The Battle over Bodies: A History of Criminal Dissection

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On 29 July 1831, John Amy Bird Bell was found guilty of murdering a young boy for the sake of a few coins. At his trial, Bell expressed no emotion when he was sentenced to death. He did, however, break down when he was informed that his body would be given over to the surgeons to be dissected.

Bell was only 14-years-old when he was executed and anatomized. As he made his way to the gallows, he turned to the constable and asked: “He [the murdered child] is better off than I am now, do you not think he is, sir?” The constable agreed.

The Murder Act of 1752 decreed that the bodies of all murderers—young and old—be anatomized as an additional punishment for the heinous crime of taking another person’s life. Most of the criminal bodies harvested for dissection came from Tyburn in London, a place of execution since the 12th century.

NB2Locals called the permanent scaffold there “the deadly nevergreen,” the tree which bore fruit all year long. It consisted of three posts—each ten to twelve feet high—held together by three wooden crossbars at the top. Between 1169 (when the first recorded execution took place) and 1783 (when hangings were moved to Newgate Prison), an estimated 40,000-60,000 died at Tyburn. Amongst these were Perkin Warbeck (1499), pretender to the throne; Francis Dereham (1541), Queen Catherine Howard’s lover; and Jack Sheppard (1724), the notorious thief and escape artist.

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 below]. As comical as this may seem, fears about what happened to one’s body after death were very real during this 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.

L0016844 'Museum... in Windmill Street, on the last Day'.

After the passage of the Murder Act, Tyburn became a battleground between the surgeons who needed to procure corpses for dissection and the mob who fought ferociously to protect the dead. Samuel Richardson, writing in 1740, described such a scene:

As soon as the poor creatures were half-dead, I was much surprised before such a number of peace-officers, to see the populace fall to hauling and pulling the carcasses with so much earnestness, as to occasion several warm rencounters [sic], and broken heads. These were the friends of the persons executed…and some persons sent by private surgeons to obtain bodies for dissection. The contests between these were fierce and bloody, and frightful to look at. [1]

Before the day of reckoning, the condemned went to great lengths to protect their bodies from the dissection table. They appealed to family, friends, lovers and acquaintances. Martin Gray begged his uncle to come to his execution in 1721, “lest his Body should be cut, and torn, and mangled after Death.” [2] Sarah Wilmhurst, who was convicted of murdering her bastard child in 1743, was more concerned that her father and brother would fail to secure her body after the execution than with the prospects of death itself. [3] Most telling of all was a plea made by Vincent Davis, who was condemned to die after murdering his wife, Elizabeth, “by giving her with a Knife one mortal Wound in the Right Side of the Breast.” During his consignment, Davis

…sent many Letters to all his former Friends and Acquaintance to form a Company, and prevent the Surgeons in their Designs upon his Body…So great were these Apprehensions that he should be Anatomiz’d, that…he desired and wish’d he might be hang’d in Chains to prevent it, and with that view affronted the Court of Justice. [4]

The court did not acquiesce to his pleas. On the day of execution, however, Davis’s friends fought the surgeons for his body and won. He was later buried in Clerkenwell. [5]

NB3These battles were not for the faint-hearted. Accounts from the Barber Surgeon’s Company reveal how violent scenes around the gallows could become. An entry from 1739 records: “Paid the Beadles for their being beaten and wounded at the late execution £4.4.0.” Another entry from 1740 reads: “Paid for mending the windows broke upon bringing the last body from Tyburn. £0.6.0.” In one record we discover that the “dead man’s clothes…were lost in the scuffle.” The hangman who had procured the body thus required 15 pence compensation as the clothes of the executed rightly belonged to him. [6]

Eventually, “the deadly nevergreen” was taken down after the last criminal—John Austin—was hanged there on 3 November 1783. From that point forward, hangings took place just outside the walls of the Newgate Prison. Given the close proximity of Surgeon’s Hall to the site of execution, it was easier for surgeons to procure bodies for dissection away from the prying eyes of an angry crowd.

tumblr_midn0fROZ31qasg9no1_1280Nonetheless, surgeons continued to be the object of public loathing and ridicule well into the 19th century. 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. [7]

It wasn’t until the Anatomy Act of 1832—when the bodies of the unclaimed poor were made available—that the links between dissection and punishment were formally severed. Unfortunately, in the minds of many, the executioner and surgeon would remain bound together for some time.

One executed the body, the other executed the law.

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1. Samuel Richardson, Familiar Letters on Important Occasions (1928), p. 219.
2. The Ordinary’s Account, 3 April 1721
3. The Ordinary’s Account, 18 May 1743.
4. The Ordinary’s Account, 30 April 1725.
5. Peter Linebaugh, “The Tyburn Riot Against the Surgeons,” in Albion’s Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth-Century England (1975; repr. 1988), p. 81. I am hugely indebted to Linebaugh for information found in this blog post.
6. S. Young, Annals of the Barber-Surgeons of London (1890).
7. The London Medical Gazette (19 April 1828).

11 comments on “The Battle over Bodies: A History of Criminal Dissection

  1. […] Source: The Battle over Bodies: A History of Criminal Dissection […]

  2. essie says:

    Its interesting that you didn’t mention Anne Greene, a woman falsely accused of infanticide who was hung at the gallows, then revitalized on the dissection slab at Oxford

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anne_Greene

  3. Interesting entry exploring the link between punishment and dissection; nowadays we look on the cadavers in anatomy lab as having given the students a great gift, & I wonder if that modern feeling flows from the history of dissection as punishment. I mean, after all, when you’re dead who really cares? And so why would the dissection matter?

  4. […] A history of criminal dissection. […]

  5. Kind of sad that the poor with no family or friends end up getting treated worse than the murderers.

  6. Mary Jean Adams says:

    Kind of sad that the poor with no family and friends end up getting worse treatment than the murderers.

  7. David Purcell says:

    Doc as always a fantastic post! Thank you as always for your outstanding work!!

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