Wednesday, 3 September 2014

The Dead Body in the 18th Century

Themes and Sources presentation: 


In what ways did the dead body become an object of controversy in the Eighteenth century?


The study of anatomy grew in the C17th and C18th; surgeons and scientists wanted to study the body and figure out how it worked. People like William Hunter (Anatomy of the Gravid Uterus, 1774) and W. Cheselden (Anatomy of the Human body, 1713) wrote tracts about the body accompanied w/ realistic drawings. These could resemble butchery and shocked those w/ a delicate constitution. Artists and sculptors wanted to view dissections to better understand the structure of the human body. All this meant that bodies were needed for dissection.

Situation in Europe:

In France cadavers were obtained from civil hospitals, prisons and alms houses after the bodies remained unclaimed for twenty-four hours. Germany allowed the anatomists to use the bodies of those who had died in prison, executed criminals, those who committed suicide as well as paupers whose bodies nobody claimed. If the body was claimed the friend or family paid a sum to the schools in order to collect. This system functioned well enough to provide an adequate supply of subjects so exhumation was largely unknown. Australia also used unclaimed bodies to supply the medical schools after a wait of forty-eight hours. Italian governmental regulations were the most liberal. All persons who died in the hospitals were automatically given up for anatomy unless someone came forward with the money necessary for burial. As anatomizing began in these countries two centuries before, laws were enacted early which were modified and liberalized to fit the needs of medical schools. Executed criminals were not the sole source of bodies and so there was less stigma attached to having your body used for medical science. In 1790 France repealed laws allowing dissection of convicted murders altogether to eliminate the stigma.

Situation in Britain:

Legally the supply in the C18th came from murderers who had their bodies promised to the anatomists as part of their punishment. An act of 1540 allowed the dissection of some murderers. In 1752 an act was passed stating that "for better preventing the horrid crime of murder", dictated that those found guilty of murder and hanged should then be delivered to the surgeons to be "dissected and anatomised" or hung in chains. By increasing the terror and the shame of the death penalty, this was meant to increase the deterrent power of capital punishment.

However supply could not legally meet demand – before the 1752 act only around 6 bodies pa were legally available, and afterwards still not enough, esp considering experts arguing that each student should dissect at least one body. 1793 there were only about two hundred medical students in London, but by 1823 there were over a thousand, all in competition for scarce legally allowed subjects. - resulting eventually in the 1832 anatomy act which gave them legal access to corpses that were unclaimed after death, in particular those who died in prison or the workhouse. Occasionally a person, following the example of Jeremy Bentham, left their body for the advancement of science, but even then, if his relatives objected, it was not received. This Act was helped along by the story of Burke and Hare murders which were widely covered in contemporary media. In 1827 and 1828; they sold the corpses of their 17 victims to the Edinburgh Medical College for dissection. Their principal customer was Doctor Robert Knox. So in the C17th and C18th demand was met through body snatching. In law the body didn’t constitute real property so technically body snatching wasn’t a felony; it only became one if clothes and other grave goods were stolen with it. However as Richardson points out the resurrections were viewed with contempt and some served light sentences for the crime of committing an offence against public mores.

The resurrectionists tended to take bodies of the poor, who were less likely to be noticed – had cheaper coffins too, which were easier to get the corpse out of. Especially from the mass pauper pit graves used in graveyards in inner city areas. Additionally they might hire women to pretend to be relatives of the deceased and claim bodies from the workhouses. The corpses of MC and UC were also obtained however, esp if they were of medical interest eg. Deformities, insanity, or just famous. These were sold not only to the schools of anatomy but also to private collectors. Eg. John Hunter. (Ritvo tells how Hunter paid £500 to obtain the remains of Charles O’Brien “The Irish Giant”, to outbribe the fishermen O’Brien had paid to dump his body in the Irish channel to avoid just such a fate.

