The Final Indignity: Dissecting the Criminal Body

On 29 July 1831, John Amy Bird Bell was found guilty of murdering a 13-year-old boy for the sake of 9 shillings (45 pence). Bird, himself only 14-years-old, ‘exhibited the utmost indifference to his fate’ when he was sentenced to death, appearing to have ‘no fear for the consequences of his guilt’. According to The Newgate Calendar, Bell maintained ‘his firmness throughout a most feeling address of the learned judge’, only breaking down at the end when he was ‘informed that…his body should be given over to the surgeons to be dissected’. [1]

For this young boy about to be hanged, dissection was worse than death itself. It was a disgrace, a humiliation, a final act of indignity. As he made his way to the gallows, Bell turned to the constable and asked: ‘He [the murdered boy] is better off than I am now, do you not think he is, sir?’ The constable agreed. [2]

In 1540, Henry VIII granted the Barber-Surgeons Company the annual right to the bodies of four executed criminals, thus formally binding the act of the surgeon to that of the executioner. The association of dissection with crime and punishment was embedded in the minds of contemporaries, with the surgeon being portrayed as callous and unfeeling towards to the dead.

This characterisation was not entirely unwarranted. In 1543, the Flemish anatomist, Andreas Vesalius, described with delight the moment he came across the corpse of an executed man which had been hanging ‘by the public highway for the benefit of the rustics’ for over a year.

[The corpse] had provided the birds with such a tasty meal that the bones were completely bare and bound together solely by the ligaments, with only the origins and insertions of the muscles preserved. This does not normally happen in the case of people who have been hanged; despite a popular impression to the contrary, the birds normally peck away nothing but the eyes, because the skin is so thick, and as the skin remains intact the bones decay inside and are quite useless for teaching purposes. This skeleton was completely dry and completely clean, and I examined it carefully, determined not to lose such an unexpected and long-sought opportunity. [3]

Vesalius then admits how he allowed himself ‘to be shut outside the city at nightfall’ in order to steal the bones away under the cloak of darkness. He describes in detail how he ‘climbed the stake and pulled away a femur from the hip bone’; when he ‘pulled at the upper limbs, the arms and the hands came away bringing with them the scapulae’. [4] These clandestine activities only fuelled the public’s imagination about the surgeon’s seemingly insatiable appetite for dead bodies.

The public’s desire for justice did not necessarily include a desire to see the criminal body dissected. Most believed the body was sacred and should remain intact after death. A sketch made in 1782 by the artist, Thomas Rowlandson, depicts the interior of William Hunter’s anatomical museum on the Last Day of Judgment as resurrected corpses bewilderingly search for missing body parts  [See right]. As comical as this may seem, fears about what happened to one’s body after death were very real during the early modern period. Many people believed that the execution itself was punishment enough and that the body of a criminal should not suffer the final indignity of dissection.

Of course, none of this helped the surgeon on his quest for knowledge. By the 19th century, the demand for corpses was at an all-time high just as public opinion about dissection was at an all-time low. On 19 April 1828, The London Medical Gazette reported:

The practice of dissection seems repugnant to the strongest prejudices of the people in this country; a repugnance which is by no means limited to the lower classes of the community, but which at present pervades nearly all, and which has unfortunately been increased, if not originally produced, by dissection having been made to constitute part of the punishment of the most aggravated felonies, and thus associated in the public mind with crime and degradation. [5]

Unfortunately, public opinion was slow to change. In the minds of many, the differences between the executioner and the surgeon were minor: the former executed the body, the latter executed the law.

Both were harbingers of death, and would remain so well into the 19th century.

1. The Newgate Calendar, Vol. 6, p. 152.
2. Ibid.
3. Andreas Vesalius, On the Fabric of the Human Body (1543).
4. Ibid.
5. The London Medical Gazette (19 April 1828).

One comment on “The Final Indignity: Dissecting the Criminal Body

  1. […] in Palmyra. Lindsey Fitzharris the fascinatingly gruesome Chirurgeon’s Apprentice delivers The Final Indignity: Dissecting the Criminal Body. Natalie Bennett at Philobiblon having opened the month’s nominations almost closes it with her An […]

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