On this date in 1801, 73-year-old James Legg(e) was hanged for murdering his mate William Lamb(e) at Chelsea Hospital.
Both men were pensioned ensigns from His Majesty’s service. According to the trial transcript, Legg was sinking into obvious depression. A nurse of long acquaintance remarked on
a lowness, a melancholy and deranged state; knowing him so long, I took the opportunity of asking him what was the matter with him, and the reason of his melancholy; he told me his mind was confused; that he had no rest night or day; that he was hurried from place to place, and could not tell what he was doing; and I really was afraid he would make away with himself; I was always unhappy when he was out of my sight, for fear he should do himself an injury; I never mentioned it to the doctor, because he was harmless … sometimes when I spoke to him, he would start like a person surprized out of a sleep; sometimes he would give me an answer, and sometimes only just a bow; I still observed that lowness and melancholy, and that his head was always confused down to the time of this unfortunate event.
Ah. The “unfortunate event.” Legg took it to mind that Lamb was “a tyrannical tempered man” who gave him “repeated insults” and challenged him to a duel. (Lamb’s widow, the only witness to the murder, said her husband had no beef with his killer.)
When Lamb quizzically (or scornfully) discarded the pistol that the irate Legg had forced into his hand, Legg just shot him dead.
He probably had no expectation that he’d just punched his ticket to artistic immortality.
Legg hanged exactly a month after the homicide. During the interval, three Royal Academy of Arts members — sculptor Thomas Banks and painters Benjamin West and Richard Cosway — pulled some strings with the Chelsea Hospital surgeon Joseph Carpue to get Legg’s body after death.
Giotto crucifixion fresco, c. 1300.
Despite the centrality of Christ’s crucifixion to western culture, nobody had seen an actual crucifixion — not for centuries. So, sure, you can make the guy on the cross look like a proportioned, three-dimensional human being …
Possible Michelangelo (otherwise, Marcello Venusti) Crucifixion with the Madonna, St. John and Two Mourning Angels.
… but is this really what a proportioned, three-dimensional human being would look like when nailed to a cross?
That Chelsea surgeon Carpue and his artist friends had the best way to find out. (Well … the second-best.)
“A building was erected near the place of the execution; a cross provided,” Carpue recorded. After hanging, “the subject was nailed on the cross; the cross suspended … the body, being warm, fell into the position that a dead body must fall into … When cool, a cast was made, under the direction of Mr. Banks, and when the mob was dispersed it was removed to my theatre.” West supposedly exclaimed that he had “never before seen the human hand” until he saw James Legg’s nailed and stretched.
Carpue proceeded to flay the cadaver and make a second cast from the grisly skin-less ecorche … an artistic/anatomical practice of the age whose best-known product is Smugglerius, also cast from a hanged man.
(Debate and experimentation over the particulars of an execution by cross also continue to this day.)