The Murder Act Dissections: A Fate Worse than Death

Elizabeth F. Pond

Elizabeth F. Pond

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.

The understanding of human anatomy has only advanced over time, increasing the need for modern doctors to have a detailed and comprehensive knowledge of this core area of medicine. Statistics have shown that between 1995 and 2000, there was a “7-fold increase in claims associated with anatomical errors submitted to the Medical Defence Union”. With the majority of these claims arising from both general and vascular surgery, and reported for “damage to underlying structures” it begs the question, would this still be the case if anatomy teaching today was as focused and lengthy as that of the past?

The surgeons, students and anatomists of history fully understood the need for extensive anatomical training and went to significant lengths to obtain it. The history of dissections and the use of cadavers is laced with desperation, criminality, public outcry and even murder.

In the mid-sixteenth-century, King Henry VIII (1491-1547) granted four hanged felons per year to the companies of Barbers and Surgeons, thereby highlighting the use of dissection as a punishment after death. Obtaining cadavers outside of these granted criminals was most certainly illegal, as the belief in a life after death, and therefore the necessity for a proper burial, was so integral to society that only the King could decide whose corpses were to be dissected. These dissections were carried out in public, cementing the universal opinion that dissection was an act of cruelty, designed both to humiliate and entertain. Just four cadavers per year for all the anatomists in the country was by no means adequate, and did nothing to address the issue of too few subjects for dissection.

For two hundred years Henry VIII’s grant continued, until the Murder Act of 1752 was introduced by Parliament, designed to condemn murderers to the fate of dissection. Surgeons and anatomists had made it clear countrywide that four subjects per year was wildly insufficient, and it had become evident that cadavers were being procured through illegal means. William Hunter, an anatomist and self-proclaimed obstetrician, ran an anatomy school in London. Over 23 years he published his work on the ‘Gravid Uterus’, and dissected between 300-400 hundred female cadavers, in each stage of pregnancy. Considering the sheer amount of cadavers he used solely for this project, let alone the fact that pregnant women were never hung, it shows that Hunter had a different arrangement for obtaining corpses for dissection; an arrangement that was most definitely illegal, but did not leave him short of supply.

The Murder Act did nothing to restore the public’s faith in anatomists. Dissection was now a “fate worse than death”, reserved for the worst of criminals who had committed the most unspeakable crimes. It decreed that anyone who had committed murder would be hung the day after their sentencing, and their body handed over to the surgeons for dissection. The dissected bodies would then be displayed to the public as a warning, as well as denying the murderer a burial and a grave. Public dissection was now being used as an alternative for “gibbetting”: painting a hanged felon in tar and hanging them from chains in an iron cage.

The Government was convinced that with the introduction of the Murder Act, there would be ample supply of cadavers for anatomical dissection, as well as discouraging the crime of murder. However, it soon came to light that the situation of the anatomists had not been much improved. Murder convictions were not commonplace, and anatomists and surgeons could only anticipate receiving roughly ten cadavers per year from the courts by this means. The private medical schools were even worse off — they had no ‘legal’ source of cadavers, as the hanged murderers were only given to the teaching hospitals. This drove anatomists, surgeons and students (who could not afford the expensive fees of a hospital education and so settled for a private school) to desperation, and the practice of body snatching began to advance.

The illegal means of procuring bodies for dissection varied from bribing undertakers to swap a body for weights to digging up a grave and physically removing the body from it. At the turn of the nineteenth-century stealing corpses was commonplace amongst all medical schools. In Edinburgh, some students were known to pay their tuition fees in stolen corpses that they had retrieved when accompanying professional Resurrectionists.

Most anatomists would not usually rob the graves of the dead for fear of being caught and their reputations ruined, so their preferred alternative was to pay someone else to find and obtain the corpses.

Many methods of body snatching and exhumation have been documented, and were seen to evolve over time as the Resurrectionists began to perfect their trade. Most Resurrectionists would work only in the winter; the evenings were darker and the bodies less pungent. They also became aware that supplying the Anatomy schools alone (not surgeons or students) not only guaranteed them payment, but also ensured that they would be assisted financially should they be arrested; a poor student could not make this bargain. Wooden shovels were used instead of metal ones, as these would make less noise. The Resurrectionists would quickly dig at the head of the coffin, and lever up the lid. The weight of the earth on the rest of the coffin would cause the lid to snap, and the corpse could be lifted out with ropes, and the grave neatly restored. They would have to be careful not to remove any objects or clothing from the grave; stealing a corpse’s possessions was punishable by death, regardless of whether or not the body was taken, thus highlighting the public’s disgust at any form of grave robbing.

The Resurrectionists much preferred to rob the graves of the poor, as the poor often tended to be buried in mass graves, enabling more corpses to be obtained for less effort. Religion even played a part in which graves were attempted. It had been recognised that those of Jewish faith tended to bury their dead earlier than other faiths, and so the Resurrectionists found that the corpses would be in the earlier stages of decomposition, and therefore more viable for dissection.

In order to conceal the stolen corpses, the body snatchers would compress them in boxes, sew them into canvases, wrap them in sacks and even preserve them with salts and pickle. The emotional detachment that this displays is formidable, proving that corpses were just a commodity; a ‘thing’ of purely monetary value.

It was so common to attend graves in the daylight and find them robbed, that the churches and relatives of those buried developed methods to save the corpses from dissection. Small objects were often placed on the surface of the graves, and if these were disturbed then it was clear the grave had tampered with. Much more dramatic approaches were to install mortsafes (iron cages over the graves) and watchtowers in the churchyards, where somebody could watch the graves through the night.

The Resurrectionists attached a price to each stolen corpse, and this price varied depending on the quality, sex and age of the body. Anatomists would pay extortionate prices for the exact subject they wanted, and the Resurrectionists knew this. The competition for unique or abnormal bodies became fierce.

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