Why people did it:

During the early years of the resurrection era body snatching was predominately the work of anatomy students, school administrators and teachers, and surgeons. A 1721 clause of the Edinburgh College of Surgeons prohibiting students from engaging in the practice suggests that students probably had been robbing graves for subjects. It was also said that in Scotland students could pay tuition in corpses rather than money (Richardson, 1988). In some schools students were encouraged to form a physician-apprentice relationship with their teachers, and it seems almost a rite of passage that the student supply a subject for dissection (Schultz, 1992). However by the mid C18th the body snatching was done by others, the medical schools just paid for them.

There was clearly money to be made from body snatching. In the 1820s a man extracted enough teeth in an hour to make £60. (At a time when even skilled workers were lucky to earn 30s a week) In the latter half of the C17th ordinary corpses could exchange hands for anything between 2 and 20 guineas (£1. 2s - £21) a piece. A Lambeth body snatching gang uncovered in 1795 sold adult bodies for 2 guineas and a crown and childrens for 6s for the first foot and 9d for every extra inch!

Why the public were so against it:

Whilst legally body snatching was not a crime, public opinion suggested otherwise. The resurrectionists, on a moral level, were disturbing the sanctity of the grave and the anatomists, by dissecting the bodies, were bringing shame and misery to their relatives.

On a practical note crowds at executions rioted over the anatomists rights to the bodies. The body and rope of the executed were deemed to hold special properties; a touch of the body was said to cure skin ailments such as warts, ulcers and sores, as well as cancer, tumours and withered limbs. The rope too was prized, particularly if it had been involved in the killing of a notorious murderer, hangmen often made profit from the impossible amounts of rope they sold as souvenirs. In 1749 the sheriff of London was forced to withdraw civic support for the surgeons taking bodies to prevent a dangerous riot at Tyburn.

Other ways in which the dead body was becoming controversial:

Medical resuscitation, using the mouth-to-mouth method developed during C18th and so there was a growing awareness that seemingly dead bodies might still be alive. In 1774, a society was founded in London to promulgate the idea of attempting to resuscitate the dead in some circumstances. Called, after a bit of experimentation, the Society for the Recovery of Persons Apparently Drowned, it evolved into the Royal Humane Society. This tied in w/ body snatching in two ways:

1. The poor and convicted criminals were afraid they might end up on the dissecting table whilst they were still alive. Examples of people taken down from the noose who later recovered (because they were hanged at this time to die from suffocation, hence relatives pulling on their legs to speed up the death, later in the C19th the more humane method of the drop was developed.)

The rich on the other hand had to make their coffins and crypts ever more secure to protect their earthly remains from the resurrectionists. Private cemeteries with high fences, crypts, sturdy coffins. If they were to revive there’d be no way out – so increasingly more elaborate methods of alerting the living were created. P.G. Pessler, a German priest, suggested in 1798 that all coffins have a tube inserted from which a cord would run to the church bells. If an individual had been buried alive he could draw attention to himself by ringing the bells. This idea, while highly impractical, led to the first designs of safety coffins equipped with signalling systems. Pessler's colleague, Pastor Beck, suggested that coffins should have a small trumpet-like tube attached. Each day the local priest could check the state of putrefaction of the corpse by sniffing the odours emanating from the tube. If no odour was detected or the priest heard cries for help the coffin could be dug up and the occupant rescued.

2. Late C17th / early C18th saw the first appearance of the word “vampire” in the English language. Vampiric like creatures had long existed in English folklore, eg. The 12th-century English historians and chroniclers Walter Map and William of Newburgh recorded accounts of revenants (a visible ghost or animated corpse that was believed to return from the grave to terrorize the living). During the C18th, the subject of vampirism was an obsession in Europe. Pamphlets and newspapers centered on the vampire; and despite the ridicule of philosophers, sovereigns sent officials to report on the vampire epidemics, which centered "East Prussia (1710, 1721 and 1750), Hungary (1725-30), Silesia (1755), Wallachia (1756), and Russia (1772)." Not much in UK, but panic around Europe. Two famous vampire cases, the first to be officially recorded, involved the corpses of Peter Plogojowitz and Arnold Paole from Serbia. Paole, an ex-soldier turned farmer who allegedly was attacked by a vampire years before, died in 1726. Supposedly became a vampire himself and killed at least 16 persons in his native village of Medwegya. Became famous cos of the involvement of the Austrian authorities.
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