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Dissecting The Condemned Body Leaving the Courtroom

Dissecting the Condemned Body Leaving the Courtroom
© Photograph by Nikki Peden

On May 23rd, 1754, a Scottish soldier named Ewen MacDonald was quartered at Newcastle. He spent his off-duty time drinking at a popular public house. By nightfall, he was drunk and disorderly. What happened next was to make medico-legal history.

In an inebriated state MacDonald started to brawl with some pub regulars. There was a physical altercation that spilled into the street and then into an alleyway. The soldier drew a knife in what he would later claim was self-defence. Lunging out he stabbed a local cooper called Robert Parker, piercing the jugular vein in the victim’s neck. The drunken violence then escalated out of control.

MacDonald was surrounded by a crowd of angry men threatening him with revenge. Cornered into two brick walls, he assaulted one of his attackers by breaking his arm and verbally abused the others.

In the interim, the earlier injured party was forsaken in the affray and bled to death on the ground. By the early hours of the morning the Newcastle coroner was called to the fatal scene and at first light, an “inquest returned a verdict of wilful murder”.

As a serving soldier, MacDonald should have been arrested by the military authorities but the Murder Act (1752, 25 George II, c. 37) had recently come into force in Newcastle. Local magistrates decreed that the military suspect for being so violent must be imprisoned in the Borough gaol. A homicide charge would be held over to be tried at the next Assizes, leaving six weeks to determine the medical evidence and collate its findings with witness statements.

By Michaelmas, there was considerable newspaper interest in the pending murder trial, and whether, if found guilty, a public dissection at Newcastle Surgeon’s Hall would be ordered by the presiding judge. If so, it would be one of the first official cases of post-mortem punishment to take place in the Northern counties of Georgian England.

MacDonald was duly found guilty on September 28th, 1754. The judge passed the death sentence under the Murder Act: “You will be hung by the neck until dead, and thence to be dissected and anatomised”. An extensive report of the execution and its post-mortem rituals appeared in the Newcastle General Magazine: “Ewen MacDonald was executed on the town moor, Newcastle pursuant to his sentence at the Assizes. […] this most unfortunate young man, who was only nineteen years of age appeared all the time of his confinement deeply effected with a true sense of guilt […] but at the gallows his behaviour in endeavouring to throw the executioner from off the ladder was unbecoming to one just on the brink of eternity […]. His body was taken to Surgeon’s Hall and there dissected.”

The following day, popular broadsheets also featured an execution-day special. They reported that the dissection of MacDonald was a troublesome affair for the Newcastle officials: “It was said that after the body was taken to Surgeon’s Hall and placed ready for dissection, that the surgeons were called to a case at the Infirmary, who, on their return, found MacDonald so far recovered as to be sitting up; he immediately begged for mercy, but a young surgeon not wishing to be disappointed in the dissection, seized a wooden mallet with which he deprived him of life.”

The story of Half-hanged MacDonald featured prominently in the national and regional press coverage of the Murder Act. Yet, its medical controversy has been neglected in eighteenth-century crime studies. To the authorities in Newcastle, a bungled execution seemed to undermine the deterrence objective of the new legislation. Newspaper editors questioned the medical circumstances of capital death given their obvious shortcomings. There was much speculation in the press about the force of the prisoner’s willpower. Maybe he had a dangerous inner strength different to ordinary people that could defy the executioner. Some commentators thought that it was possible that the soldier had not been guilty of homicide but manslaughter; had God intervened to save his life? If so, it seemed immoral for divine justice to be confounded by surgeons determined to obtain a criminal corpse to dissect.

Regional broadsheets carried detailed accounts from witnesses at the crime scene. These claimed that not only was MacDonald provoked into a bar fight but that exonerating evidence had been dismissed in court. The local forces of law and order meantime maintained that resentment against the Murder Act was running so high that the resuscitation story had been fabricated to sell more newspapers. Puzzlement was also expressed when the Local Record of Newcastle said shortly afterwards: “It was further reported, as the just vengeance of God that this young man [penal surgeon] was soon after killed in the stable by his own horse. They used to show a mallet at Surgeon’s Hall as the identical one used by the surgeon” to hasten death. Here then was a dramatic storyline that had engendered conflicting accounts, unsettling emotions, and unresolved controversy concerning the punishment of the condemned.

