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A History of Dissection in the 18th and 19th Century and the Events Leading to the Passing of the 1832 Anatomy Act

Jessica Wilding

A History of Dissection in the 18th and 19th Century and the Events Leading to the Passing of the 1832 Anatomy Act

On the 19th July 1832 ‘An Act for Regulating Schools of Anatomy’ better known as the Anatomy Act was passed by the House of Lords. For the schools of Anatomy throughout the country this was a momentous development which for the first time in the United Kingdom’s history granted a legal, regular and most of all sufficient supply of dead bodies for ‘anatomical examination’. Finally, the requirements of medical students for cadavers, upon which they could learn their anatomy and practice their methods of surgery, would be met. But if it was not until 1832 that this supply of human bodies was made available, this does somewhat beg the question: how was it that anatomical schools were able to provide corpses for their medical students to dissect before that time? To answer this question it will be necessary to delve into the murky past of dissection, discover the truth behind the so-called ‘Resurrection Men’ and explore the dark depths that some were willing to go to provide these schools with the goods required.

The process of undertaking dissections to discover more about the human body has its origins far back in medical history. In Roy Porter’s ‘Greatest Benefit to Mankind’ [1997] advancements in the science of anatomy can be traced from the ancient civilizations onwards when basic knowledge of skeletal structure and major organs was first realised but it was Greek medicine that really broadened the horizons of anatomical knowledge. Men of learning such as Aristotle, Herophilus and Erasistratus produced works of anatomy which for the first time began to distinguish vessels and nerves through the use of dissection. However, it should be noted that much of this was not human but animal dissection. This was again the case with the anatomical works produced by Galen, around 150-200AD, due to the restrictions of Roman law which prevented the dissection of human bodies. As such there are certain elements of his work which proved false due to certain organ structures in an animal being different to that of in a human. Galen’s work was, however, to provide the basis for much of the thinking about the human body for the next thousand years until the time of the Renaissance in the 1500’s when the work of Vesalius, this time based upon actual human dissection, disproved many of Galen’s theories. Knowledge of anatomy would then continue to be developed and corrected over the following centuries through the work undertaken through the dissection of human corpses.

It was in obtaining the supply of bodies required to continue these discoveries where problems began to present themselves, as a suitable source of dead bodies created some debate. In 1640 it was decreed by King Henry VIII upon the joining of the Barbers and Surgeons Companies that ‘they might take every Year four Persons condemned and put to Death for Felony, for Anatomies, at their discretions and pleasures’ [32
Henry VIII, c. 42, An Act Concerning Barbours and Chirurgeons to be of one Companie, 1640] The granting of the bodies of criminals to be used for dissection marks the first step in the association of human dissection as a punishment for crimes, which was to be subsequently increased to six felons by Charles II. These bodies were, according to the decree, to be used in lectures to medical students upon anatomy through the viewing of the dissection process whereby they could ‘hear and see the Method and Manner thereof, for the Increase of their Knowledge’. Consequently this was not a supply that was ever intended to fulfill the teaching requirements of a large number of medical students, especially by means of learning anatomy through personal dissection.

The situation was to be improved slightly in 1752 with the passing of the Murder Act which in its preamble states that in the case of murderers ‘some further terror and peculiar mark of infamy be added to the punishment of death’ [25 Geo.2 c.37 An Act for better preventing the horrid crime of murder, 1752] This was to be accomplished through Judges being given the further power to sentence the body of murderers to public dissection after the offender had been hung, a punishment which was to replace the usual proceedings of hanging the criminal in chains after death. This is particularly significant as at the time of the 18th century to be sentenced to death by hanging was a punishment that was doled out for comparably petty crimes. As such the Murder Act effectively singled out the idea of dissection as being appropriate for only the very worst crime, that of killing another person, and further enforced the impression that to be dissected was a fate that was worse than mere death at the gallows. Once again, criminality and dissection had been tied together. This all contributed to the widespread unpopularity of such a punishment, necessitating the inclusion within the Murder Act that anyone found to be impeding the removal of the bodies of the sentenced men would be punished with deportation.

