1550: The leaders of the Prayer Book Rebellion 1829: William Burke, eponymous body-snatcher

Themed Set: The Medical Gaze

January 28th, 2011 Headsman

“Open up a few corpses: you will dissipate at once the darkness that observation alone could not dissipate.”

-Marie Francois Xavier Bichat

The condemned — those their fellows have marked for deliberate elimination — have always had a place as our emissaries into the darkness of that final, mysterious passage.

We gaze through that dead man walking — a ferocious criminal once upon a time, maybe, but now pinioned and defenseless, meat for sacrificial theater — we gaze through him into the abyss, and the abyss gazes also into us.

He does not merely confront us with our mortality, but with our still more terrifying duality. Awaiting the chop, his self has already been sundered from a corporeal form now appropriated — even by mere chance — to the edification of some foreign entity’s own purposes.


“The Reward of Cruelty,” the last plate of William Hogarth‘s Four Stages of Cruelty, depicts the cycle’s subject dissected in an anatomical theater (pdf) following hanging (note the noose) at Tyburn.
“His Heart expos’d to prying Eyes,
To Pity has no claim;
But, dreadful! from his Bones shall rise,
His Monument of Shame.”

The operation of the apparatus upon his form is his concern, the account he will make of himself on that stage (Henry VIII’s adulterous fifth wife, Catherine Howard, asked for the headsman’s block in her cell so she could practice how best to address it); the disposal of his flesh, yet living, may be reckoned in thus-and-such many hours. It was once not so rare to travel to the killing scene upon one’s very coffin — in fact, this was recent enough to be photographed. And more to the point, all this is our concern, we scaffold-ministers, for the doomed.

Everyone must grapple with the mysterious inevitability of death, but to be reduced to a cadaver while yet alive — that is a special form of horror. No wonder the undead make such spellbinding literature.

To another epoch, the line could as well blur in the other direction, the deceased remains be made to suffer for their former soul’s transgressions. Charles II could not best Oliver Cromwell in life, but finally made Cromwell’s bones suffer for regicide. As an object lesson, what difference whether the bones came to the halter breathing or no?

“A dead body,” writes William Bogard, “is not necessarily a corpse. It only becomes one in virtue of a social machine that needs dead bodies, and the flows of organs, tissues, and fluids they generate, to function.”

In time that social machine evolved uses of tissue and fluid beyond bloodbath spectacle.

In the 18th and 19th century, Foucault contends, the “medical gaze” — a searching, scientific inquiry into the true foundations of bodily decay by following Bichat’s counsel to rip away the exterior and investigate the true form within. This is the literal definition and intent of autopsy: to see with one’s own eyes.

Warning: Graphic Footage This video is an actual human autopsy.

The medical gaze, “that absolute eye that cadaverizes life,” is likewise in Foucault’s reckoning a piece of the intellectual and ideological program that made the post-Enlightenment world.


Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632), whose subject was a prosperous surgeon later to become mayor of Amsterdam. The anatomized man is robber Aris Kindt, who had been executed earlier that same day.

No surprise that this revolutionary social machine found grist for its mill — commodified corpse-objects, the workers most literally alienated from their produce — at the foot of the scaffold.

That which hides and envelops, the curtain of night over truth, is, paradoxically, life; and death, on the contrary, opens up to the light of day the black coffer of the body: obscure life, limpid death, the oldest imaginary values of the Western world are crossed here in a strange misconstruction that is the very meaning of pathological anatomy.

Herewith, four who expired to open up their living fellows’ shambling carrion to that life-breathing medical gaze.

Highly recommended additional reading: Jai Virdi’s “The Criminalized Body” series: I, II, III, IV, V.

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