratively) in multiple funerals and were perceived to have been posthumously harmed. In this case, religious values of the sacred and profane transformed into the secular values that underpin normative ethical theories about what is and is not acceptable in our treatment of the dead. This is reflected in a shift, in more contemporary discourse, to the body as locus of posthumous harm rather than retributive justice.


This strand is methodologically complex, in at least two different senses. First, because it involves engagement with all the other strands it is the most demanding as an interdisciplinary exercise, bringing together the past in the present in a philosophically sensitive way. In broader terms, this involves transforming multi-disciplinary practice into interdisciplinary understanding of medical humanities.

Second, and in narrower terms, a philosophical conceptual analysis depends less on archival research sources and practices, and more on how one goes about achieving a philosophical understanding of history. Sensitive conceptual analysis in historical context is successfully achieved through the practice of hermeneutics. Moreover, a historically appropriate ethics will be - in the first instance - descriptive rather than prescriptive, paying close attention to what people think is right in historical context.