osing his head on May 12, 1543 made Jakob Karrer von Gebweiler’s name in the annals of art and and medicine.
The remains of the Basel felon — who attacked his wife with a knife when she discovered his bigamous marriage — were turned over after execution to Andreas Vesalius.
That brilliant Flemish doctor was in the midst of a proper Renaissance leveling up of medicine, lifting it past the centuries-long thrall of ancient Greek physician Galen.
Human dissection was essential to Vesalius’s project, as it was alike to many other medical men and to artists too. In his career, Vesalius’s cunning scalpel stripped numerous cadavers for students and urban grandees. With Karrer, Vesalius performed a public dissection, articulating Karrer’s skeleton.
Gifted to the university there, the skeleton was restored in 1985 and can be seen to this day at the Institute of Anatomy in Basel, Switzerland — one of the very earliest still-preserved articulated skeletons.
Why is it a Basel criminal who enjoys this distinction?
From Wikipedia’s library of De Humani illustrations.
Because in 1543, Vesalius was in that city* to work with printer Johannes Oporinus, even then publishing the physician’s magnum opus De Humani Corporis Fabrica. Vesalius personally transported to Oporinus the famously gorgeous and detailed woodcuts of Titian’s pupil Joannes Stephanus Calcarensis that made De Humani a smash hit in Vesalius’s own time and one of the most treasured artifacts of Renaissance scholarship.
Joseph Richards was arraigned for the wilful murder of Walter Horseman, milkman, in Kentish Town. The deceased’s widow deposed, that the prisoner was formerly a servant to her husband; that he was discharged for negligence; that he had frequently threatened vengeance on the deceased; that on the morning the murder was committed, she was awakened by a noise, and on entering the room her husband slept in, she found him sitting up in the bed, and as far as his waist in blood; that a stick which the prisoner had cut some time before, lay in the room, and an iron bar, covered with blood; that her husband was mangled in a shocking manner: — he lingered a few days, and died a shocking spectacle.
Four other witnesses were examined, whose testimony proved certain corroborating circumstances; such as, being from his lodging the night the murder was committed, being seen to melt lead, and to pour it into the stick that was found in the deceased’s room, &c.
The prisoner confessed the murder to one of the magistrates who committed him for trial; but pleaded Not Guilty at the bar.
The jury, after a few minutes’ consideration, brought in their verdict Guilty.
Mr. Recorder pronounced judgment. He said the voice of innocent blood cried to heaven for vengeance. He dwelt upon the atrociousness of the crime of murder, observing, that the Divine Law had ordained, that whoever sheddeth man’s blood, &c., and then expatiated on the peculiar circumstances of the murder, the murder of an innocent master, to whom he owed duty and reverence.
The sentence was then passed as usual, that he be hanged till dead, and anatomized; and an order of Court was made out, to execute him on Monday, at Kentish Town, as near as possible to the house of the deceased.
Joseph Richards, a youth about eighteen, who was convicted on Friday last, for the wilful murder of Walter Horseman, with whom he lived servant, was executed at Kentish Town, opposite the house where the horrid fact was perpetrated. The malefactor came out of Newgate about twenty minutes before eight o’clock, and with some alertness stepped into the cart, which conveyed him through Smithfield, Cow Cross, and by the two small-pox hospitals to the spot, where he was removed from that society of which he had proved himself a most unworthy member, at a time of life when such atrocity of guilt as he possessed has been seldom known to degrade humanity. In his way to the place of execution, the convict appeared to be in a state of mind bordering upon stupefaction; he had no book, nor did he employ that short remnant of time in those preparations for eternity which his miserable situation rendered so indispensably necessary.
Before being turned off, the prisoner desired to see the widow of the decreased; she was sent for to her house, but was gone to London; he declared he had no accomplice in the fact, and that he was induced to the perpetration thereof by the supposition, that after the decease of his master he should succeed to his business as a milkman. Just before coming to the village, he burst into tears and when he came to the place of execution, wept bitterly; his expressions of sorrow and contrition being only interrupted by fervent appeals to Heaven for mercy till the last moment of his existence.
A violent-tempered man — madness was said to run in the family, and this was in fact the Earl’s defense at this trial — Ferrers’ nastiness ran his wife right out of the house. Consider this was the 18th century, he must have been some kind of intolerable.
