Monday Series: The Criminalized Body V

Body-Snatching and the Criminalized Body: A Badge of a Marginalized Condition

O Poverty! thou art the unpardonable offence…
Thou hast neither rights, charters, immunities nor liberties![1]

One of the major public conflicts with dissection stemmed from their fears of body-snatching. The shallow graves of the poor[2] were prime targets for body snatches and the ongoing debate between body snatching for purposes of dissection and the 1752 Act left the poor sympathetic to the condemned criminal, whose body was further destroyed and punished through dissection.

The sanctity of the grave further propelled eschatological attitudes towards dissection and the body. Moreover, confusion about the status of the corpse as a property right raises further issues towards ownership, dissection, and burials—Ruth Richardson argues that at the height of London’s graverobbing scenes in the 18th century, the corpse was largely viewed as a commodity, bidded and sold in an underground market between thieves and surgeon-anatomists. However, as the dead body did not constitute real property, no legal laws were technically violated with grave-robbing, nor could the family of the condemned corpse have any claim over burial rights.[3] By 1783, as a result of popular turmoil at the gallows, London executions were transferred from Tyburn to Newgate, but it did not cease to account for the class betrayal or bitterness of the London poor.[4] Jonathan Sawday also captures the status of the corpse as a reflection of the exploitation of the marginalized poor:

The question of the status of the dead human body is a fraught one. It is particularly fraught since, throughout the world, many indigenous peoples have ceased to tolerate the western habit of ‘acquiring’ human remains for scientific (and sometimes non-scientific) investigation…some Europeans looked to the marginal members of their own societies – the criminal, the poor, the insane, suicides, orphans, even, simply, ‘strangers’ – as potential ‘material’ upon which they could legitimately practice their own researches and investigations into the human form.[5]

As potential “material,” the criminal and the poor therefore were denied propriety rights over their own bodies; but we should not be quick to catalogue the status of criminality as a direct consequence of the poor, or vice versa, even though the Poor Laws of the nineteenth century attempted to make poverty a crime.

By the nineteenth century, the New Poor Laws and the drafting of the revised Anatomy Act further heightened the prejudice against the criminalized body and the poor’s objections to dissection. In 1832, Jeremy Bentham’s proposed bill aimed to ensure the privilege of the Royal College to preserve their rights to corpses; the bill weaved elements of Benthamite utilitarianism with Malthusian policies.[6] With the drafting of the bill and the new demand for bodies as a result of new anatomical-pathological models of disease, the 1832 Anatomy Act came into effect. With this Act, a new definition of property rights allowed family members the right of burial, although it also extended medical privileges, allowing the medical profession to obtain the corpses of the poor for purposes other than dissection. By 1834, the Poor Law Amendment established the New Poor Law, which essentially cast poverty as a crime.

It is no surprise that the marginalized poor found both the Anatomy Act and the New Poor Laws morally reprehensible, since it implied that poverty reflected moral shortcomings, and the vulnerability of the poor and criminal alike were adequate grounds for exploitation. Thomas Lacquer’s paper emphasizes the role of the pauper, an even more vulnerable state than the poor man, and how by the early nineteenth century paupers had no claim whatsoever over their own bodies, and they were aware in death they could end up owned by someone else.[7] Lacquer quotes a popular ditty reflective from the period:

Rattle his bones over the stones,
He’s only a pauper who nobody owns.

It was widely aware that paupers, more so than the poor, had no rights over their own bodies, particularly against the medical profession. As Lacquer argues,

To be a pauper meant not only to contemplate burial with indignity, having one’s life publicly marked the most dismal of failures, but also having one’s body, worth nothing alive, sold for dissection when one had ceased to own it. To be poor was to be profoundly vulnerable. Worse, to be a pauper was to be so vulnerable…that one risked death by accepting help from those who appeared to offer food and shelter.[8]

The essential point derived from Lacquer’s argument is his approach in defining the bodies of the poor as reflective of the badge of their (workshop) condition, an image of the body politics in nineteenth-century England.


Unlike the Middle Ages, which signified distinctions between angelic and monstrous bodies, the latter possibly a vessel for demonic evil, by the eighteenth century, the body politics of England was a reflection of the distinct social hierarchies, whereby one’s identity could be apparent down to one’s own skin. Morgan and Rushton remark that “the habit of dissection…did establish in the minds of the literate the idea that social reality – and the consequence of a particular way of life – were to some extent written on the body, and that if the truth about someone was to be obtained, the body was the first place to start.”[9] Thus, one’s self-identification could be viable upon the body itself, essentially embodied as a “mark of identity.”

