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.
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.
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.
Wanted: corpses. Apply to Doctor Robert Knox, MD, FRSCEd, Professor of Medical Studies, Barclay’s Medical College, Surgeon’s Square, Edinburgh. Reference William Burke, hanged Jan. 28, 1829.
Robert Knox was a noted physician in his prime, in the early 1800s.
A surgeon, anatomist, and zoologist, Knox studied anatomy in London, then headed off to Africa in the army. Field surgery was a brutal business, and the poor anatomical knowledge at the time made it even more terrifying for those involved.
When his old professor came calling in 1826 with an opportunity to teach at Surgeon’s Square in Edinburgh, Knox jumped at the chance. As a partner to Barclay and curator of the school’s museum, Knox was well aware of the significant problem that faced the school: corpses were hard to come by.
And since the Royal College of Surgeons at Edinburgh certified the school as a prep course for entrance to University, coming up with bodies became a very important task.
If there’s one way to ruin your career, it’s to be caught paying a few pounds for fresh murder victims.
So it was for Knox, who gave out 7 pounds, 10 shillings for the body of an itinerant lodger who died in William Burke’s building in 1827.
This transaction led Burke to realize that such lodgers weren’t paying as much alive as dead. As a collector of bodies, Knox also had a strict no-questions-asked policy, and Burke and his partner William Hare exploited that to its fullest extent.
Almost a score of suspicious bodies later (and after the price had inflated to 10 pounds per), the pair was found out, given away as suspects by the lame and mentally disabled “Daft Jamie” Wilson, then caught when the late Marjory Campbell Docherty was found by a fellow tenant under one of Burke’s lodge’s beds.
Hare copped to a string of murders* and played stool pigeon in exchange for a lighter sentence.
Burke went to the gallows to “vehement cheering from every quarter, mingled with groans and hisses.” (London Times, Feb. 2, 1829)
“When the cheers had subsided, the wretched man was assailed with every epithet of contempt and abhorrence,” the Times continued. “Not a single indication of pity was observable among the vast crowd: on the contrary, every countenance wore the lviely aspect of a gala-day.”
William Burke’s hanging.
As a corpse himself, Burke made one final contribution to science’s insatiable desire for bodies: his cadaver went straight from the gallows to the practiced hands of one Dr Alexander Monro, who performed a complete lecture while dissecting the murderer’s corpse.
Knox, for his part, paid not with his neck but with his reputation.
Though never charged with a crime, the doctor was run out of the the lecturing business, first by subtle and not-so-subtle actions by the University, and eventually by the passage of the Anatomy Act of 1832.
He was also unable to obtain any surgical post after the incident and spent his later years writing academic books and papers, none of which have lasted like the doggerel that shadowed his steps.
Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief,
Knox, the boy who buys the beef.
A few books about Burke and Hare
Anatomy of Anatomy
Robert Knox was operating under the Murder Act of 1751, which expressly forbade the burial of an executed murderer while permitting the malefactor’s dissection.
The Act had the dual effect of allowing the state to gibbet executed criminals (both hanging in chains and dissection were considered an added ignominy, beyond the punishment of the gallows), and of supplying the budding medical community with an immediate source of fresh bodies.
As courses in anatomy became more commonplace, though, the need for cadavers increased dramatically, and the business of selling bodies for science was born.
Typically, these sales manifested themselves in body-snatching — wherein “resurrectionists” illicitly exhumed a freshly buried corpse and conveyed it to some physician’s ready scalpel.
This grim trade in turn spawned a variety of security measures. The favored dead were defended by fences, watchtowers, and human lookouts. But nothing could eliminate the industry.
In particular, those with little money or no immediate relatives were unlikely to be buried in these gated graves; that left their remains ripe for the remaindering. As well, the increase in demand made so-called anatomy murder a possibility. Burke and Hare may have been notorious for the offense,** but they did not invent it.
In that case, two nurses (Jean Waldie and Helen Torrence) on death watch bartered a decent price of two shillings to sell the body of an ill child to a local surgical college. His death was delayed, and the nurses smothered him, possibly through simple carelessness.
Shortly after the Murder Act, simple economics made pikers of Torrence and Waldie. In the 17th century, England executed hundreds of prisoners a year, each a potential dissection. As Dr D.R. Johnson writes in his Introductory Anatomy:
The dissections performed on hanged felons were public: indeed part of the punishment was the delivery from hangman to surgeons at the gallows following public execution, and later public exhibition of the open body itself. …
Agents representing surgeons would bargain with condemned prisoners not under sentence of dissection (remember this only happened for murder: hanging was in vogue for stealing a sheep or even a loaf): occasionally prisoners struck a bargain to pay expenses, to provide for a family or to buy the customary decent apparel for the hanging.
