Monday Series: The Criminalized Body I

Dear Reader,

I thought it’d be a good idea to do a series of posts on a topic irrelevant to my own research, but which I find fascinating. The series will be posted on Mondays and the first of the series will be focused on “The Criminalized Body,” providing perspectives on body politics and anatomy legislations during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in England.



William Hogarth, "The Reward of Cruelty." Caricature of an anatomical dissection, depicting the cruelty of dissected criminal avenged by the heartlessness of the anatomists.

Seventeen-year-old Sarah Williams, working in the workhouse at Middlesex, had “art enough to persuade”[1] fellow worker Thomas Wilford, a cripple born with only one arm to poor parents at Fulham, to marry her in the parish of St Giles-in-the-Fields. Given forty shillings by the parish to “enable her to begin the world,” the Sunday following her marriage, Sarah had gone to the Park with an old acquaintance, staying out until midnight. Arriving back to her lodgings at St Giles, she faced a jealous Wilford, upon which a highly intensified quarrel occurred, as Wilford was unsatisfied with her explanation for her whereabouts. Irritated by his passions, Wilford seized a knife, and “she advancing towards him, he threw her down and, kneeling on her, cut her throat so that her head was almost severed from her body.”

Horrified with his deed, Wilford threw the knife, and ran out, running into a woman from the adjacent room, to which he exclaimed, “It is me, I have murdered my poor wife, whom I loved as dearly as my own life.” Willing to die for the crime he committed, and unwilling to escape, Wilford was arrested, and was arraigned on the first day of his proceedings at the Old Bailey. The Court, refusing his guilty plea, placed him on trial, whereby he was found guilty, and became the first to “suffer death in consequence of an Act passed in the year 1751.” The Act declared that Wilford was to be executed the second day after his conviction, upon which afterwards he was either to be gibbeted or anatomized. The jury’s sentence was pronounced:

Thomas Wilford, you stand convicted of the horrid and unnatural crime of murdering Sarah, your wife. This Court doth adjudge that you be taken back to the place from whence you came, and there to be fed on bread and water until Wednesday next, when you are to be taken to the common place of execution, and there hanged by the neck until you are dead; after which your body is to be publicly dissected, and anatomised, agreeable to an Act of Parliament in that case made and provided; and may God Almighty have mercy on your soul!

After execution, Wilford’s body was sent to the barber-surgeons to be dissected, for the advancement of scientific and medical discourse.


Though the practice of dissection was not as pronounced in England during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as in Renaissance Italy, by the eighteenth century, it was widely accepted and practiced throughout Europe. The practice of dissection in England dates back as early as 1540,when the Barbers and Surgeons united by the Royal Charter and Henry VIII, were granted an annual right of four condemned corpses a year, marking the beginning of the merging of the medical profession with exemplary punishment. Charles II later granted two more corpses, making the total six corpses yearly, and by these “royal enactments, dissection became recognized in law as a punishment, an aggravation to execution, a fate worse than death,”[2] and a foreshadowing to the 1752 Murder Act.

As Vesalius’ De Fabrica revolutionized the study of anatomy from a textbook attitude towards a more practical approach, dissection was regarded not just as the dismemberment of the body on grounds for medical knowledge, but also as a form of penal punishment in England. In addition to aiding further punitive dimensions for the punishment of murder, the “Act for Better Preventing the Horrid Crime of Murder” was intended to bring the unruly conflicts around the gallows to an end[3] by regulating the amount of bodies to be disposed to the Surgeon’s College, and giving the Bench the discretion to order dissection in the place of gibbeting. Nevertheless, as a means of “second death,” dissection was a violently unpopular punishment, particularly within cultural attitudes of death, fuelled by superstitions and beliefs. Part of the punishment by dissection carried the intention to deny the wrongdoer a grave, and the strong tie between the body and soul in English attitudes towards the corpse was believed to have great eschatological implications.[4] Although dead bodies in eighteenth and early-nineteenth century England did not constitute real property, the 1752 “Murder Act,” and later the 1832 “Anatomy Act” were perceived as attacks on marginal members of society, crystallizing what I call the “criminalized body.” This grotesque body, a mark of the cultural exclusion of the criminal, and later the poor, ties moral stagnation of the condemned body, and the social reprehensible, effectively upon the body itself.


[1] From The Complete Newgate Calendar, Volume III: “Thomas Wilford: A Cripple who murdered his Wife in a Fit of Jealously, and was executed at Tyburn on the 22nd of June, 1752,” p.224-225; also from the Proceedings of the Old Bailey Ref. 0175206256. The following quotes from the narrative are also from this source.

[2] R. Richardson, Death, Dissection and the Destitute, 31-2

[3] Marshall 134.

[4] Richardson, 29.

Latest Comments

  1. thonyc says:

    A truely fascinating post. If all the posts in the planned series are going to be so good it will become a ‘must read’:


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