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When Dissection Was a Criminal Punishment Worse Than Death

Harnessing the Power of the Criminal Corpse is an online exhibition that unearths the macabre history of anatomy and criminal punishment.

Harnessing the Power of the Criminal Corpse online exhibition (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

In 18th-century Great Britain, it wasn’t enough for criminals to be executed for their offenses; their physical remains were punished as well, either dissected or publicly displayed in chains. Harnessing the Power of the Criminal Corpse, a new online exhibition supported by the Wellcome Trust with the University of Leicester and developed by Patrick Low, unearths this macabre history of anatomy and crime.

William Hogarth, “The Fourth Stage of Cruelty: The Reward of Cruelty” (1751), line engraving on thick, white, smooth wove paper (via Yale Center for British Art/Wikimedia)

A notable feature of the site — which draws on scholarship from a project team of researchers from the University of Leicester, University of Hertfordshire, University of Sunderland, and Wellcome Trust — is its historical timelines. One on the Murder Act of 1752 begins with the mandate that “in no case whatsoever shall the body of any murderer be suffered to be buried,” resulting in a strange period of posthumous punishment. This was also a boon to anatomists, who often struggled to acquire human corpses for dissection, and another timeline on the Anatomy Act of 1832 chronicles how the later act finally gave the medical world legal access to corpses beyond the criminal dead and snatching bodies from tombs.

A handy map of gibbets visualizes how widespread public execution sites once were around the UK. It’s interesting to look back on this period from the vantage of today, when our society still has an uneasy relationship with death, the fate of corpses, and the question of whether our criminal system can ethically impose death on the living. There are certainly more healthy programs now for donating remains to science and medicine, yet a discomfort with the use of this flesh remains. David Lang’s Anatomy Theater opera, which ran at BRIC House in January, used the public spectacle of 18th-century dissections as way to meditate on moral control of the body.

Harnessing the Power of the Criminal Corpse online exhibition (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

One of the more fascinating sections of Harnessing the Power of the Criminal Corpse is the essays, including “What and When Is Death?” — a piece by Floris Tomasini on the complex states of biological and social death — and Ali Wells’s “A Hanged Woman and Her Journey to Becoming a Museum Object,” which tells the story of the head of a woman hanged in the 19th century that was acquired in the 1970s by the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum. As the exhibition notes in its case studies, other human remains from this era are still very much a part of museum collections. For instance, the skeleton of body-snatcher William Burke is at the Edinburgh Anatomical Museum. Meanwhile, the bits and pieces of criminals weren’t only of medical interest; magic was also attributed to them. Severed hands known as Hands of Glory, for example, could be lit as candles to open locks.

Artwork and archival imagery accompany each section of the online exhibition, including one on ballads. The broadside ballad was an additional way the public engaged with executions in the 18th and 19th centuries. Wellcome project fellow Shane McCorristine sang and recorded a few such ballads, which you can listen to on the site. The satirical “Horrible News” comments on the public’s infatuation with crime in journalism, and its opening lines feel just as timely today: “As horrors now are all the go, / If attention you’ll give to my rhyme, / To you very quickly I’ll show, / We live in most horrible times.”

Harnessing the Power of the Criminal Corpse online exhibition (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)
Harnessing the Power of the Criminal Corpse online exhibition (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

Harnessing the Power of the Criminal Corpse is available to explore online

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