The later Victorian asylum was increasingly dominated by anatomical pathological mental science based on thousands of post-mortems conducted on the dead among captive patient populations.
Established in England in 1851, at the height of popular interest in anatomy, Dr Joseph Kahn’s Anatomical and Pathological Museum was intended to show the “wondrous” structure of the body and to warn of the harmful consequences to the health of abuses that “distort or defile” its “beautiful structure”.
By the middle of the eighteenth-century, medical science in Britain was rapidly evolving. Surgeons had split from the Worshipful Company of Barbers as a professional guild in 1745, forming the Company of Surgeons. This was the forerunner of the Royal College of Surgeons, which was created by Royal Charter in 1800, and the reason we do not call hospital consultants “Doctor” — barber-surgeons held no medical degree.
Celebrity pathology was born in England one hundred years ago, when Sir Bernard Spilsbury’s identification of scar tissue on a fragment of putrefied flesh found in the cellar of 39 Hilldrop Crescent secured the conviction of Hawley Harvey Crippen for the murder of his wife. Exactly a century later, the same case that witnessed the rise of this new star in the forensic firmament is engulfed in a controversy that suggests his time has passed.
Human anatomy has been at the foundation of medical science for millennia. The study of human physiology and pathological processes could not be fully understood without the fundamental anatomical knowledge gained from close examination of the body in its entirety. It seems incomprehensible then, that medical education in the UK today has moved away from the meticulous anatomy teaching of the past, and has seemingly neglected to replace it with anything near as rigorous.
Whatever our religious beliefs, we effectively defer to scientific medicine when it asserts this fundamental moment. Before the medicalisation of death gained its ascendancy, however, very different ideas prevailed. For much of history, death was often a surprisingly extended process. During this process, the central entity was not the body, but the soul. At the same time, the soul itself could often behave rather like a body. It was a physical thing, which in part obeyed physical laws. Where do vampires fit into this prescientific form of death? As readers will be aware, vampires as we now know them to inhabit a curious space between the living and the dead. Once, that space itself was quite commonly accepted by those confronting death and burial. And it was during this liminal period of early — or gradual — the death that vampirism could occur. Let us now look, then, at some of the surprising ways in which body and soul could behave in such contexts.