The Anatomy Act, 1832: the Criminal Antecedents

Prior to 1832, dissection used corpses direct from the gallows. These corpses were the only legal supply of bodies for medical schools. Dissection of executed murderers was uncontroversial as they’d lost all of their rights. Britain’s ferocious penal code provided a reliable flow of corpses.1 The spectacle of women and children swinging from the gallows was so sickening many jurors ‘refused’ to convict. The Judgement of Death Act, 1823, was a humanitarian response to this problem. Judges passed mandatory death sentences but then commuted the sentence to transportation in the majority of cases. The result was about a 90% reduction in executions. Medical schools immediately suffered. From 1823 onwards medical schools became ‘customers’ for grave-robbers. Grave-robbers broke into new graves, stealing bodies which were sold for dissection. The Scottish murderers, Burke and Hare, went a step further: murdering to sell their victims to the Edinburgh anatomist Dr. Robert Knox. Revulsion at these crimes led to the Anatomy Act.

The Bloody Code2 peaked in the early 19th century with 200+ capital offences. The Judgement of Death Act, 1823, permitted judges to exercise clemency after the mandatory sentence of death. Judges shared the distaste of the public to mandatory death sentences and the Act led to the massive increase in the number of commuted sentences. Transportation to Australia became the de facto default sentence.

Anatomists were negatively affected by the reduction in the numbers executed. A black market in corpses was the unintended consequence of the Act. Medical schools created a market in bodies, with no questions asked. Grave-robbing became a new opportunity, which was a ghoulish variation on the familiar selling of stolen goods. The crime was ironically known as Resurrection. Relatives went to great lengths to protect their loved one.

Protection from grave robbers

Burke and Hare went a step further. They murdered specifically to supply Dr Knox, an anatomist at Edinburgh University. They operated during 1828 supplying ten bodies for which they were paid £7 10 shillings3 per body. Dr Knox had impeccable medical credentials with up to 400 students attending his anatomy demonstrations. His eagerness to fulfil his anatomy lectures fuelled his need for a constant supply of fresh bodies. Knox, in essence, was a co-conspirator of Burke and Hare. He wasn’t convicted but his lack of curiosity as to the source of bodies was culpable and he left Edinburgh in disgrace.

The act of dissection was inextricably connected with punishment.4 Prior to 1832 murderers were sentenced to death and dissection. Dissection was an integral part of the punishment. The Anatomy Act ‘sentenced’ poor, friendless people to dissection as though they’d committed a crime. This generated palpable fear of the workhouse (see addendum 1). Apart from idealists who donated their bodies to medical science, the remainder were unclaimed bodies. Unclaimed meant deaths occurring in hospital, prison or the workhouse where no-one took responsibility for the costs of burial. The actuality of the act was keenly felt by the poor.

The humanitarian Judgement of Death Act achieved its principal purpose of massively reducing the execution rate with the unintended outcome of a surge in ghoulish crimes. Firstly the grave-robbers, then Burke and Hare’s murders ‘to order’. Revelations about these crimes motivated the government to legislate. The Anatomy Act stopped the trade in bodies but created fear amongst paupers. The Anatomy Act provided security of supply to anatomists who were training doctors and this removed the ad hoc nature of supply of fresh corpses.

ADDENDUM 1: The impact on the poor in Devon

This Act… [meant] the bodies of lunatics and paupers could be legitimately purchased from the Poor Law Unions… for the purposes of medical research, thus depriving…. their lawful right to burial in their own parish…. [this led to the] terrible dread that poor people had of having to go into a Workhouse as their lives came to a close. They knew that, unless a relative came forward within 7 days of their death with the money to pay for a coffin and churchyard burial, their remains could quite legitimately… be sent to a teaching hospital for dissection in return for a fee which contributed to the income of the Workhouse5. (a reference to clause VII of the 1832 Act.)

ADDENDUM 2: A parliamentary debate in 1844 about the workings of the Anatomy Act

The Act… wholly disregarded the feelings of the dying. It was said, however, that these prejudices against dissection ought not to be cherished in the minds of the poor, that they ought to be made to see the importance of science to the human race, and that they ought to sacrifice their own natural feelings for the benefit of mankind. He did not, however, find that those who advised the poor to do these things began by setting them the example6. [Mr Borthwick]

1 See The colourful nickname was The Bloody Code. Murderers weren’t allowed to be buried in consecrated ground but those executed for lesser offences could be buried in their local churchyard.

2 A quick summary is here

3 Correcting for inflation this is c. £757 per body. This at a time when a farm labourer would earn c. £12 a year so £7 10 shillings per body was a very significant amount indeed.

4 There was an instruction that they be either hung in chains or buried in the prison precincts and therefore not in consecrated ground. Prior to this act the alternative was to be dissected. Clause XVI




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One Response to The Anatomy Act, 1832: the Criminal Antecedents

  1. Del Smith says:

    An interesting insight. It seems to me to be a lesson in the perils of unintended consequences. In my school days they once employed an ogress of a French mistress and German became far more popular..

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