The criminalized body is an example of embodied identity, with the mark of moral stagnation apparently fused on the body itself; thus criminals were usually described as physically repulsive, and any deformities as a mark of “criminality.” Becker for example, mentions that Elizabeth Sawyer, tried and convicted in 1621 for witchcraft, had a “crooked and deformed body,” proof of her spiritual corruption.[10] As well, Helkiah Crooke’s (1576-1635) An Explanation of the Fashion and vse of three and fifty instruments of Chirvrgey contains a section entitled “From the Printer to the Reader,” which contains a lavishly detailed of a criminal’s deformed body brought to the College of Physician’s Hall “to be Cut vp for an Anatomy.” [11] Focused on the deformed exterior of the corpse, the printer remarks his scorn and disgust for the criminal, who had been sentenced to be executed for the murder of a fellow member of the College. What’s extremely notable about the Printer’s description is his focus and discussion on the criminal’s feet, which he remarks was a traditional trait associated with demonic evil[12] To the printer then, the deformed nature of the body is evidence for the criminalizing status of the corpse. As Hilary Nunn points out, the printer, in his detailed description, left out the name of the condemned criminal,[13] disregarding the criminals’ own identity for the identity that the printer chose to give him, the criminalized body.  Is it merely a coincidence that the first criminal to be condemned under the “Murder Act,” Thomas Wilford, was a deformed man, born with only one arm?

Can we thus become accustomed that assume that eighteenth century individuals could attribute “self” to the body, making it monstrous, worth of scorn and ridicule?[14] The criminalized body captures this “otherness” trait, and becomes a vessel for society’s discord, vengeance for justice, and beliefs of the criminal status. Hume had argued the existence of repugnant “moral monsters,” those “anti-human” creatures embodying the marks of their heinous nature upon their bodies. He defines the moral monster as “[a] creature, absolutely malicious and spiteful were there any such in Nature, must be worse than indifferent to the images of vice and virtue. All his sentiments must be inverted, and directly opposed to those, which prevail in the ‘human species.’”[15] Steintrager, however, notes that Hume’s creature only marks the absolute limit of what is considered human; the epistemological focus then develops a construction of identity, in collaboration to social perspectives. He remarks that to “moral monstrosity’s role in constructions of identity must by added a secondary primary role: not only does the model of monstrosity in humanity’s certain groups, it allows for active interventions at the social and institutional levels.”[16]

Thus, the mark of the criminalized body, its true identity, is a social construction, an embodiment of the social reality of the individual, heightened and rectified by the legislations such as the 1752 “Murder Act,” and the 1832 Anatomy act, which attempted to provide legal justifications for the exploitation of the marginalized society, through the process of dissection.

*Thanks, Dear Reader, for your support in the first of the Monday Series. I hope you enjoyed this one. Next week I’ll begin a new series: “A Disease with no Remedy: Confronting Hereditary Phthisis, 1714-1830” where I examine some of the historical perceptions behind tuberculosis as a hereditary malady, and how medical practitioners recommended various dietetics to treat symptoms. In part, this series is an attempt to impart a historiography of medical hereditarianism by examining the reasons behind its popularity as a medical idea, from 1714 to 1830 in France and Britain.

Until next week, happy reading!!

[1] G. Beaumont (1898) in Ruth Richardson, Death, Dissection and the Destitute (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987), p.261.

[2] Though by no means this was simply restricted to the poor; Richardson also notes that the wealthy spent a fair amount of money in securing coffins, or else digging deeper graves (Richardson, p.98).

[3] Richardson, p.58.

[4] Richardson, p.75. Richardson also notes that this led to the gradual withdrawal of public executions, towards the privacy of prisons.

[5] Jonathan Sawday, The Body Emblazoned: Dissection and the human body in Renaissance Culture (London & New York: Routledge, 1995), p.3.

[6] Richardson pp.111-115.

[7] Thomas Lacquer, “Bodies, Death, and Pauper Funerals.” Representations 1 (Feb. 1983), pp.109-131; p.122.

[8] Lacquer, p.125.

[9] Gwenda Morgan and Peter Rushton, “Visible Bodies: Power, Subordination and Identity in the Eighteenth Century Atlantic World.” Journal of Social History 39:1 (2005), pp.39-64; p.41.

[10] Lucinda M Becker, Death and the Early Modern Englishwoman (Adershot: Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2003), p.77.

[11] A treatise bound with Crooke’s 1631 edition of Microcosmographia. Image reproduced with permission of the British Library in Hillary M. Nunn, Staging Anatomies: Dissection and Spectacle in Early Stuart Tragedy (England: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2005), p.37.

[12] Nunn, p.35.


[14] See Denis Todd’s Imagining Monsters: Miscrentions of the Self in Eighteenth Century England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), where Todd gives an excellent literary analysis of Swift’s Guliver’s Travels, and the ideas of “otherness” by virtue of the character’s deformities. See especially Chapter 5, “A Lamp of Deformity,” and Chapter 7, “What the Body Says.”

[15] An Enquiry Concerning the Principle of Morals (1751), in James A. Steintrager, “Perfectly Inhuman: Moral Monstrosity in Eighteenth Century Discourse.”Eighteenth-Century Life 21.2 (1997), pp.114-132; p.116.

[16] Steintrager, p.125.

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