Monday Series: The Criminalized Body II

Welcome to the second Monday Series on “The Criminalized Body.” If you missed the first one, simply click here.

William Hogarth, "The execution of the idle apprentice at Tyburn," 1747.

A Deterrent for Murder in a Culture of Dissection

The 1752 “Murder Act” reads

Whereas the horrid crime of murder has of late been more frequently perpetrated than formerly…it is 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, if such conviction and execution be in the county of Middlesex or within the city of London…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.

As historian Jonathan Sawday explains, with the Act, “two birds were to be killed with one stone [and] the demands of ‘justice’ mingled with the prospect of deterrence…Whilst, equally, the needs of ‘science’ could be fulfilled.”[1] Depsite anatomy and dissection being popular academic subjects, the royal decrees set by Henry VIII and Charles II were not enough to satisfy the needs for bodies on the dissection table. By the 1720s, bodysnatching from the London graveyards had become commonplace,[2] especially from shallow pauper graves. As public awareness of grave-robbing and bodysnatching increased, a shortfall of corpses followed, which led some anatomists to cover the costs obtaining corpses themselves, rather than result to stealing. Peter Lienbaugh argues that the process of obtaining a corpse was quite costly for anatomists, even leading to a further increase in bodysnatching, since during the 1730s, to attend a dissection cost five guineas, while to perform one cost seven guineas.[3]

During the eighteenth century, as anatomy and dissection became commonplace, they were not the public spectacles as those in Italy, where the long-standing history dates back as early as the thirteenth century. By 1299, Italians had began to dismember corpses regularly,[4] and the first public dissection was performed in 1306 at the University of Bologna.[5] Public dissections were central to Italian cities, annual manifestations especially during months of carnival, drawing in around 300-600 people into the city.[6] These grand, public affairs portrayed anatomy as being “necessary,” “noble,” and even “delightful.”[7] However, England’s case was quite different from her Italian counterparts; dissection was not mainstream until the sixteenth century, less of a public affair than a private practice. Most dissections were carried out within the public sphere of the College of Physicians and Surgeons Company, with attendance restricted to the “gentlemen of the town:” surgeons, physicians, and medical students.[8]

This does not mean there were no public dissections. On the contrary, with the 1752 Act, public dissection as a form of punishment was perceived as chaotic affairs, often compared to the unruly scenes surrounding public executions, as captured in William Hogarth’s Four Stages of Cruelty, particularly the 1747 THE IDLE ‘PRENTICE executed at Tyburn. Prior to the 1752 “Murder Act,” where dissection was radically presented as a “second death,”[9] as the condemned criminal could be further punished by the surgeon’s knife, the costs of obtaining a corpse fluctuated through the years. At Tyburn, Linebaugh outlines the costs: in the years of 1715-20, it cost £38 7s; 1720-25, £96 2s; 1725-30, £75 18s, 1730-35, £70 1s, 1735-40 £118 1s; 1740-45, £49 16s.[10] The year of the “Murder Act” marked a dramatic decrease in the costs, as the Bench anatomy was “clearly and unequivocally linked with the punitive powers of the sovereign,”[11] and there were no limits on bodies that were condemned to the anatomist’s slab as part of their punishment for murder. The years following the “Murder Act,” costs to the surgeons dropped to £3 8s between 1750-55, and maintained the low cost at £12 13s between 1755-60.[12] As a statutory penalty, the “Murder Act” was intended to serve as a deterrent for the high capital crime of murder, as well as to provide a social benefit by decreasing the amounts of grave-robbing scenes by providing a constant source of bodies for anatomical studies.[13]

With a steady stream of bodies sent to the anatomist, bureaucrats hoped the violent scenes and “days of constant tumult”[14] around the gallows could be diminished. Essentially, the 1752 Act served more for the needs of the anatomist than it did as a penal punishment; designed to evoke horrors of infamy, the draconian element did not have a strong effect in decreasing murderous crimes in England. Furthermore, the Act served to formalize what was already a common practice. In what Sawday calls “the culture of dissection,”[15] the criminal corpse was mainly used for advancing medical discourse, a happy coincidence for surgeons and physicians whose knowledge and pracctice benefited from “Murder Act.”

As a culture of enquiry and a “refashioning” equivalent, the culture of dissection was wherein people made sense of the world around them “ in terms of their philosophical understanding, their theology, their poetry, their plays, their rituals of justice, their art, and their buildings.”[16] This widespread acceptance of dissection as a medical and scientific discourse leads us to forgo any existence of a “long-standing stagnation,”[17] whereby the attitude of the Christian Church resisted the practice of dissection; Katherine Park and Mary Alston have also lain to rest any misconceptions that there did indeed exist such a “taboo.”[18] However, what the Act had, in its unintended powers, was a social reaction among the English people, particularly the poor, who perceived the use and abuse of the criminal’s body as a mark of its social exclusion and moral stagnation, particularly with the Bench’s denial of burial for criminals.


[1] Jonathan Sawday, The Body Emblazoned: Dissection and the human body in Renaissance Culture (London & New York: Routledge, 1995), p.55.

[2] Ruth Richardson, Death, Dissection and the Destitute (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987), p.55.

[3] Peter Linebaugh, “The Tyburn Riot Against the Surgeons,” in Albion’s Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth Century England (London: Allan Lane, Penguin Books Ltd., 1975), p.77.

[4] Katherine Park, . “The Life of the Corpse: Division and Dissection in Late Medieval Europe.” The Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 50 (1995), pp.113-114.

[5] Thomas F. Tierney, “Anatomy and Governmentality: A Foucauldian Perspective and Death and Medicine in Modernity. T&E 2:1 (1998), p.24. Also, public anatomy theatres were commonplace, corresponding to features of carnival. See Giovanna Ferrari, “Public Anatomy Lessons and The Carnival: The Anatomy Theatre of Bologna.” Past and Present 117 (Nov. 1987): 50-106.

[6] Jan CC. Rupp, “Michel Foucault, Body Politics and the Rise and Expansion of Modern Anatomy.” Journal of Historical Sociology 5:1 (March 1992), p.32.

[7] Rupp, 43.

[8] Rupp, 48.

[9] Rupp, 48.

[10] Lindenbaugh, 77.

[11] Tinery, “Anatomy and Governmentality,” 36.

[12] Lindenbaugh, 77.

[13] Tinery, 37.

[14] Linebaugh in Tinery 37.

[15] Sawday, 14.

[16] Sawday, ix.

[17]Rupp, 33.

[18] Katherine Park, “Life of the Corpse,” and Mary Niven Alston, “The Attitude of the Church towards Dissection before 1500,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 16.3, October 1944: 221-238. Alhough both Park and Alston presents arguments for prior to the sixteenth century, Medieval attitudes about dissection has of course, carried forward in shaping beliefs and attitudes in later centuries. Jan Rupp, as well, mentions that it is probable that it was vivisection, not dissection of humans and brains of animals, which was forbidden by the Christian Church, since it would “destroy the soul” (Rupp, p.42).

Latest Comments

  1. Thony C. says:

    We got the notes, where’s the bibliography?


  2. Thony C. says:

    I wanted details of the Ferrari article so thanks.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s