1776: Benjamin Harley and Thomas Henman, Smugglerius?

2 comments May 27th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1776, smugglers Benjamin Harley and Thomas Henman were hanged at Tyburn for murdering a customs-house officer who had intercepted them trafficking tea on the Deptford turnpike.

One of these two gentleman might well be the flesh-and-bones person behind the ghoulish ecorche sculpture known as “Smugglerius”.

This beautifully ghastly item was commissioned of sculptor Agostino Carlini by the anatomist William Hunter: it is the cast of a hanged man, meticulously flayed of his skin to reveal the musculature for the convenience of future students’ sketches. Those students gave their subject the jocular nickname, since in life it was thought to be a smuggler.

For good measure, Carlini posed the corpse in the manner of the Hellenistic marble Dying Gaul.


Dying Gaul (known in the 18th century as Dying Gladiator), one of the world’s best-known classical sculptures. (cc) image from Tom Magliery.

Of the “Dying Gladiator”, Byron wrote:

He recked not of the life he lost, nor prize,
But where his rude hut by the Danube lay,
There were his young barbarians all at play,
There was their Dacian mother, — he their sire,
Butchered to make a Roman holiday; —
All this rushed with his blood; — Shall he expire,
And unavenged? — Arise! ye Goths, and glut your ire!


A copy of Agostino Carlini‘s bronze cast of “Smugglerius”, displayed in Edinburgh. (cc) image from Chris Hill.

So that is Smugglerius, an astonishing artifact. For decades, it (actually a copy of Carlini’s original, which is long lost) has been parked at the Edinburgh College of Art, translating thence into countless students’ anatomical sketch pads.


William Linnell‘s 1840 drawing of Smugglerius.

To trace the ecorche‘s origin, we have, to start with, this letter from John Deare … not the tractor guy, but a noteworthy Liverpool sculptor. At time of writing in 1776, he was a 15-year-old matriculating art student:

One of the men bid me tell you, that Mr. Carter would give me half-a-guinea, at least, a week, for the first part of my time, and fifteen shillings for the latter part; but you will write to him, and ask him what he proposes: he is, just as they say, a blustering fellow, but a good man. I have seen two men hanged, and one with his breast cut open at Surgeons’ Hall. The other being a fine subject, they took him to the Royal Academy, and covered him with plaster of Paris, after they had put him in the position of the Dying Gladiator. In this Hall there are some casts from Nature that are cut from the middle of the forehead down to the lower part of the body, one part excoriated, and the other whole.

With the direct reference to the Dying Gladiator/Dying Gaul pose, we seem very clearly to have a bead on the creation of Smugglerius, and the letter suggests that it was one man taken from a pair of hanging subjects. Conveniently (or inconveniently) there were just two such pairs of executions at Tyburn in the spring of 1776: those of Benjamin Harley and Thomas Henman on May 27; and, those of Samuel Whitlow and James Langar on April 12.

Now, artist Joan Smith and anthropologist Jeanne Cannizzo have recently, and very publicly, argued that Smugglerius is not Harley or Henman, but James Langar — a man from the earlier hanging pair. This claim even teased an exhibition carrying the perhaps unfortunate title Smugglerius Unveiled.

The case for Langar basically has two components:

  1. Deare dated his letter about the “Dying Gladiator” on May 1, so the executions must precede that date — which means that it’s one of Langar or Whitlow.
  2. It’s more likely that Langar, a soldier, would have had the outstanding physique to attract Hunter’s interest. (Whitlow was a domestic servant who robbed his master in an unrelated crime.)

Headlines aside, this sleuthing obviously falls well shot of airtightness.

Historian Tim Hitchcock, incidentally a moving spirit behind the creation of the invaluable Old Bailey Online database, doesn’t find James Langar a persuasive candidate. In private communication with this site (4 April 2012), he remained “still very much of the opinion that [Smugglerius] is either Thomas Henman or Benjamin Harley … I am even more convinced now than before.” Here’s the case for one of the Harley/Henman pair:

  1. Harley and Henman were smugglers. You know … like Smugglerius?
  2. Trial records indicate death-sentenced prisoners also condemned to anatomization, and they do not say that about Whitlow and Langar, who were merely thieves
  3. Harley and Henman, by contrast, had killed; they were therefore subject to the Murder Act, and accordingly sentenced “to be afterwards dissected and anatomized; which sentence was executed upon them”*

All things equal outside of the date on Deare’s letter, Harley and Henman look much the likelier source of Smugglerius. (If so, we seem to lack any good reason to prefer Harley as the Smugglerius model as against Henman, or vice versa. Flip a coin.)