Supply was unreliable, however: riots at public hangings became common, partly because of the paltry nature of hanging events, partly from superstition. The body was often reclaimed by relatives and the unpopular anatomists stoned, defeated and out of pocket. Competition was often so fierce that a rival anatomy school carried off the body.
Dissection was unpopular and other medical uses were to be found for a recently hung body – the cure of scofula, goitre, wens, ulcers, bleeding tumours, cancers and withered limbs for example. To prevent riots and disorder the Sheriff of London took all bodies of hanged men, except those sentenced to dissection, into his own custody and handed them to the relatives for burial.
Hanoverian Britain sure did keep the gallows busy. But the pace of hangings had abated by the 19th century just as demand boomed. The math didn’t add up.
Anatomy schools (officially) dissected some 592 corpses in 1825; at the time of the Burke and Hare murders, only about 50 executions were carried out annually, and each college was guaranteed just one a year.
That meant a shortfall of close to 550 bodies. With limited supply and significant demand, surgical colleges and anatomical lecturers were willing to pay top dollar for new cadavers … and the anatomical murder business really got legs.
And while the execution of Burke was met with applause from the community, in London, another group was already hard at work both body snatching and murdering its way into the classroom.
The London Burkers were caught in 1831 and convicted of murdering a 14-year-old whose cadaver they sold to St Bartholemew’s Hospital for 9 guineas.† The killers, Thomas Williams and John Bishop, had offed several others prior to the lad in question, making about the same price on each body.‡ In the grand, Burkean tradition of anatomical murderers, these miscreants were also dissected after their execution.§
Williams and Bishop were just two of a group of resurrectionists known collectively as the London Burkers, who claimed to have stolen upwards of 1,000 bodies from nearby cemeteries. That made the Burkers the largest known exploiters of the anatomical trade.
Over the decades after the Murder Act, though, resurrectionists were walking a dangerous line in their communities.
Reverence for the dead sparked community outrage when graves were found empty or disturbed, and it was often the anatomists themselves who felt the wrath of crowds.§§ In Glasgow in 1803, surgeons were threatened by an unruly mob and were forced to seek police protection; in 1813, an empty grave caused a similar furor. Punishments moved from fines to jail time as the surging demand made body-snatching an ever more lucrative trade.
A few books about body-snatching
By the time of the Burkers, anatomists were generally presumed to be body thieves in some capacity, a hostile sentiment graphically underscored during the Aberdeen riots of 1831. When a dog unearthed what looked like a human bone behind the Aberdeen surgical college, a mob coalesced and stormed the lecture hall.
The lecturer (“Dr Moir” — little else is known about the man) fled in terror as the hall was burned to the ground. Soldiers and police clashed with the crowd, which was thought to be over 10,000 strong. Hours later, the riot subsided, but Aberdeen was no longer a friendly place for a prospective medical talent.
And where Burke and Hare were still not quite sufficient to convince the House of Lords to take up a measure providing anatomists with alternatives for corpse acquisition, the Burkers and the Aberdeen riots apparently were.
The underground economy of resurrectionists was supplanted by the Anatomy Act of 1832, which allowed individuals to donate themselves or their unwilled kin to science for a pittance of compensation.
Anatomy murder is, of course, still the subject of horror movies. Like this one, or for the more classically inclined, this 1945 Boris Karloff/Bela Lugosi vehicle adapted from a Robert Louis Stevenson story inspired by Burke and Hare:
* The murders included at least one husband/wife pair, a mother and, later, her (adult) daughter, and a grandmother and her young grandson. They are also known as the West Port Murders.
** Burke entered the English language as a verb meaning … well, pretty much exactly what Burke got up to.
Dr. Murray, in the new English Dictionary, gives the following definition of the verb to ‘burke.’ ‘To murder in the same manner or for the same purpose as Burke did: to kill secretly by suffocation or strangulation, or for the purpose of selling the victim’s body for dissection,’ and the familiar lines are quoted from the Ingoldsby Legends: —
But when beat on his knees, that confounded De Guise
Just whipped out the “fogle” that caused all the breeze,
Pulled it tight round his neck until backwards it jerked him,
And the rest of the rascals jumped on him and burked him.
† 9 pounds, 9 shillings; by the time of the transactions, the guinea was no longer technically in use, but the term had stuck at the 21-shilling mark.
‡ Over the course of their 6 active months, the pair went from asking 8 guineas to asking 12 guineas; apparently 9 was the negotiated price with St Bartholemew’s.
§ The Burkers are the subject of the song “The Resurrectionist” by the Pet Shop Boys. (Lyrics)
§§ Edinburgh also had trouble as far back as 1742, when several surgeons’ homes were attacked by locals; a local beadle suspected of the crimes also had his home, dubbed resurrectionist hall, burned during the mob incident.
