RESTING IN PIECES
After suffering the dual punishment of execution followed by either gibbeting or dissection, the criminal corpse underwent a further final punishment. The Murder Act of 1752 dictated that, "in no case whatsoever shall the body of any murderer be suffered to be buried." The denial of a proper Christian burial caused deep distress not just to the criminal awaiting punishment, but to their family and friends after. Many contemporary reports detail prisoners' fears of what would happen to them after death outweighing the more immediate fear of a public hanging and dissection. In that sense, far more so than execution, the refusal of burial was a punishment in line with a wider system of public punishments that were as much about bringing shame on the criminal as they were about meting out physical violence. One of the many offshoots of this punishment was that the criminal corpse and its many constituent parts became sought after commodities, curatives and curios.
The supposed curative properties of the criminal corpse long predated the Murder Act. In Early-Modern Europe the corpse and its constituent parts, blood, bones and even sweat, were often used to aid a variety of ailments. These elements of the body were believed to possess physical and spiritual virtues that no animal, mineral or plant could provide. One particularly popular belief investigated during this project, was that the touch of an executed criminals hand had curative powers. The practice, most commonly known as ‘stroking’ involved placing the right hand of an executed criminal (in all cases the criminal was male) on an afflicted area of the body. Researchers on this project found 27 reported instances of ‘stroking’ in a comprehensive search of the regional and national press and folklore archives. The first reported mention of the practice was in 1758 and the last was recorded as late as 1863. Although, in this time there were only 27 recorded cases unearthed, wider study of folklore and antiquarian archives suggested that the practice was a lot more common.
In all the recorded cases of 'stroking' found during the project, the hand itself was always a male one. There are several possible reasons why. Firstly, in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, male execution dramatically outnumbered female (between 1735-1799 roughly 94% of those executed were male) thus making the attainment of a female hand far harder. Secondly, the absence of female hands being used appears in line with broader 'societal sensitivities' relating to the presentation and treatment of the female body after execution. By way of example no woman was gibbeted under the terms of the Murder Act.
The hand of an executed criminal was not just believed to have healing properties. As early as the c15th they were being turned into candles/candle holders known commonly as Hands of Glory . These hands, when lit, were believed to give the owner untold powers including the ability to open any lock in a nearby radius and also to render all the occupants in the house motionless - in essence a sort of mystical masterkey. One notable example resides to this day at Whitby Museum. The name Hand of Glory comes from the French ‘Main de Gloire’, itself thought to be derived from the French word for Mandrake 'Mandrogore'. The mandrake is part of the nightshade family of plants and its fleshy root can often look remarkably like a human body and it was a popular belief in earlier centuries that these plants commonly grew beneath execution gallows.
As well as the criminal corpse itself possessing healing powers, some believed that the very structures of punishment on which the criminal had died possessed medicinal or spiritual power too. In some cases long after the corpse had been removed. Even into the late eighteenth century there are numerous reports of people whittling splints off of gibbet posts to cure certain ailments such as toothache. Similarly, numerous newspaper reports detail attempts by members of execution crowds to touch the body of the recently deceased criminal, retrieve their clothes or take a piece of the gallows. In some instances the competition to attain such trinkets could lead to outbursts of violence.
If the intention of the Murder Act was to bring shame to the criminal and deter further crimes of that magnitude then the public fascination with the criminal corpse would seem an unintended consequence. Throughout the period covered by this project (1752-1834) the criminal corpse retained a glamour and desirability far beyond other bodies. Even to this day we see its presence in many museums and even auction halls across the country.
CONGRATULATIONS ON REACHING THE END OF YOUR CRIMINAL JOURNEY.
BANNER IMAGE: A Hand of Glory (Main de gloire) from Jacob Meets the Magician Hermogenes by Pieter van der Heyden (1565). Source Rijks Museum and Wikimedia Commons. Image out of copyright.
BODY TEXT: Patrick Low