The historiography for Langar depends inordinately upon the present-day interlocutor’s confidence in the “1 May” date a Georgian-era teenager slapped onto a bit of personal correspondence with, one can be sure, nothing resembling academic gravity. May 1 could be mistaken outright (maybe it was June 1, and he wrote “May” out of the previous 31 days’ habit); or, it could be only a reference to when Deare began a letter that he might have composed over several weeks; or, it could be that the author had some trivial reason of personal expediency to backdate.

Maybe so, maybe not. But who would have thought anyone would be interested in Harley or Henman (or Langar) going on two and a half centuries after their deaths.

Executed Today had occasion to discuss this fascinating object d’art and its discomfiting origin with one of Hitchcock’s collaborators, IUPUI Professor of British History Jason M. Kelly.

ET: What’s the background? Why is Smugglerius being produced at all in 1770s Britain?

JK: Well, 1768 marked the establishment of the Royal Academy of Arts. It took over 20 years to create.

The idea was to give Britain a school of art — of painting, sculpture, and architecture — to rival its continental peers. The French had established art academies in the previous century; they were among the premier art schools in Europe, if not the premier schools.

The British didn’t have anything comparable. And, in an age of rivalries, both political and cultural, artists and patrons alike saw the Royal Academy as central to British national identity.

The Academy hired William Hunter to be the professor of anatomy. He was an anatomist — a doctor — by training, not an artist, so he was very interested in teaching things like musculature, skeletal structure, and the circulatory system.

Smugglerius was not William Hunter’s only ecorche. He had made at least one other as a teaching aid, and he was proud to associate himself with it. He even poses for a portrait with a miniature version of it.


Miniature portrait of William Hunter holding a miniature bronze from Michael Henry Spang‘s reduction of an earlier ecorched figure. (The full-sized figure can be seen in the background of this sketch.)

What actually goes into producing an ecorche?

They had to get the body from the gallows to the art academy. Then they flayed it. In this case, somebody decided to pose the corpse as the Dying Gladiator.

They had some time prior to rigor mortis to get everything situated. in this case, they flayed him, posed him, then let him dry out, possibly overnight, so that they could make a mold of his body.

Beyond its immediate use as a teaching device, it’s also an art object for appreciation in its own right. How do you read that phenomenon?

This is very much a representation of the power of the state, the unrestrained power.

The execution itself is a display of power, but the government went further when in 1752 it passed the Murder Act allowing the College of Surgeons to get six bodies a year to dissect.

Ordinary people had no desire to have their remains used in this way. In the example of Smugglerius, the criminal was executed. Then, the body was desecrated — transformed into an art object for elite connoisseurs.

The sculpture was meant to represent ideal beauty as well as the terrifying strength of the state. The very people who were meant to appreciate the model of the Dying Gaul were the same people holding the reigns of power. In a sense, this image reinforced the elites’ view of the world, both aesthetically and politically.

Why pose the figure in this way, as the Dying Gaul or Dying Gladiator?

There’s one reading of Smugglerius to the effect that it was very subversive because the Dying Gladiator was seen as emblematic of the decline of Rome: the sculpture represented Rome’s decadence and corruption.

an inveterate abuse, which degraded a civilised nation below the condition of savage cannibals. Several hundred, perhaps several thousand, victims were annually slaughtered in the great cities of the empire; and the month of December, more peculiarly devoted to the combats of gladiators, still [in the early 5th century] exhibited to the eyes of the Roman people a grateful spectacle of blood and cruelty … which had so long resisted the voice of humanity and religion.

-Edward Gibbon in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

So, you could speculate that this pose slyly represented contemporary executions under the Bloody Code in the same critical way.

The Gladiator was also one of the best-known and -admired classical sculptures in all of Europe, along with the Laocoön.

In the 18th century they were compared as two examples of dignified dying. Contemporaries saw a certain stoicism in the sculptures — even though Virgil wrote that Laocoön cried out.

Ultimately, Smugglerius reminds us what happens when power is unrestrained. In a world where most people don’t have a voice, the state can ignore the rights and dignity of individuals. The real story here is the story of arbitrary authority and the importance of an enfranchised citizenry with the ability to put limits on those wielding power.

* Hanged felons not sentenced to anatomization could still wind up being taken apart in an operating theater, either as a result of their striking a direct bargain with the surgeons, or involuntarily via London’s growing trade in illicit corpses.

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1632: Aris Kindt, Rembrandt subject

10 comments January 31st, 2012 Headsman

We can trace to this date the event commemorated in young Rembrandt van Rijn‘s striking The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp … resolving to the public hanging the same day* of the Lesson‘s ashen exhibit, a robber by the name of Aris Kindt.


The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp.

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.

-Dutch intellectual Casper Barlaeus in 1639 (quoted here)

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.)

** The 17th century Dutch left a number of similar “anatomy lesson” works. That same Amsterdam guild commissioned a new one every few years as part of its keeping up appearances; the last had been a 1619 portrait from Nicolaes Eliaszoon Pickenoy, The Osteology Lesson of Dr Sebastiaen Egbertsz.

