Four years ago today, Chinese lawyer Han Bing revealed a shocking execution further to China’s shadowy trade in harvested organs, with a post on the microblogging service Weibo.
The Epoch Times translates this post — which was widely shared, but deleted within days — thus:
This morning witnessed a horrifying practice of execution. The Supreme Court this week contacted the Provincial High Court to re-examine a determined death penalty case. However, the Intermediate People’s Court had the prisoner promptly executed without notifying the relatives for a last farewell visit. The reason for the prompt execution was that the death penalty prisoner had ‘willingly’ signed an organ donation release. To ensure the quality of the organs, the execution was carried out at the hospital. These judges and doctors without conscience turn a hospital into a place of execution and a market for organ trading!
If there has been any subsequent public explication of the details about this event — the identity of the prisoner, the particulars of the transplant — I have not been able to locate it.
From the very first volume of the Transactions of the American Ophthalmological Society, spanning 1864 to 1871. The society, and the journal, are still going strong.
The ellipses omit three other hangings investigated by Dr. Dyer.
FRACTURE OF THE CRYSTALLINE LENS IN PERSONS EXECUTED BY HANGING.
By E. Dyer, M.D., of Philadelphia, Pa.
Three years ago I presented to the Society the result of the examination of the eyes of a man who was hanged, also some experiments on the effects of hanging on the crystalline lens of the dog. In the case of the man the anterior capsule and the lens of the right eye were fractured. The direction of the fracture was horizontal and a line below the centre, extending as far back as the middle of the lens. In the left eye the anterior capsule only as involved. In one dog the same conditions were found, in another only one lens was fractured, and in a third no lesion was detected.
Since then I have experimented on rabbits. Two were hanged and four were strangulated. The trachea in two of the latter were laid bare and tied, but no fracture was detected in any case. Drs. S.W. Mitchell and W.W. Keen, who assisted me at the experiments on the dogs, were present.
The following are the notes of several executions at which I have been present since my report of the case already mentioned. I have been able to examine the eyes of the criminals both before and after death.
Gottlieb Williams, aet. 34, was executed in Philadelphia, June 4, 1867. Drop four and one-half feet; the knot slipped so as to be under the occiput; suspended thirty minutes; convulsive movements lasted five minutes; neck not dislocated.
Examination at 11.54 A.M., five minutes after the body was cut down. Appearance of eyes natural; no protrustion; no injection of conjunctival vessels, corneae clear.
Right eye, pupil well dilated; media clear. Small point seen on the anterior capsule of the lens in the median line, just above the margin of the pupil. At 12, M., spot more distinct; at 12.26 P.M., spot still present, somewhat elongated. Optic nerve normal; retinal vessels small.
Left eye, pupil smaller than the right; cornea clear; lens in normal condition; optic nerve normal; arteries small. I was not allowed to remove the eyes.
Drs. H. Yale Smith, physician to the prison, W.W. Keen and J. Ewing Mears assisted me in the examination.
This unpleasant series of investigations has been pursued ith the hope of throwing some light on the vexed question of the mechanism of the accommodation, but as yet without any satisfactory result.
Helen Torrance and Jean Waldie were executed this day, for stealing a child, eight or nine years of age, and selling its body to the surgeons for dissection. Alive on Tuesday, when carried off, and dead on Friday, with an incision in the belly, but sewn up again.
This date in 1752 marks a milestone in the mutation of the Enlightenment’s piercing medical gaze into the beginnings of a macabre and sordid niche industry that kept doctors well-supplied with cadavers into which to gaze.
The March 18 hanging in Edinburgh of Helen Torrence and Jean Waldie appears to be the first known execution for an anatomy murder.
In the bad old days when dissection subjects were so hard to come by that medical students were known to snatch fresh bodies from the grave like Dr. Frankenstein, the Scots Magazinereported that the two women “frequently promised two or three surgeon-apprentices to procure them a subject” in exchange for a small fee. That fee really was quite small: two shillings, and a few extra pence they haggled for, not at all a favorable rate to sell one’s soul and maybe little more than enough to cover their costs.
