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.
I never feel more alive than when I am standing among the rows and rows of anatomical specimens at St Bartholomew’s Pathology Museum in London, United Kingdom. In one jar floats the remains of an ulcerated stomach; in another, the hands of a suicide victim. Cabinets are filled with syphilitic skulls, arthritic joints, and cancerous bones. The unborn sit alongside the aged; murderers occupy the same space as the murdered.
The practice of dissection in England dates back to 1540, when the Barbers and Surgeons, united by the Royal Charter and Henry VIII of England were granted an annual right of four condemned corpses, marking the beginning of the merging of the medical profession with exemplary punishment. Dissection was not merely regarded as the dismemberment of the body for medical knowledge — part of the punishment carried the intention to deny the wrongdoer a grave. The Murder act of 1752 reads: “Whereas the horrid crime of murder has of late been more frequently perpetrated than formerly […] it has 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 […] 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.
The history of the English body-snatchers begins with the introduction of human cadaver dissection into the study of anatomy during the fourteenth-century at the University of Bologna. Although the study of anatomy in ancient times had included human dissection, after the fall of Rome the practice was forbidden by the Church and abandoned in favour of animal dissection, accompanied by the study of ancient texts. As long as monks controlled the practice of medicine, the interdict was obeyed, but in the eleventh- and twelfth-centuries, medicine became a more secular calling.