Though it was directed at another member of the household, this anecdote from the Newgate Calendar may prove illustrative of the sort of fellow we’re dealing with:
Some oysters had been sent from London, which not proving good, his lordship directed one of the servants to swear that the carrier had changed them; but the servant declining to take such an oath, the earl flew on him in a rage, stabbed him in the breast with a knife, cut his head with a candlestick and kicked him on the groin with such severity, that he was incapable of a retention of urine for several years afterwards.
We’ve seen in these pages how a certain sort of ill-humored man would sooner go to the scaffold than subsidize his ex. Ferrers was this sort.
The arrangement for the Ferrers spouses (they weren’t divorced, just separated) was that Ferrers would pay her support via his old household steward. Chafing at the payments and resenting the middleman, Ferrers one day in January summoned him to his, theatrically accused him of breaking faith, and shot him through the chest.
The Earl was tried before the House of Lords (a jury of his peers, and Peers!),* but his sentence was straight from the Old Bailey: not just hanging, but anatomization.
Most noticeably, perhaps, was the fact that Ferrers was allegedly hanged with a rope of silk, rather than hemp. For only the softest coiling around noble throats, you see.
The other, and in hindsight more consequential, was that he didn’t get the low-rent treatment of being shoved off a cart. Instead, the scaffold was surmounted with a small platform supporting a set of trap doors whose opening would suspend the malefactor for his asphyxiatory journey to the hereafter.
This, one of many illustrations of the hanging, suggests this novel feature:
This innovation presents us an obvious forebear of the now-familiar “drop” method of hanging which evolved over the subsequent centuries. Though the drop was not repeated at Tyburn, it became wholesale practice when hangings moved to Newgate Gaol; the drop itself thereafter became the very art of the hanging when it was lengthened and scientifically measured to snap the neck of the condemned on the fall instead of strangling him or her.
And you could trace it all back to May 5, 1760.
To judge from other engravings, this red-letter day did not want for witnesses.
Perhaps stage-frightened by all these eyeballs on their noteworthy prey, the executioners put on an amateur-hour show. They openly fought over the £5 tip Ferrers gave (he accidentally handed it to an assistant), and likewise again over the rope that conducted the sentence.
When next in London, wet your whistle at Streatham’s The Earl Ferrers, a local pub.
* Ferrers defended himself: a norm for the time, but to latter-day eyes rather hard to square with his insanity defense. You’ve got a lucid defendant relying upon his wits to save him in a juridical proceeding inquiring of his own witnesses, “Was I generally reputed a Madman?” (Ferrers’s defense, specifically, was “I’m periodically insane.” But when the wind is southerly, he knows a hawk from a handsaw.)
Art history footnote: notice that the cadaver’s navel is a stylized “R”: the artist was playing around with his signatures during this period. Also, note the hand under dissection. The scene was actually re-enacted in 2006 to establish that Rembrandt’s done the forearm tendons incorrectly — it does look wonky. Additionally, the very fact that the anatomist is beginning with the arm rather than the usual trunk has led to speculation over whether this was an artistic choice or the doctor’s actual procedure in the thrall of a temporary medical vogue.
The 25-year-old painter had only moved to Amsterdam at the end of the previous year.
He broke through almost immediately with a commission — it was his first major group portrait and it would become known as his first major masterpiece (source), instantly establishing his preeminence in the city’s art scene — from the Amsterdam Guild of Surgeons to render one of its most important events: the annual public dissection of a criminal.**
Prior to the systematic medicalization of the corpse, when anatomizing a human was still a fraught and transgressive act, Netherlands cities were permitted only one such exposition per year. Its subject could only be a male criminal who would be given a Christian burial thereafter. (Contrary to the English model, posthumous dissection was not used to intensify a death sentence with a further terror.)
The affair would have been crowded not only with other doctors but city council members, intellectuals, and well-dressed respectable burghers. Anyone, in short, who was anyone (they paid for the privilege).
And, of course, its overseer, Nicolaes Tulp; Rembrandt’s framing will leave you no doubt as to which figure in the painting is in charge. The city’s most respected surgeon, Tulp was the Guild’s Praelector Anatomiae, “reader in anatomy”, dignified with the responsibility of publicly lecturing on the unfolding dissection.