Across a broad spectrum of early modern histories the criminal corpse has become an iconic cultural symbol and political standard-bearer for customary notions of law and order. The legal nemesis of the condemned has been intertwined with religious beliefs that were shaped by theologies of dying, death, and the afterlife. Hence the executed criminal was an integral feature of state power and its punishment rituals.

It had a close association with the broad impulse of a “scientific revolution” by 1700. Over the next century, extensive newspaper coverage, pamphlet literature and popular street ballads, featuring executions were connected in the popular imagination to medical professionalisation and Enlightenment values across Europe.

Human anatomy teaching thus became essential for a European medical education, with Paris, Edinburgh and London (in that order of priority) attracting fee-paying students anxious to obtain extra qualifications as physicians and surgeons from dissecting criminal corpses. By the mid-Georgian period, the general thrust of these intellectual trends was epitomised by the Murder Act 11 and this is why it has stimulated extensive historical debate about its judicial authority, discretionary powers, and geographical coverage in England.

There remains, however, a significant lacunae in our historical appreciation of the central role that the condemned body played in the public performance of the capital code’s punishment schemata from the gallows to the grave. In our opening story, if the soldier’s condemned body had not been traced onwards to its dissection, then the medico-legal controversy of Half-hanged MacDonald would be half-finished at best or more likely left out altogether of eighteenth-century crime studies.

The latter is common in the majority of cases that feature in criminal histories for Georgian England. That tends to limit our historical appreciation of a whole range of complex questions concerned with the moral authority of the capital code from its anti-mortem to postmortem outcomes.

Before beginning, therefore, to revisit that punishment choreography in its entirety, this introduction sets out the generic themes that the next six chapters will be exploring to provide an overview of this book’s novel approach.

A central and unifying feature of the chapters that follow is to revisit how exactly medico-legal officials knew that someone was dead at a time when timing death with limited medical equipment was still a scientific mystery in early modern England. It was a physical fact that basic biology shaped the legal remit of the new capital legislation.

Executioners and penal surgeons had to work with the bodily limits of metabolism, physiology, and organ vitality, whether on the gallows or on arrival at dissection venues. Attempts were made to resolve these logistical medical issues by employing experienced executioners. The hangman’s technology was altered with the change-over from a short to a long-drop and tying the rope more securely with a trefoil rather than an overhand knot. Even so, particular modes of execution, their medical competency, and mutable nature, remained obscure. It is noteworthy then that the majority of criminal historians have been reluctant to do in-depth studies of spatial execution sites or punishment spaces, and the diversity of medical opinions about the boundaries of life and death that informed/misinformed medico-legal officials.

Steve Poole has recently pointed out that the introduction of a “long-drop” was not efficient or humane with “old and new” practices often running in parallel in provincial and metropolitan life.

The rituals of the procession were accordingly maintained up to the 1830s — these reflected ongoing concern about how to put to death the condemned in a humane fashion. It remains then a defining feature of eighteenth-century crime histories that the corpse has often been left beneath the hanging-tree looking dead, but not truly dead, in the way that contemporaries understood those difficult medical definitions.

It was well-known that outward appearances could be deceptive, especially in cold weather when the condemned body went into extreme-hypothermia. The historical literature, by abridging post-execution rites, has created a mistaken impression that penal surgeons only handled dead bodies from the gallows and that capital penalties from a medical standpoint were straightforward once a criminal stopped jerking on the hangman’s rope. This book upends such medico-legal clichés in crime studies.

Few historians have traced the fascinating transitional language that expressed a great deal of contemporary concern about whether or not the condemned could survive capital death, or not, and what their capacity for pain was and therefore how powerful the criminal justice system could claim to be.

In medico-legal circles there was a confusing vocabulary in vogue: the “half-hanged”, “dead-alive”, “in the name of death”, “truly dead, or pained”, “death, the uncertain, certainty” and so on. This imaginative discourse was a reflection of shifting ideas about how biologically-speaking it was possible to be stuck in-between an earthly and spiritual world in early modern times.