The Murder Act itself was far more concerned with the prevention of murder through the addition of further deterrents rather than say the continued development of medical science. Nonetheless it would be fair to say that the anatomists did undoubtedly gain from this act and that more bodies were provided than had previously been allowed for by previous royal charters. However, it should be noted that the bodies that the Act now provided were for the exclusive benefit of the Company of Surgeons (later to become the Royal College of Surgeons in 1800) and that any other institution which required corpses for teaching still found themselves without an official supply.

Despite the increased number of corpses now available to the anatomists it was plain that this was still not a sufficient supply. The number of medical students in the United Kingdom was on the firm increase. Porter [1997] states that from the early 18th Century there was much more medical learning undertaken in England and Scotland than ever before. Previously to this many students had favoured studying at the continental schools such as France and Italy. This increase was due, in part, to the opening of the hospitals as a place for student learning and in part to the opening of Private Anatomy Schools which were understood to provide teaching of an excellence not necessarily seen at the hospital schools, such as under the renowned Hunter brothers. Details on just how many of these private anatomy schools were in operation are often quite vague but it would seem that at times there were as many sixteen or seventeen offering courses in anatomy.

As the 18th century drew to a close, the belief was slowly developing that an education in anatomy could not necessarily be gained purely through the demonstration of dissection by a Professor, but through increased personal experience of the workings of the human body. This expectation could never be considered to be feasible if they were relying on bodies provided by the Murder Act, not least because the vast majority of the schools teaching anatomy were not entitled to access these bodies. For the medical schools attached to hospitals, as suggested in Ruth Richardson’s ‘Death, Dissection and the Destitute’ [1988], there was a certain amount of appropriation of the dead from the hospitals mortuaries. But for other institutions which did not have such a route they could take advantage of, they were forced to resort to other methods. To most anatomists at the time it was clear that the solution to the shortage lay in the burial grounds of the nation from which a continuous supply of fresh bodies suitable for their purpose could be obtained. The concept of grave-robbery seems to date back at least as far as the late 17th century, and it would appear that the first grave-diggers may indeed have been medical students themselves.

The very fact that these corpses represented a hitherto unexploited source of dissection material was not one that escaped notice for long. There were those who were keen to realise the potential monetary value supplying such goods could bring. Grave-digging itself was hard, dangerous work – the risk of discovery and the consequent anger such a finding may well inspire posed a constant risk. As such it is no surprise that by the 19th century it was no longer usually the surgeons and students who undertook such missions but that the supply of bodies was now provided by groups of men willing to risk the task for suitable payment – be they known as grave-diggers, body-snatchers or resurrectionists.

The work of the body-snatchers is one that is understandably shrouded in a degree of mystery due to the underhand nature of its dealings. Sarah Wise, in ‘The Italian Boy’ [2004], paints a clear picture that those who were commonly known to be of the Resurrection trade were treated with a high degree of suspicion by those in the community who came upon them. The concept of a body being stolen away in the middle of the night rightly horrified those who most lived at risk of encountering such a fate themselves, the poor. The knowledge that those bodies stolen away were to undergo the further horror of dissection, a fate considered suitable for only the worst criminals in the eyes of the law, only served to deepen the hatred of such men in the neighbourhood.

Despite this low opinion of the work of body-snatchers by the public, in legal terms the stealing of a corpse was not actually a crime. As Wise explains such an act was considered merely a ‘misdemeanour’ due to the fact that the body was not recognised as belonging to anyone and as such not property, the punishment therefore was often merely a fine or six months jail time. On the other hand if an item of clothing or a shroud was removed from the grave alongside the body, then the act would be seen as theft, a crime which could be punished much more severely. It was for reasons like this that body-snatching gangs were able to continue for so long without deterrent.

The process of stealing a corpse was in itself relatively simple, requiring no specialist tools to do the job. It was the coffins of the poor that were most at risk due to the fact that these were both the shoddiest in terms of construction and the least likely to be buried deep in the ground. Richardson [1988] states that the poorest of the poor, receiving parish burials, were merely placed in pit burials whereby badly made coffins would be stacked upon one another in open pits until it was considered filled enough to cover over. Such graves were even easier prey for the body snatchers. The general way of removing the body was to dig down to the level of the coffin, and then apply hooks and ropes to the coffin lid, snapping half of it off and allowing the corpse to be removed through the hole. All grave clothes and coffin fragments would then be replaced, to avoid prosecution for theft, and the displaced earth was returned, to avoid detection of their work. It was the avoidance of detection that was vital to these gangs at work, if body-snatchers were suspected to be at work in an area then they not only risked facing the wrath of the crowd but also that their supply of bodies, and therefore income, would be cut off due to any increased steps in the guarding of fresh graves.