The silent but essential final party was Aris Kindt, the alias of a Leiden†-born criminal around Rembrandt’s own age named Adriann Adriannsz. His life was forfeit as a recidivist thief who had lately mugged a gentleman for his cloak.
This common crook’s ghastly lifeless image‡ is more alive for us in posterity than nearly any of his more law-abiding contemporaries. The expressive composition surrounding him is pregnant with all of the moment’s paradoxes: the advance of humanism on the back of a cruel penal regime; the exaltation of the mind with the unsentimental commodification of the flesh; excellence and status bowing over that old emblem of mankind’s final equality in the tomb.
Evil men, who did harm when alive, do good after their deaths:
Health seeks advantages from Death itself.
Rembrandt must have agreed: he painted the Guild’s criminal dissection again in 1656.
* Some sources give January 16, 1632 for the execution. This possibility appears to me to be disbarred by the apparent January 17 dating of a Rembrandt portrait of Marten Looten; indeed, confusion over this Rembrandt-related January date may even be the ultimate source of the misattribution, if January 16 is indeed mistaken. Scholarly sources overwhelmingly prefer the 31st, apparently from primary documentation that both the hanging and a Tulp lecture took place on that date. (See, e.g., the out-of-print seminal academic work.)
It was one of the city’s most infamous crimes, touching explosive resentments among Londoners for the vampiric trade in human cadavers ultimately demanded by medical students. Thirty thousand packed the streets around Newgate Prison to send this date’s hated offenders on to the hereafter.
As the gang’s nickname indicates, it closely followed the similar affair of Burke and Hare in Edinburgh. (“Burking” had immediately come to mean “killing someone for their marketable cadaver”, a shadowy underworld phenomenon that was in need of a catchy name.) But although William Burke made the OED, it was the London Burkers who most directly triggered the legislation to reform the anatomy business.
ET: Let’s begin with the title of your book, The Italian Boy — an allusion to the victim in the case. Who was this youth, how did he come to be in London, and what did the city look like to a penniless foreign child in 1830?
SW: Well the book is less a ‘whodunnit’ and more of a ‘who-was-it-done-to’. The identity of that particular victim was never fully established. But, as still happens today in murder cases, some types of victim seem to have more appeal than others, and rumour that a little Italian beggar boy was missing from his usual pitches snowballed into a situation where even the courts, police and newspapers were accepting it as fact that it was his body that had been delivered to an anatomist. The final chapter of my book goes into why this might not have been so.
The ‘Italian Boy trade’ was a racket, whereby traffickers paid poor peasant parents, worried about what future they could offer their children, and took charge of the child, walked them north to the wealthy cities of northern Europe, and got them exhibiting small animals or plaster images around the streets, in the hope of being thrown a penny or two. Huge sums could be obtained in this way, but needless to say, the children themselves saw little of this. [There’s an 1872 New York Times article describing the trade into North America here. -ed]
I was fascinated by the warmth shown to these kids in what was otherwise a pretty mean city. This really is the London of Oliver Twist — dark, filthy, with all sorts of Fagin types (and much worse) around. Child vagrancy (as with adult vagrancy) was all too common and yet there were practically no public or civic bodies to offer any help; the idea of hordes of kids sleeping rough is just extraordinary, but that’s how London was right up until the end of the 19th-century.
But Londoners loved these attractive, exotic-looking little Italian waifs, and would also defend other types of beggars if anyone appeared to be hassling them. Ordinary city-dwellers seemed to me, in reading the primary source material, to be a lot less withdrawn and in their own little world than we city-dwellers are today, and seemed to show more class, or social, solidarity.
And how about the killers? What’s their own background, and how do they get into the business of killing people to sell the bodies?
One of the killers, John Bishop, came from a good, solid, small-business background, having been bequeathed a successful carting company. He drank away the family firm, and then turned to the related trade of bodysnatching — there was often a close connection between those involved in city transport and those who needed to move their very questionable goods around surreptitiously. Both trades had the pubs in the street called Old Bailey as their headquarters.
The other killer, Thomas Head, aka Williams, was younger and harder to find out about. He was said to have come from a very poor but honest home, and his parents were devastated when he began to go off the rails in his adolescence, firstly petty-thieving, and then moving on to the less petty-thieving of grave robbery.
