Monday Series: The Criminalized Body IV

Samuel Ireland, Caricature of a dissection (1780-1890); after pen-drawing by J.H. Mortimer, in Fry coll., Yale.

The triumph of justice was a common theme in both the gallows and the anatomy theatre. Crowds were often drawn by the ghoulish atmosphere surrounding the high visibility punishment of the criminal at the gallows, viewing the carnivalisque mood as a restoration for moral justice. Exhibitions of public dissection reflected the “ritualization of the upside-down world of [carnival], sanctioned the evident sacrilege of violating dead bodies,”[1] with punishment rooted in publicity and the public’s channelling of vigilante justice. Conventionally, public perceptions of punishment was served not only as a moral responsibility—serving the community by punishing crimes committed—but also as a form of divine justice—punishing the soul as God would possibly require.

Through the “Murder Act,” the relationship between the execution scenes and the dissection scenes presents the criminalized body as central to the spectacle, his punishment a social focus “determined not only for societal revenge or even as a deterrent to others, but as an act of penance,” for the anatomist’s “salvation of his own sin-stained soul.”[2] Just as the executioner hangs the criminal, the surgeon who performs the dissection takes upon the role as executioner of the law,[3] and aspires not only to guarantee the “second death” of the corpse, but even to continue with “vengeance taken on the corpse.”[4] Death of the criminal then, was to be viewed as a gateway for divine punishment; the criminal, tortured and punished for his sins through his body, would then face his Maker, who would then punish the soul. Like the executioner, the anatomist was to adapt himself in the role as a transubstaniator.[5]

Despite carnivalisque attitudes towards executions and dissections, the status of the criminal’s body was perceived by citizens as a reflection of the marginalized section of society. Capturing the relationship between punishment and death, Samuel Edgerton argues that “if the condemned entered into his physical suffering on the scaffold with dignity and decorum, appearing brave but penitent like a stoic Christian martyr, then God might be impressed enough to grant him redemption in the hereafter.”[6] Themes of the afterlife and social customs are also captured within the realms of dissection; not only is the condemned criminal a symbolic embodiment of the demonic aspects of human nature, and the executioner/anatomist’s blade the mark of divine authority, but the collective representation of the scenes, in conjunction with the social body, reflect the grotesque elements of a thematizing image of the popular (social) body itself.[7] Furthermore, as Jonathan Simon points out, “the place of the human body in a society situated between Christianity and humanism further heightens” the tensions between detached scientific knowledge and the engaging nature of the surgeons as agents of the Crown.[8] Edgerton also notes that capital punishment was never a final process, an irrevocable sentence forever ending a life, but rather perceived as a way to reprimand the condemned’s case until he reached a higher, divine “appeals court.”

Bodies of the criminals, punished and damned, would continue to pay in the hereafter for the sins they had committed. Any attribution to formalize punishment towards the criminal in life was only to elaborate his divine punishment as he met his Maker; as an embodied capturing of his sins, the criminal’s body would not only contain his sinful crimes, but the dissection itself would signify the secondary torture inflicted on the criminal, further marking the stigmatizing nature of the criminalized body.


[1] Porter, Roy, Porter Bodies Politic: Disease, Death and Doctors in Britain, 1650-1900 (London: Reaktion Books Ltd., 2001), p.49.

[2] Samuel Y. Edgerton Jr., Pictures and Punishment: Art and Criminal Prosecution during the Florentine Renaissance (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1985), p.131.

[3] Ruth Richardson, Death, Dissection and the Destitute (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987), p.33.

[4] Clare Gittings, “Sacred and Secular: 1558-1660.” In Death in England: An Illustrated History. Eds. Peter Jupp and Clare Gittins (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1999), pp.147-174; p.149.

[5] Edgerton, p.213. Edgerton also mentions that the criminal’s body enables itself as a sort of sacrament, whereby the dissector takes it upon himself to perform the “sacred ritual.” In doing so, the dissector also “earns expiation for his own sins.”

[6] Edgerton, p.131.

[7] Paster, Gail Kern Paster, The Body Embarrassed: Drama and the Disciplines of Shame in Early Modern England (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1993), p.15.

[8] ]Jonathan Simon, “The Theatre of Anatomy: The Anatomical Preparations of Honoré Fragonard.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 36:1 (2002), pp.63-79; p.66.

Latest Comments

  1. sbej says:

    Very interesting subject. Rich body of folklore in Scotland concerning the Burkers thought to be body snatching doctors and their helpers medical students known as Noddies.

    Fear was particularly great amongst the travellers (they have a lifestyle similar to gypses)

    Link is a very interesting recrording of an interview with a traveller discussing his fear of the burkers, students and educational buildings along with a long and very detailed account of their relationship with Satan.


  2. Zsolt Almási says:

    Fascinating writing–even for a Tudorist! Thanks a lot.

    Maybe this comment will be all too naive, but I wonder if the concept and appearance of the “Resurrection Men” in Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities may come in handy, and also a French counterpart Dumas’ One Thousand and One Ghosts.

    If irrelevant completely, ignore this comment from the margins.

    Again, thanks for the post and good luck for your research.


    • Jai Virdi says:

      Thanks!–and for the advice too. As interested as I am on this topic, alas, it’s not the focus of my research. More than anything else, my fascination of the grotesque and the absurd is the driving force behind this series!


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