The only account we have today of the work of the body-snatchers from their perspective is that of ‘A Diary of a Resurrectionist 1811-1812’, most likely written by Joshua Naples who was a member of the Spitalfields gang of body-snatchers. [Bailey, J . B, 1896] The diary was kept between November 1811 and December 1812 and records in some detail the transactions and dealings of the gang with the anatomy schools. In addition to this, the diary also serves as an excellent record as to the various pitfalls that the resurrection men were susceptible to, including the discovery of patrols at the burial grounds, the setting upon them of dogs and the arrest of some of their members, at other times their efforts were hampered due to the presence of the moon providing too much light. The unpredictable nature of the work is further underlined by the fact that whilst on some nights they were prevented from gaining any corpses, on others they seem to have had quite a successful haul such as on the 22nd February 1812 when it is listed that they got ‘7 large, 3 small and 3 foetus...same night went to Wygate 4 large and 2 small’.

The individual prices that could be reached upon sale of the body, or ‘thing’ as the resurrectionists referred to it, appears to have varied quite a large amount from 8 guineas for an adult all the way up to 20 guineas. Also as seen in the diary, the bodies collected were referred to as larges, big smalls, smalls and foetus’ and price varied accordingly. A male body was also likely to fetch a higher price than that of a female. Part of the reason for price variation was due to time of the year and state of the corpse, with corpses in winter generally getting a better price as the cold weather slowed the process of their degradation. At times though, it would seem that prices were driven by either the actions of the Anatomists or the Resurrectionists in competition with one another. Wise [2004] refers to one example when Sir Astley Cooper, from the United Medical Schools of Guys and St Thomas’, strove to force one particular private anatomy school out of business by bribing the body-snatchers not to supply the school any further bodies. The resulting price war between the schools is said to be responsible for the peak price of 20 guineas for a single body reached during this period.

The role that the individual medical schools had in keeping the resurrection trade ongoing is of course vital to the understanding of this murky period of history, but once again due to the illegal nature of these dealings there is very limited amounts of records that can actually be produced on the subject itself. That is not to say that those living in the time were unaware of the part that the Medical Men had to play in the body-snatching trade. This is made clear by the poem ‘Mary’s Ghost’ [Thomas Hood, 1826] which tells the tale of a young girl stolen away by body snatchers who recounts the varying medical schools and medical men between whom her body parts have been divided; ‘That arm that used to take your arm, Is took to Dr. Vyse; And both my legs are gone to walk, The hospital at Guy's...’ Whilst obviously exaggerative the poem serves the purpose of showing that people were just as distrustful of the surgeons who bought the bodies as those who sold them. At times such distrust would result in rioting and violence against the anatomy schools as will be seen later.

It was not merely the surgeons and anatomists that the people distrusted but the whole process of what occurred in the dissection room. Not only did people have to contend with the idea that bodies often underwent complete mutilation under the dissectors scalpel, but they also had to contend with the rumours and stories concerning the conduct of those involved in carrying out the dissection. In ‘Human Remains’ by Helen MacDonald [2005], it is suggested that the typical behaviour of students in the dissection room is that of loutish camaraderie whereby ‘drinking, smoking and brawling were the very rational occupations of the dissecting room’. MacDonald also alludes to an event whereby a young female corpse was raped by a porter at St. Bartholomew’s ‘in front of medical students’. Such flippant behaviour and blatant disrespect for the subjects laid out upon the table would have done nothing to improve the view of such institutions.