I’ve touched a bit elsewhere on the site on the underlying dynamic at work: more demand for medical cadavers than was being met by the gallows. Do we have a sense at this time, after the Burke execution, what proportion of those extra cadavers were being provided by resurrectionists? And how many might have been provided by outright homicide?
Numerical estimates vary hugely for every aspect of this subject. In terms of the sheer volume of bodies medical students were getting through, the 1828 Select Committee on Anatomy canvassed many opinions, and came up with the hugely divergent total of between 500 and 1,000 in a year — the ideal being three bodies per student, with each student completing a 16-month surgical and dissection training. The Select Committee suggested that on average, the Resurrection Men were supplying around 500 to 550 corpses a year — by one means or another. But all these stats should be used with caution.
As for grave robbery: it was all highly surreptitious, as you would expect — there is no great documentary source to turn to, and so we have only scraps of rumour and hearsay. John Bishop, one of the Italian Boy murderers, is said to have ‘lifted’ between 500 and 1,000 corpses in his career, which lasted from 1818 to 1831. That is a huge differential and there is no way of checking whether the lower or higher number is the more likely. Someone shouted at Bishop, in the Old Bailey cells, ‘You’re a bloody murdering bastard, and you should have been topped [hanged] years ago!’, which suggests that the Italian Boy killing was not his first.
Image of a burking, from a broadside on the London Burkers among a book full of street literature here.
As we know, only around twelve people a year were executed for murder in England in these years — people executed for other crimes were not sent to the anatomists. My guess is that many folks who died in public hospitals or workhouses were anatomised, but that this was a highly secret matter and went on illegally. The other main sources of corpses, to make up the shortfall, will have been corrupt undertakers, church sextons and gravediggers. I suspect many coffins in London graveyards were filled with nothing more than brick or earth. As the 1820s wore on, actual exhumations are likely to have declined in favour of more simple ‘sneak-thieving’, with insiders giving the tip-off about where a recently deceased body was likely to be found.
One more ‘statistic’ for you: in a plea bargain attempt during the Italian Boy case, the police placed in front of one prolific bodysnatcher a list of all the resurrection men they had ever known or come across and asked the witness if he would mark with a cross any of the 50 whom he thought capable of murder for dissection. When he handed it back, he had marked six names.
Huge irony: when anatomised, John Bishop was found to be one of the very best specimens the Royal College of Surgeons had ever dissected — great, strong muscles, extremely fit and hearty, from his horrible career in body-handling.
How overtly implicated were aspiring or actual doctors with this sort of thing (even “mere” resurrection as against murder) as a “necessary” part of their education that they chose to turn a blind eye towards? And was there any engagement with the problem as an ethical question?
The public cared hugely about the ethics; the legislature very little. That’s why Dr. Knox, in the Burke and Hare case, was so unusual — no one protected him when the case came to trial, and he was vilified and more or less chased out of Edinburgh. But in the Italian Boy murders, no doctor got anywhere near the witness box. Society and the legislature really rallied around them, to make sure the public did not take their feelings out on them.
But popular resentment that the doctors might have encouraged, or turned a blind eye to, grave-robbery (not murder) remained very common.
By around 1800, doctors and students had wholly outsourced exhumations for dissection material — gangs of specialised labouring men did it for them, and part of the deal was that (in return for a good wage) the bodysnatchers themselves, if caught, would keep silent, do their stretch in gaol, and they and their families would be looked after financially by the surgeons who commissioned them.
One surgeon, Joshua Brookes, fell foul of the bodysnatchers (refusing to put up their wages) and in revenge, they placed half-dissected corpses close to his Soho premises. These were tripped over in the dark by pedestrians, which caused a huge rumpus and the police had to come to protect Brookes from the mobs who wanted to stone his house. Such events were the exception, rather than the rule.
There’s something just sublimely Swiftian about a disposable person being literally, bodily consumed by the city and its professional class. Was it surprising that a doctor would bust these men when they came to sell the body, and/or that it would trigger an aggressive police response? Had they probably pulled this trick with a wink and a nod many times before?
The Italian Boy case was highly unusual in that it was a surgeon, Richard Partridge, who blew the whistle — not only on the killers but essentially on the whole trade. He was the anatomy teacher at the brand-new King’s College, which was very religious-based, though funnily enough, I don’t think Partridge himself was devout. In getting the men arrested, he really blew wide open this secretive, terrifying world of the trafficking of (poor people’s) corpses.