Mystical beliefs and their mutability gave rise to open-ended debates about how to time physical punishments. It was these logistical issues that had to be stage-managed by penal surgeons as well. They were required to double-check the biological status of the executed on arrival at a dissection location.

If the criminal displayed any life-signs, however faint, then the surgeon had an ethical quandary. They could break the Hippocratic Oath or practice the new art of resuscitation in vogue from the 1780s.

Some took the decision that it was more merciful to commit human vivisection with the lancet when brain function appeared to have failed and could not be measured with medical instruments. Others questioned whether the judicial authority of the courts gave them a special medical prerogative to experiment with the boundaries of life and death. This could be done to improve the quality of life for the law-abiding by testing the limits of death’s dominion on murderers found guilty that were less than human.

Yet, everything about this penal set-up exuded moral complexity. It placed a high degree of discretionary justice in the hands of surgeons, to such an extent, that some were uncomfortable with the level of personal culpability and responsibility.

Hitherto these basic procedural pains and their ethical worries have seldom been reappraised in the historical literature. Hence rediscovered archival sources, reflecting a rich multiplicity, feature prominently in this book’s reconstruction of process and participation on the punishment journeys of the condemned from the gallows to the grave between the Murder Act (1752) and the Anatomy Act (1832) in England.

Many histories of crime and justice take the reader up to the critical point when the executed stopped jerking physically on the eighteenth-century gallows. They then cite the admirable research of Vic Gatrell and Peter Linebaugh who some two decades ago traced strong reactions by ordinary people who protested about post-execution rites at the hanging tree.

Stories about how the crowd did confound the medico-legal officials by preventing bodies being handed over to surgeons are now well-known for some symbolic execution sites in central London.

In the 1730s at Tyburn, there were unedifying scenes when a number of surgeons fought each other, as well as the mob, for exclusive rights to the criminal corpse. These research findings have convinced leading crime and cultural historians that a Northern European sensibility emphasising body-integrity in death held sway in the popular imagination for those living in early modern England, especially once the Murder Act became law.

The difficulty with these cultural perspectives is that, as Jonathan Sawday observes, capital punishment by dissection “enjoyed” but only ever had a “quasi-legal status” in England. The London Company of Barbers and Surgeons, as well as Oxford and Cambridge universities, obtained bodies according to customary rights laid out in a succession of Royal Charters.

These crucially were endorsed by, but did not originate with, Parliament. Riots at Tyburn in the 1730s are then a classic example of how a moral economy seemed to inform the actions of the angry mob. It does not necessarily follow on that the same depth of feeling was held in provincial England, or that the same levels of antagonism were prevalent in a political economy two decades later when the Murder Act reached the statute books.

Standard historical views, often repeated, still require a systematic analysis of archival source material detailing actual post-mortem practices for many metropolitan and provincial areas.

Avoiding then post-hoc rationalisation involves carefully examining in context whether in the intervening timespan cultural attitudes to criminal dissections were modified in any respect, and if so, with what outcomes for crime and justice processes from 1752.

It is an obvious but important observation to keep in mind that this was a time of considerable intellectual transition as “scientific” ideas competed with “Natural Philosophy”. The degree, therefore, to which the audience at a criminal dissection ever held, or held on to, Northern European sensibilities still needs to be corroborated.

Recently, Sarah Tarlow is one of a number of historical archaeologists that have reminded historians of crime and justice that beliefs systems about the body in death could be complex and conflicting.

Seemingly incompatible philosophies about the dead body’s potency were prolific and determined by local scaffolds of crime and justice. The judicial punishment of the dead, the ceremonial intent of the capital code, as well as the sentience and agency of those present, all ran in parallel.

Alongside a prevalent sense of emotional attachment, elements in the crowd could confound the forces of law and order with indifference. This did not cancel out others obstinacy or reluctance to compromise their cultural beliefs about body-integrity. Yet it did problematize the cultural spread of a spectrum of punishment rites in what was a complicated system of law and order. It contained many types of medicolegal performances involving a wide variety of criminal dissections in those provincial parts of early modern England that still remain understudied.

To overcome this lack of coverage, this book’s second overarching theme touches on the official reach of penal powers debated in a history of ideas.

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