Death, Dissection and the Destitute
by Ruth Richardson, Penguin Books, 1988, 426 pp., appendices, notes, bibliography, index.
In 1518, the College of Physicians was founded to improve the state of medical knowledge in England, but improvements were hampered by one very simple fact: the lack of human bodies for dissection. In 1540, the companies of Barbers and Surgeons were united by Royal Charter and Henry VIII granted them the rights to the bodies of four hanged felons per year. Charles II increased that number to six. But these dissections were ostensibly public affairs and were part of the sentence inflicted upon the criminals. Thus, from the start, dissection was seen in the public eye as a punishment for criminals and as a defilement of the corpse, not as a means of gaining medical knowledge.
This shortfall in supply was made up by one very simple solution, robbing graves. This was done either by disinterring freshly buried corpses, or by waylaying the bodies before they were buried. Work houses, charity hospitals and asylums were favorite sources as their occupants were poor, indigent or had no relatives to claim their bodies. The supplying of anatomists and surgeons with bodies sometimes involved the collusion of grave diggers, sextons, administrators at the facilities mentioned, undertakers and even clergy.
The men who plied this trade were called resurrectionists. Grave robbing was not a crime, per se, since the body was not considered property. While a man could be hung for poaching, he would not be hung for stealing a dead body, unless he also stole the personal effects of the corpse. It was a lucrative business and it is perhaps not entirely surprising that at some point some one would see the advantage of using the anatomists as a means of disposing of murder victims. The most celebrated case was that of Burke and Hare in Edinburgh.
Mrs. Hare was the owner of a cheap lodging house in which an elderly man died while still owing her money. To pay off this debt, Burke and Hare sold him to an anatomist for £7.10s. When another lodger fell very ill, Burke and Hare eased him on his way and sold his body for £10. In all they killed 16 people before they were discovered, and introduced a new verb into the English vocabulary: to burke. Burke was hung and dissected on 28 January 1829, Hare turned King’s evidence and was spared, and the anatomist to whom they sold the bodies, Knox, was never charged.
The first Anatomy Bill (Bill for preventing the Unlawful Disinterment of Human Bodies, and for Regulating Schools of Anatomy) was submitted to Parliament by Henry Warburton on 12 March 1829. It did not pass, partly because of its length, the fact that it used the word dissection and because it obviously singled out the poor as the primary source of bodies. In 1831 Bishop and Williams, the London Burkers, were discovered. They had been supplying bodies to schools for some time when they decided to help matters along. They confessed to killing three people before their trial, although on the eve of their execution on 5 December 1831, Williams supposedly confessed that the number was closer to sixty.
Warburton introduced his second Anatomy Bill ten days after their execution. This one was called simply A Bill for Regulating Schools of Anatomy, and the word dissection had been replaced with the phrase anatomical examination. It was shorter than his previous bill and though it still targeted the poor, it did not do so directly. It merely said that unless you or your executor or other lawful party expressly forbid it, your body was liable to undergo anatomical examination. It was eventually passed, but it did little to increase the supply of legitimate bodies. For the most part it simply cut out the middle man of the resurrectionist.
In this book, Ruth Richardson has given us a detailed social and political history of the events leading up to and surrounding the Anatomy Act using numerous primary sources including government documents, official reports, pamphlets and newspapers. She links it with a general change in attitudes towards the poor, culminating in the New Poor Laws, and stigmatizing poverty by connecting their deaths with a fate that had previously been reserved for criminals. She claims that it also lead to a societal fear among the poor of the pauper’s funeral, helping to spur the growth of burial clubs and friendly societies. In addition, the connection of work houses as suppliers of anatomists lead to a general mistrust of these institutions. Other factors that are mentioned are the corruption and nepotism of the Royal College of Surgeons, the establishment of the Lancet by Thomas Wakley as a means of promulgating medical knowledge and as a vehicle for medical reform and the role of the Benthamites in the passing of the Anatomy Act itself.