It is the Italian Boy case — not Burke and Hare — which brought about swift legal change, which ensured the demise of surreptitious grave-robbery for anatomical teaching.
Other than hanging the perps, what was the fallout from this case at the level of policy or social evolution? Was there conflict between the privileged and the poor over how to understand this sort of crime and how to go about addressing it?
The ‘resolution’, the ‘evolution’, was the 1832 Anatomy Act, which essentially legalised what had been going on all along. It permitted anatomists to claim as legitimate teaching material the corpse of anyone who died in a workhouse or public hospital whose body went unclaimed by friends or family for private burial. In practice, it seems that even when apparently friendless beggars died, and associates did come forward, the doctors had already earmarked the body for their own purposes.
This type of thing caused decades and decades of bitter class resentment in this country, and fear of doctors and hospitals was even discernible in my late parents’ generation. These worries still occasionally resurrect themselves. The UK’s Human Tissue Act of 2004 was passed following disclosure of the mass storage of children’s organs, without any permission or consent having been sought from the parents. I think consent remains a huge issue in medical matters, in most cultures, and those who are deemed powerless in some way — by class, race, caste, gender and so on — are by far the more likely to have their bodies commandeered in the name of science.
Sarah Wise has been a Londoner since the age of 14. She has a BA in English Literature and a Masters degree in Victorian Studies, from Birkbeck College, University of London. The Italian Boy: Murder and Grave Robbery in 1830s London won the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction in 2005 and was shortlisted for the 2005 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction.
But they weren’t there only to mete out justice to the killer of elderly Alexander Love: there as another attraction, too. Ross, the small-timer, was done for after his hanging and buried away unceremoniously.
But Clydesdale’s body “was put into a coffin, and was forthwith conveyed, for the purpose of dissection, to the Professor of Anatomy. The cart was followed by a large portion of the crowd.” (London Times, Nov. 11, 1818)
Before a mob of rubbernecking — sometimes fainting — onlookers, the flesh that had lately belonged to Matthew Clydesdale was subjected to the fashionable and creepy science of galvanism.
We are almost willing to imagine, that if, without cutting into and wounding the spinal marrow and blood-vessels in the neck, the pulmonary organs had been set a-playing at first … life might have been restored. This event, however little desirable with a murderer, and perhaps contrary to law, would yet have been pardonable in one instance, as it would have been highly honourable and useful to science.
I mean, you’d have to think it would at least be good enough for tenure.
every muscle of the body was immediately agitated with convulsive movements … the leg was thrown out with such violence as nearly to overturn one of the assistants, who in vain attempted to prevent its extension …
Every muscle in his countenance was simultaneously thrown into fearful action: rage, horror, despair, anguish,and ghastly smiles united their hideous expression in the murderer’s face …
When the one rod was applied to the slight incision in the tip of the forefinger, the fist being previously clenched, that finger extended instantly; and from the convulsive agitation of the arm, he seemed to point to the different spectators, some of whom thought he had come to life.
* Two others condemned for the same date’s harvest of souls — James Boyd (housebreaking) and Margaret Kennedy (passing forged notes) — were reprieved.
Willis, Frederick, and Burton van Wormer — stock, as their name suggests, of vintage Dutch family whose more reputable products ca be found on various Empire State placenames — were doomed for the Christmas Eve, 1901 murder of their uncle.
The family tree’s branching over generations had put family enmities between relatives; in this case, working stiff John van Wormer’s home in Columbia County, N.Y. was mortgaged to his brother-in-law (and the eventual murder victim), richie-rich Peter Hallenbeck. After John passed away, Peter lowered the boom and foreclosed on the widow, booting John’s sons out of the house.
The boys got even with an unsubtle gangland masked home raid, riddling their Uncle Scrooge with bullets.
(Signs of the times: the murder happened mere weeks after William McKinley‘s assassination, and testimony had one of the boys bragging with reference to the fatal gut-shot wound inflicted on the late president. “I made a Czolgosz shot. I shot him in the stomach.”)
Though these three attracted national public sympathy — someone even telegrammed a bogus reprieve signed, “The President of the United States” in a vain stab at delay — their case was pretty open-and-shut.