It is little wonder then that the public were prepared to turn against these institutions so quickly when actual evidence of underhand dealing was brought forward. Sarah Wise in ‘The Italian Boy’ [2004] relates the events following a dispute between an Anatomist, Joshua Brookes, and a Resurrection gang which resulted in the vindictive dumping of two badly decomposed near to Brookes Anatomy School. Upon discovery of the bodies, Brookes had to shelter in the local police station to avoid a lynching from the quickly assembled mob. In a more extreme case, in December 1831 an Anatomy School in Aberdeen was burnt to the ground after the finding of human remains on the premises. A broadside from the day explains that upon the discovery of ‘three dead bodies lying on boards...the mangled corpses were brought out to the open air...the crowd, however, did not appear to rest satisfied until the place was razed’ [National Library of Scotland, 1831]. Such strong action undertaken by the crowd only serves to underline the fact that there were large amounts of dormant anger about both body-snatching and the Anatomists complicity in the matter.

The Surgeons and Anatomists themselves were usually able to escape the consequences of being caught dealing in the business of dead bodies, it was the resurrectionists themselves who bore the brunt of any punishment inferred. The surgeons meanwhile were expected to supply the fees for legal defence, keep the jailed man in relative comfort and support their family during the interment of the resurrectionists. Under this unspoken agreement, the surgeons effectively paid their way out of being dragged into the scandals of the court trials and therefore keep their names clear from any underhand dealing. One such example of this can be found in the papers of Sir Astley Cooper whom records ‘January, 29th, 1828: Paid Mr. Cock to pay Mr. South half the expenses of bailing Vaughan from Yarmouth and going down £14.7.0. May 6th, 1829: Paid Vaughan's wife 6s. Paid Vaughan for twenty-six weeks' confinement at 10s per week, £13.’
However this is not to say that there were no precedents for the conviction of anatomists and medical men as shown by Wise [2004]. These documented incidents of charges no longer being brought about solely against the body-snatchers are all from the period after 1828, effectively placing further pressure on so-called respectable surgeons to find alternative ways of obtaining corpses to prevent their names being dragged into the mud.

By 1828 it became clear that it was necessary that some kind of review be undertaken concerning the supply of bodies to the Schools of Anatomy. It was glaringly obvious to everyone involved that the 1752 Murder Act was even less capable of providing sufficient amounts of corpses than it had been when first introduced. In addition Anatomists were increasingly disenchanted with the necessity of having to carry on dealings with the Resurrection men. It was time to accept that a legitimate supply of bodies was required once and for all. The Select Committee of Anatomy was set up to review and discuss these matters and to try and find the required solution.

The Select Committee was ‘Appointed to inquire into the manner of obtaining subjects for dissection in the Schools of Anatomy’. This included assessing the importance of the anatomical knowledge acquired from dissection and the difficulties experienced in having to deal with the resurrectionists. The select committee heard evidence from a range of witnesses including eminent surgeons from the medical schools, such as Sir Astley Cooper, and from those men who ran their own Private Anatomy Schools, such as Joshua Brookes. Also giving evidence were several London magistrates who would have had experience in dealing with body-snatching trials. However, most intriguingly, the Select Committee also managed to acquire evidence from three, anonymous resurrection men who went under the pseudonyms of AB, CD and GF. Once all the evidence was collected, a report was prepared and published [House of Commons Papers, 1828]. This report gave the recommendation that ‘the bodies of those who during life have been maintained at the public charge…if not claimed by next of kin within a certain time after death, be given up…to the Anatomist’. As Richardson [1988] argues this outcome was a ‘forgone conclusion: appropriation of the corpses of the poor’. It should be noted that the Report’s recommendations are particularly vague about the actual definition of the term ‘unclaimed’ and quite how much involvement in the burial process a next of kin must participate to be considered to have claimed the body.

Despite such ambiguity in the Select Committee Report, the conclusions that it reached were used as the basis of the drafting of the Anatomy Bill by MP Henry Warburton which was introduced and passed by the House of Commons in March 1829. The Anatomy Bill effectively aimed to pass it into law that the bodies of the poor would be made available to the Anatomists for the purpose of dissection. The Bill however failed in the House of Lords in June 1829 due to the petitions of the Archbishop of Canterbury and his peers on the grounds of the ‘assertion of the right of the poor to a decent burial and criticism of pursuing people beyond the limits of the grave’ [Richardson, 1988] The Anatomy Bill was therefore defeated in its first draft, but this would not be the end of Warburton’s attempt to get his Anatomy Act.