† Speaking of Leiden: see this pdf thesis for a very detailed excursion into the anatomizing scene as practiced in that city.

‡ Needless to say, we can hardly presume that this painting is strictly representational. Still, this is Kindt for us, even if Kindt looked nothing like the fellow being taken apart.

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1599: Beatrice Cenci and her family, for parricide

13 comments September 11th, 2008 Headsman

On the morning this day in 1599, the Cenci family — mother Lucrezia, son Giacomo, and immortal tragic heartthrob Beatrice — were put to death at Sant’Angelo Bridge for murdering the clan’s tyrannous father.

Francesco Cenci, the victim, was more accustomed to making victims of his own: detested around the Eternal City, he indulged his violent temper and fleshy lusts with the impunity of a wealthy cardinal’s son. By all accounts, he enjoyed pushing around his family, too.

This much is stipulated. What lies beyond is legend.

But the legend is why we’re dallying with Beatrice today, so we might as well begin there: in fear that her father would rape her, it goes, Beatrice tried to turn to the authorities, who let mean old dad walk on account of his connections. Desperate to protect herself from incest, Beatrice and family arrange to batter his gulliver and toss him over a balcony to make it look like suicide.

Slight problem: it didn’t look very much like suicide.

So the family was hauled in and tortured, and eventually Lucrezia and Beatrice (both beheaded) and Giacomo (quartered after suffering the mazzolatura of an incapacitating hammer blow to the head followed by gory lethal knifework by the executioner) all paid the price while the youngest child watched, spared death but condemned to life in the galleys.

(The papacy gobbled up the patricides’ estate, which puts a fine point on the ironically-named Pope Clement VIII‘s law-and-order stance on the appeal for mercy, and his subsequent edicts to quash public comment on the affair.)

Then Beatrice’s body — the part below the neck — contrived to disrobe when fumbled by the brethren taking it away for burial.

You’ve got to admit it’s pretty romantic. Some versions even hold that the responsible executioners died violently themselves within a month, or that a ghostly Beatrice returns to the scene of her demise on this anniversary.

And not a word of Italian fluency will be necessary to catch the gist of this excerpt from this 1969 Lucio Fulci film:

It’s a little too Romantic, as in capital-R.

While the case was a true sensation Rome at the turn of the 17th century, the legend as we know it was heavily constructed in the 19th century … and specifically Percy Bysshe Shelley, who heard the story in Italy* where it had persevered as local folklore. A girl who killed her despot-father, executed by the despotic agents of the Divine Father? You don’t get into the canon without knowing what to do with that kind of material.

And he had this charming painting of her to boot:

Shelley amped up the menaced-virginal-purity theme, made the bloodshed a lot more demure, and turned it into a long poem, “The Cenci” (available on Google Books, and on Bartleby.com) which in Melville’s description proceeds from putting its protagonist between the “two most horrible crimes possible to civilized humanity — incest and parricide.”

This doesn’t all actually turn out to be well supported: at a minimum, Shelley inflated an incest allegation of doubtful lineage into accomplished fact. Beatrice’s camp did not raise this claim until just before her execution, when it needed a high card for clemency. The loutish victim eventually got his own biographer, who strongly disputed the incest charges. (Francesco also sports his own Italian Wikipedia page.)

From Shelley’s influential quill** into the DNA of western literature: Stendahl tapped the vein, as did Artaud, and risorgimento figure Francesco Domenico Guerrazzi; both Melville and Hawthorne used that painting so captivating to Shelley as plot devices (Dickens loved the painting, too). American sculptor Harriet Hosmer worked Cenci’s complex sensuality in marble.

Remarkable how the tradition in its modern incarnation proceeds root and branch from Shelley’s apprehension of a single painting, and how his reading stamped itself upon the canvas for later observers — like Hawthorne, writing in his journal:

It is the very saddest picture that ever was painted, or conceived; there is an unfathomable depth and sorrow in the eyes; the sense of it comes to you by a sort of intuition. … It is the most profoundly wrought picture in the world; no artist did it, or could do it again. Guido may have held the brush, but he painted better than he knew. I wish, however, it were possible for some spectator, of deep sensibility, to see the picture without knowing anything of the subject or history; for no doubt we bring all our knowledge of the Cenci tragedy to the interpretation of the picture.

He wrote better than he knew: the painting is no longer attributed to Guido Reni, and it’s doubtful whether it’s a portrait of Beatrice at all. One wonders if it would retain its place in Hawthorne’s estimation as a local washer-woman modeling for an allegory.

* Apparently you can still crash at the same place Shelley first got hep to Cenci.

** Kick back with some polysyllabic literary analysis of Shelley’s Cenci stuff.

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