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.
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:
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.
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:
Harley and Henman were smugglers. You know … like Smugglerius?
Trial records indicate death-sentenced prisoners also condemned to anatomization, and they do not say that about Whitlow and Langar, who were merely thieves
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.
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.