However, in November 1828, amidst the process of the Select Committee Report and the drafting of the Anatomy Bill came an event which would lead the reputation of dissection to be dragged even further through the mud. This was due to the discovery of a heinous crime which played up to the fears and suspicions that many may have had in the back of their mind alongside their thoughts on the body-snatchers. The disturbance was to take place in Edinburgh when a body of an old woman, Mary Docherty, was found hidden within straw bedding at a lodging house. From this discovery a sordid tale was to emerge which would serve to coin a new expression in the English language which would strike a chord for many years to come, that of ‘Burking’.

As reported in the trial, and later confession, of William Burke, the old woman had been lured into the lodging house with offers of food and hospitality on the 31st October [West Port Murders etc. Anonymous, 1829] That night she had been murdered by two men, William Burke and William Hare, who had the intention of taking her body and selling it to Dr. Knox’s Anatomy School prior to the discovery of the body by other guests. This story was enough to shock and outrage all that heard of it but it quickly emerged that this was not a one off occurrence. In fact Burke and Hare had been successful in selling the bodies of fifteen other people prior to discovery, all murdered, and all to the same anatomy school. During the trial of Burke and Hare, however, Hare turned Kings Evidence and it was only Burke who was convicted and consequently executed.

It should be realised at this point that Burke and Hare did not actually start out life as body-snatchers, despite the view of many that it was the natural path for such men to take from stealing bodies to killing to provide them. In fact, Burke and Hare stumbled across this path purely by accident when a lodger who owed them money died unexpectedly within the lodging house. It was only upon their decision to sell the body to an anatomist to settle the debt that Burke and Hare found themselves submerged in the world of illegal supply of corpses. They were understandably impressed with the price of £7.10s that they received; a hefty sum to working class men, and when another elderly lodger was to fall very ill such a monetary incentive and the lack of suspicion from the anatomy school must have certainly helped persuade them to smother the man and sell his body too. In his confession, Burke himself confirmed that this was indeed the route by which they had stumbled into their murderous business. Burke also confirmed that ‘doctor Knox never incouraged him neither
taught or incouraged him to murder any person neither any of his assistants’. Knox himself would continue to run his Anatomy School for several years after the scandal until dwindling student numbers finally caused him to close.

The fall-out from the discovery of these murders was naturally filled with fear and suspicion arising throughout both Scotland and the rest of Britain that more grave-diggers could have ventured down this murderous path. However, despite the Edinburgh revelations being prior to the throwing out of the Anatomy Bill, the perceived threat of ‘Burking’ was not enough to trigger the government in London into action against the resurrection men.

However, in November 1831 there was to be yet another scandal in the world of anatomy, one much closer to the central government. With public feeling still strong from the Burke and Hare outrage only three years previously another case of murder to supply bodies emerged, this time in London. John Bishop, Thomas William, James May and Michael Shields were arrested after bringing the body of a young boy to the new medical school at Kings College London on the Strand. Upon presentation of the body to the Demonstrator of Anatomy, Richard Partridge, suspicion was aroused concerning the freshness of the corpse and the police were alerted [Wise, 2004].

The months to follow were to see the outrage and suspicion seen in Edinburgh stirred up once more, as it was discovered that the young boy had been murdered by Bishop and Williams for the sole purpose of passing on for dissection. Similarly, it also emerged that this was not the first time the men had undertaken such a plan and that at least two other victims had suffered at their hands and been sold on without question. The case whipped up public sentiment incredibly quickly, with the public and newspapers alike. As seen from the Broadsides of the day [Harvard University Library] they seized on the idea that the body delivered to Kings College was that of an Italian Boy named Carlo Ferrari, who made a living displaying white mice. The identity of this boy was later disputed by Bishop himself, who named him as a ‘Lincolnshire boy’, but this did very little to dispel the idea of the innocent little Italian boy in the mind of the public consciousness. Such an image, coupled with the strong similarities between the Burke and Hare murders undoubtedly served to strengthen feeling even more.