The typical turning-point execution features an illustrious protagonist upon the scaffold: a royal dethroned, a politician overthrown, a revolutionary laid low.
On this day in 1771, an obscure woman executed for everyday crimes launched a new era in Japan.
The Kyoto resident, nicknamed “Aochababa” — roughly translated as the Green Tea Hag — sparked a scientific revolution that would span decades, push Japan into its own Age of Reason called Dutch Learning, and keep an island nation astride goings-on from thousands of miles away in spite of isolationist practices.
The Tokugawa Shogunate, which ruled Japan from the early 1600s through the mid-1800s, was widely regarded as anti-Western for closing down trade with several European nations.
Concerned with what it saw as colonial aspirations in the Americas, the Shogunate clamped down on Catholic missionaries from Spain and Portugal. Starting in the 1630s, the island nation officially enacted the Seclusion Laws, which effectively allowed trade only with China, Korea, and the Netherlands; contact with the last was only legitimated through the Dutch trading outpost in Dejima, an isolated island with strictly controlled access.* Because of these limitations, Japan became a repository of non-Christian Dutch paraphernalia.**
The execution of Aochababa itself is practically forgotten: she was hanged in Kyoto’s Kozukappara (the present day Arakawa ward) in Meiwa 8, the second year of a 15-year drought gripping Japan. Her crime is unknown, and her execution would have been as un-noteworthy as dozens of others that year had her body not been secured for science.
However, under the reign of (though little due to) Shogun Tokugawa Ieharu, Dutch influence was increasing dramatically in Japan.
As a result, Aochababa’s corpse was brought to a medical facility, where Sugita Genpaku, Maeno Ryotaku, Nakagawa Jun’an, Toyo Yamawaki, and others performed and viewed an autopsy. Their medical training was Chinese; their medical texts were a mixture of Chinese and Dutch; as Genpaku reports in his later book Rangaku Kotohajime:†
Ryotaku opened the book and explained according to what he had learned in Nagasaki the various organs such as the lung called “long” in Dutch, the heart called “hart,” the stomach called “maag” and the spleen called “milt.” They looked so different from the pictures in the Chinese anatomical books that many of us felt rather dubious of their truths before we should actually observe the real organs.
Comparing the things we saw with the pictures in the Dutch book Ryotaku and I had with us, we were amazed at their perfect agreement. There was no such divisions either as the six lobes and two auricles of the lungs or the three left lobes and two right lobes of the liver mentioned in old medical books. Also, the positions and the forms of the intestines and the stomach were very different from the traditional descriptions.
After the dissection was over, we were tempted to examine the forms of the bones too, and picked up some of the sun bleached bones scattered around the ground. We found that they were nothing like those described in the old books, but were exactly as represented in the Dutch book. We were completely amazed.
In short, their medical results matched those of the Dutch and flew in the face of a millennium of Chinese anatomical teachings.
Genpaku was intrigued. As he tells it (40-some years after the fact), Ryotaku, Jun’an, and he immediately laid down a plan to translate the Dutch text into Japanese.
The process was a slog. Lacking a dictionary or translator for anatomical studies, the team — bolstered by the Shogun physician Katsuragawa Hoshu — was forced to reverse-engineer the Dutch language using a short phrase book, occasional contacts with the Dutch themselves, and a host of educated guesses based on the anatomical features they were attempting to describe. In addition to the problems of simple translations — turning a language with definite and indefinite articles into one with no such concept — many anatomical features had never been named in Japanese before; Genpaku and his collaborators invented dozens of words just to get by. A brief history is given here.
Finally, in 1774, Kaitai Shinsho — The New Book of Anatomy — based mostly on the Dutch book Ontleedkundige Tafelen (itself a translation from German), was published, the first translation of a Western text into Japanese. The book was four volumes (three of text, one of illustrations) and scribed in a Chinese-based writing style known as Kanbun.‡
An image (more can be seen here) from the 1774 Japanese anatomy treatise.
The translation was the first in a long line of texts that the Japanese would eventually use to quietly capture the technology of the West.§
Genpaku was at the forefront of Dutch Learning, and his second masterwork, Rangaku Kotohajime (“Beginnings of Dutch Learning”), published in 1815, provides a thorough description of the events which led to these advances in science and medicine in Japan.
It would be 80 years before the United States Navy forced its way into Japanese harbors and used gunship diplomacy to end Japan’s seclusion. During that time, the Japanese reproduced everything from telescopes to automata to steam engines using borrowed texts and dissection of imported goods. Dutch Learning kept Japan abreast scientific advancements even while it maintained its isolation.
The enduring legacy of Dutch Learning was the late-19th century Meiji Restoration, wherein a Japan now officially opened swiftly modernized efficiently enough to trounce Russia in the Russo-Japanese War at the end of the century.