Since they were doing death as a brother act, it was only fair that they sort out precedence within the family: the condemned themselves decided the order of their execution, with Willis first, Frederick second, and Burton third. The whole thing took 15 minutes.
But leave it to the youngest child to stick out from the crowd. Frederick, the baby of the family, actually managed to survive the electric chair, sort of. Not walk clean away from it like Willie Francis would do, but impolitely revive when he was supposed to be laid out dead like folkused to do back in the bad old hanging days.
The executions went off without a hitch and the brothers were pronounced dead. Later, after they’d been laid out in the autopsy room, a guard saw one of them out in the autopsy room, a guard saw one of them, Frederick Van Wormer, move a hand. Then an eye flickered. The prison doctor was immediately summoned. Putting a stethoscope to the “dead” man’s heart, he discovered it was still beating. Frederick’s heart (it was determined later) was bigger than that of anyone executed up to that date, so two charges of full current had failed to kill him. The convict was carried back to the chair and kept in it until he was dead beyond the shadow of a doubt. [he died without actually being re-executed -ed.]
In part because of accidents like these during the early decades of the electric chair, numbers of people weren’t convinced it was as deadly as it was supposed to be. (Source)
They’re not kidding about that brain bit, either.
A fellow by the name of Edward Anthony Spitzka autopsied the van Wormers, “direct[ing] my attention especially to the brains. The opportunity afforded by this triple execution was certainly most rare, and a similar case will not soon occur again,” and found Frederick with a robust 1.6 kg brain, compared to less than 1.4 kg for his siblings. Now that JSTOR has opened its oldest journal content, you can read all about Spitzka’s meddlings in the van Wormer grey matter here.
On this date in 1733, a rebellious slave named Julian the Indian was hanged for murdering a bounty hunter who pursued his escape.
Julian the Indian is generally believed to be John Julian (or Julien), a mixed-race African-descended Mosquito Indian from central America who was among the crew of the egalitarian pirate Samuel Bellamy. Julian appears to be the first recorded black pirate in the New World.
Julian was one of only two pirates who survived the wreck of Bellamy’s Whydah off Cape Cod in 1717 (Bellamy himself was lost in the incident), and was jailed in Massachusetts. There, he apparently becomes the “Julian the Indian” purchased that same year by colonial pol John Quincy.
The “unruly” Julian gave his owner no end of escape attempts and was sold on to another owner, from whom he made one escape attempt too many.
There’s a gallows pamphlet, “The last speech and dying advice of poor Julian: who was executed the 22d of March, 1733. for the murder of Mr. John Rogers of Pembroke,” but there’s no juicy buccaneer adventure in it, or even slave escape adventure — just a lot of generic pabulum about having forsaken God, not unlike the generic woodcut illustrating it.
It was common for the unclaimed bodies of executed prisoners to be given to medical students for dissection, and according to an article in The Boston Newsletter, on March 30, 1733 John’s corpse was used for this purpose. The article goes on to tell us that, “The Bones are preserv’d in order to be fram’d into a Skeleton”. This may be the source of the idea that the skeleton is in the collection of the Warren Anatomical Museum at Harvard Medical School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Current research at the museum says this is untrue, and that neither the skeleton, nor the bag made from the skin of a pirate, also in the collection, are believed to belong to John Julian.
John Quincy’s great-grandson, the American President John Quincy Adams, became a staunch slavery abolitionist.
On this date in 1740, five criminals were hanged at Tyburn.
Sixteen-year-old William Duell was among them. He was hanged — but he did not die. As recounted in The Newgate Calendar:
WILLIAM DUELL was convicted of occasioning the death of Sarah Griffin, at Acton, by robbing and ill-treating her. Having suffered, 24th of November, 1740, at Tyburn, with Thomas Clock, William Meers, Margery Stanton and Eleanor Munoman (who had been convicted of several burglaries and felonies), his body was brought to Surgeons’ Hall to be anatomised; but after it was stripped and laid on the board, and one of the servants was washing it, in order to be cut, he perceived life in him, and found his breath to come quicker and quicker, on which a surgeon took some ounces of blood from him; in two hours he was able to sit up in his chair, and in the evening was again committed to Newgate, and his sentence, which might be again inflicted, was changed to transportation.