Poetic Justice? The Criminal Anatomized

In 1751/2, the ‘Murder Act’ was passed which stipulated that the bodies of all executed murderers be dissected. It read:

Whereas the horrid crime of murder has of late been more frequently perpetrated than formerly…it is thereby become necessary, that some further terror and peculiar mark of infamy be added to the punishment of death…The body of any such murderer shall, if such conviction and execution be in the county of Middlesex or within the city of London…be immediately conveyed by the sheriff…to the hall of the Surgeon’s Company…and the body so delivered…shall be dissected and anatomised by the said surgeons…in no case whatsoever the body of any murderer shall be suffered to be buried, unless after such body shall have been dissected and anatomised as aforesaid.

In The Four Stages of Cruelty–a series of printed engravings published in 1751–the English artist, William Hogarth, depicts the different stages of life which ultimately bring the fictional ‘Tom Nero’ to the anatomist’s dissecting table.

In The First Stage of Cruelty, we see Nero (whose namesake may have been inspired by the Roman Emperor, or a contraction of the name, ‘no hero’) torturing a dog by plunging an arrow into its rectum while two other boys restrain the helpless creature. All around them, other boys partake in senseless acts of cruelty against animals.

In The Second Stage of Cruelty, we see an older Nero outside Thavies Inn Gate. Nero is a hackney coachman whose horse has collapsed and broken its leg under the weight of its cargo: four frugal lawyers whom are too cheap to hire two carts. The carriage pitches sideways, spilling its passengers from its confines, as Nero whips the horse with such anger that he takes out the poor beast’s eye.

In Cruelty in Perfection, Nero’s evilness is unleashed upon his pregnant lover, Ann Gill. Here, we see her mutilated body lying prostate before shocked witnesses. The brutality of the crime is evident: her neck, wrist and index finger have nearly been severed from her body. The finger points to the words, ‘God’s Revenge against Murder’, which are written on a book by her side, indicating Nero’s fate.

The final engraving, The Reward of Cruelty (pictured above), is also the most unforgettable. Having been tried and convicted of Ann’s murder, Nero’s body is delivered to the Company of Surgeons for dissection. In a poetic twist of fate, the anatomists carve open Nero’s corpse, spilling his intestines on the floor where a dog picks at the remains. Nero’s eye has been removed from its socket, evoking images of the old horse in the second engraving. And lastly, just as Ann’s finger pointed to Nero’s fate in the third panel, so Nero’s partially severed finger points to the fate of all murderers: a pot of bones, its flesh boiled off, ready for anatomical display. So perish all murderers.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this last piece is Hogarth’s potrayal of the anatomists as heartless and inhuman. They seem to delight in cutting up Nero’s body into pieces just as the boys from the first engraving delighted in torturing the helpless animals. In the background, we see the physicians–who can be identified by their wigs and canes–consulting amongst themselves and ignoring the anatomical demonstration, which they would have deemed largely irrelevant to an understanding of medicine.

2 comments on “Poetic Justice? The Criminal Anatomized

  1. […] ‘staged’ so that all who attended were clear on the roles of each participant. As we saw in previous posts, executed criminals were often dissected as an extended punishment for their crimes. These types of […]

  2. Tom says:

    This is cool. This Hogarth series is new to me and is really nice in a number of ways.

    Firstly its interesting to see the notion that cruelty to animals will lead to cruelty to people. Something which I personally believe, but it seems so startlingly ‘modern’ to find it here. Its unusual for a period in which not only was there regular public executions (for even minor offences) but also the legal and lucrative slave trade.

    I also like the representation of the anatomists as little better or different in their tastes than the cruel children taunting animals. They are just the higher class, more intelectual, more ‘justified’ side of the same coin.

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