Today, many of the Dutch words imported to describe new objects, anatomical and otherwise, remain in the Japanese language as a testament to Dutch Learning. Sugita Genpaku is also the namesake of a modern-day attempt to translate texts to Japanese. And Toyo Yamawaki, through his help with dissections of the era, prompted an interesting ritual of memorializing cadaver donors in medical schools. For physical specimens, a museum with sections devoted to Dutch Learning can also be visited at Nakatsu.
* The Dutch were allowed to stay because they weren’t Catholic. The Shogun also enacted laws forbidding missionaries and Christian prosteletyzing, as well as officially outlawing the practice of Christianity; however, an underground group of Christians remained in the country.
** Initially, all foreign texts were outlawed. However, beginning with Shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune, Dutch texts were allowed into the country, generating a new wave of books that were, for several decades, largely illegible to their owners. To go with the anti-Christian theme, however, the Japanese authorities continued to blot out all Christian references.
‡ Kanbun is a mapping of Chinese ideograms and writing style into Japanese-comprehensible language using classic symbolic meanings (a standardized shape to represent a tree) and sound equivalents (using the same standard shape to represent the the sound of the word “tree” rather than its meaning), as well as sentence structure and purpose markings. Using this style, direct Chinese-to-Japense translation is possible, but the onus is on the author to properly annotate the text.
§ Strangely, there is as yet no Dutch-Japanese dictionary in print.
On this date in 1850, a 57-year-old Harvard professor expiated upon a gallows at Boston’s Leverett Square the murder of one of the university’s donors.
The buzz of Boston in 1849-50, the Parkman-Webster murder case began with the disappearance of one of the crimson’s great benefactors, George Parkman, a Boston Brahmin known for his Ministry of Silly Walks gait about town (see right). According to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (who appeared as a witness at the trial of Parkman’s accused murderer), “he abstained while others indulged, he walked while others rode, he worked while others slept.”
Also, he inherited a ridiculous sum of money, and was tight with the debtors to whom he lent it.
Back before collection agencies, Parkman disappeared in November 1849 while making the rounds to shake down his borrowers. Within days, suspicion settled on Harvard anatomy and geology professor John Webster, who had squandered his own pile of money buying rock collections and maintaining appearances and such, and sank into desperate hock to the jutting-chinned ambulator who had helped him land the Ivy League appointment in the first place.
A weighty circumstantial case soon formed against Webster, with the invaluable aid of a snoopy janitor who turned up human remains in the office and testified to incriminating-sounding conversations.
Elites-on-elite crime epidemics always churn the scandal mills. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s wife Fanny wrote a friend,
You will see by the papers what dark horror overshadows us like an eclipse. Of course we cannot believe Dr. Webster guilty, bad as the evidence looks. … Many suspect the janitor, who is known to be a bad man and to have wished for the reward offered for Dr. Parkman’s body. … I trust our minds will be soon relieved, but, meanwhile, they are soiled by new details continually.
Boston high society was about to see a whole different side of Harvard.
Although perhaps individually explicable — anatomists had plausible reasons to have human remains at work, and other anatomists than Webster could have had access to his office — the cumulative weight of Webster’s ham-handed attempts to declare that he had paid up his debts to Parkman just before the latter’s mysterious disappearance, of the discovery of what (disputed) dental forensics declared to be Parkman’s dentures, of the ghastly appearance of a torso (disputedly) declared to be Parkman’s stuffed in a tea chest at Webster’s offices started to really make the man look guilty.
In view of a mediocre defense, the jury convicted Webster of whacking his own professional benefactor, in the university building erected on said benefactor’s donated plot of land.
While the prof’s seeming post-conviction acceptance of guilt — in a plain strategem to secure clemency — and generally shifty demeanor have cemented him as the definitive perpetrator in the standard historical reading,* Fanny’s snobbish take on the “bad man,” janitor (and moonlight body-snatcher) Ephraim Littlefield, has not been entirely lost to the tradition.
At the end of the day, everything about the case is circumstantial — indeed, besides being historically noteworthy for the first use of dental forensic evidence in a murder trial (forensics we might find rather speculative and unconvincing today), Webster’s case generated a landmark ruling from the judge’s jury instruction establishing “reasonable doubt” as the threshold for criminal conviction rather than the “absolute certainty” Webster’s prosecutors had no hope of attaining; that ruling influences American jurisprudence down to the present day.
And one cannot but notice how many of the circumstances — creepily playing Sherlock Holmes with a freelance dig into the professor’s furnace to discover charred bones, for instance — were provided by the fellow-suspect-turned-star-witness Littlefield, who niftily reaped the $3,000 reward for his offices in substituting Webster for himself under the pall of suspicion.
According to peripatetic crime blogger Laura James, a forthcoming (2009) book promises to revisit the sensational trial, “to examine all the intricacies for ourselves — not aided by the eager voice of the janitor.”