However, where this case was to differ from that of the Westport Murders was that the London Burkers, as they came to be known, were in fact body-snatchers first before they turned to murder as another means of supplying the bodies. John Bishop was an experienced resurrectionist, whom in his written confession after the trial claimed that he had been ‘a body-snatcher for 12 years, and have obtained and sold…from 500 to 1000 bodies…all obtained after death’. His accomplice in murder, Thomas Williams, was a body-snatcher just starting out in the trade. The two other men, James May and Michael Shields, whilst both actively involved within the Resurrection trade, May as a body-snatcher and Shields as a carrier of the ‘thing’, were in this case merely involved in the selling of the corpse and so escaped the death punishment.

The very fact that two known body-snatchers had resorted to murder as an alternative to grave digging would definitely have been enough to spark even further fears that other such men might also turn to this method, the suspicions of the poor were higher than ever. It can be seen from looking through the newspaper articles of the following months that suspected attempted ‘burkings’ began to pop up once again in this climate of heightened mistrust. It is true enough that we may well never know if there were others operating at this time who also undertook to murder, but who themselves managed to evade detection, and one can suppose that there feasibly could have been. Sarah Wise [2004] points to such a possibility when she reveals that whilst in custody James May was given a list of known body-snatchers, of whom he believed six would be capable of going on to ‘Burke’ further victims.

In the light of the London Burkers revelation there was once again, understandably, huge amounts of public fear and suspicion. Indeed, the number of cases of suspected ‘burkings’, most probably failed attempts at muggings in reality, rose dramatically as people’s imaginations got away with them. This time the government could not ignore the need to put an end to the Body-Snatching scandal once and for all. The time was right for Warburton to draft the Second Anatomy Bill, which he did in 1831.

The Second Anatomy Bill was not dramatically different to the first, but as Richardson [1988] points out in her evaluation of the syntax there were a few minor but key changes. Primarily, is the removal of the term ‘dissection’ in the phrasing of the Bill to be replaced by ‘Anatomical examination’ to try and remove the association ‘not only with the death sentence, but with the punitive destruction of the body.’ Richardson also raises the point that the second draft of the Bill is less exact about the class of the corpse, stating rather that someone must have ‘lawful possession of any deceased Person’ [An Act for regulating Schools of Anatomy, 1832]. Effectively, it could now be argued that this Bill no longer merely targeted the poor, though of course this still remained its main intended source of cadavers. The Anatomy Bill also included the clause that the 1752 Murder Act be repealed to attempt to reduce the link between Dissection and Criminality. Despite some remaining opposition, with the changes to the First Bill and the ever-growing need to find an alternative to body-snatching the Bill passed relatively smoothly through both houses to receive Royal Assent on the 1st August 1832.

Finally the day of the Resurrection men was over with the machinery of the Anatomy Act slowly grinding into action to provide the Anatomists with sufficient bodies for dissection to meet the needs of the medical students. It goes almost without saying that it was indeed the bodies of the poor from the workhouses and the hospitals whom made up nearly the whole of this supply. The Anatomy Act was successful in its aim, but if it had not been it should be noted that despite all the clauses of the Act, there was still no legal machinery in place to actually prohibit the act of grave-robbery. Once again, this seems to be a purposeful omission in comparison to the first draft of the Bill. With this vital omission, if the Act had failed to provide a sufficient supply then effectively all involved could easily revert to the old system of body-snatching without any further consequences.[Richardson, 1988] Grave-robbing only truly ended because it was no longer required, not because there were any greater hindrances to its continuation.

In conclusion with the passing of the Anatomy Act it marked the beginning of the end of a murky part of Britain’s medical history and marked the advancement of anatomical learning without the hindrance of being unable to see enough cadavers. The true success of the 1832 Anatomy Act can be seen through the simple fact that it was to last another 152years before being repealed and replaced by the Anatomy Act of 1984, which in turn would be finally brought to an end by Human Tissue Act of 2004. Such longevity would seem to suggest that, whilst a little known piece of legislation that is often wrongly seen as part of the New Poor Laws of the same period, the Act achieved its main aims. Indeed, in the first 50 years of its passing ‘almost 57,000 bodies were dissected in the London Anatomy Schools alone’ [Richardson, 1988] The figures, as they say, speak for themselves.

And Last updated on: Sunday, 22-Nov-2020 12:51:37 GMT