Torrence and Waldie were supposed to obtain the subject while sitting on a ceremonial death watch with a dead child, but having no such deceased moppet to hand and really needing a couple of shillings, the ladies went the far more perilous route of snatching a real live eight-year-old while his parents were away. They plied little John Dallas with ale and suffocated his breath away, and Torrence even schlepped the cadaver to the apprentice surgeons in her own apron for an added tip.
The prisoners’ hair-splitting defense, a masterpiece of legal black comedy, was that they could only be shown guilty of kidnapping a living child and then selling a dead child — and neither of these acts constituted a capital crime. Considering the deep-rooted public loathing of resurrectionists’ grave-raiding, the court readily made free to infer from the juxtaposition of these circumstances the hated women’s culpability for John Dallas’s demise.
* 1752 was the last year that England maintained the old Julian calendar, and with it, the recognition of New Year’s Day on Lady Day (March 25) rather than January 1, so the documents of the time make this execution March 18, 1751. The change to the Gregorian calendar took place that summer.
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.
June 15 is the feast date of the early Christian saint and martyr Vitus.
The 6th century roster Martyrologium Hieronymianum gives us “In Sicilia, Viti, Modesti et Crescentiae”. From this nub grew a legend of the young child of a Roman Senator who turned to Christianity and would not apostatize, fleeing finally to Lucania with his tutor Modestus and his nanny Crescentia and eventually exorcising a demon possessing the son of the Christian-hunting, Empire-quartering Roman sovereign Diocletian. They were all — boy, tutor, and nanny — tortured to death for their troubles; that occurred either by means of or (manifesting God’s customary disdain for the pagan persecutors) after surviving execution in a boiling pot, which has become Vitus’s most typical iconographical emblem. (For example, as seen on the coat of arms of the Austrian town Sankt Veit im Pongau.)
The Martyrdom of St. Vitus, anonymous c. 1450 painting
This story doesn’t have much historical merit, but shrines and chapels to Vitus date as far back as the 5th century so Vitus, whomever he was, had real importance to early Christians.
While many places are dedicated to St. Vitus in Germany, Hungary, and Croatia, the man has red-letter treatment in Serbia — owing to this also being the date in 1389 that the Serbs’ Tsar Lazar was martyred by the Turks at the Battle of Kosovo. As a result, the feast date Vidovdan is a major celebration in Serbia (and to some extent Bulgaria and Macedonia), where it is observed on June 28th — the Gregorian date presently corresponding to the Julian calendar’s June 15th.
The same Vitus who cheers Balkan nationalists trod a completely different path into medical textbooks.
For centuries, Europeans were known to break out in curious ecstatic mass dancing, even sometimes dancing themselves to death. Generally believed today to be psychosocial afflictions, these dancing manias became widely associated with St. Vitus (his patronage includes both dancers and epileptics), whose intercession would be sought to calm the capering souls.
Dancing manias stopped happening in the 17th century or so, but the link between Vitus and involuntary rollick gave the name St. Vitus’s Dance to the condition Syndenham’s chorea — which is characterized by uncontrolled dance-like movement.
** Speculatively, Sanct Vid might have been selected for Christian veneration in this area to facilitate replacement of the similarly-named Slavic god Svantovid. An active (albeit declining) pagan community persisted in Prague as late as the 12th century.
As with most Slavic deities, Svantovid’s exact characteristics and the extent of his veneration are very poorly documented; however, in 1168, the Wendish fortress of Arkona was conquered by the Danes and the forced Christianization of its inhabitants is commemorated in Laurits Tuxen‘s late 19th century image of Archbishop Absalon casting down Arkona’s idol of Svantovid. (It’s also commemorated by the name of the neo-pagan Russian metal band Arkona.)
The worst thing that happened to Clarence “Buck” Kelly on this date in 1928 was being hung for murder.
But the only thing anyone could talk about afterwards was how he was un-hung … for science.
Kelly and a friend, Lawrence Weeks (later joined by a third friend, 17-year-old Mike Papadaches), drunk on Prohibition moonshine, robbed a Vallejo Street hardware store of a handgun and set off on a San Francisco armed robbery spree. It lasted just a couple of days in October 1926, but the “terror bandits” left a half-dozen dead.
We’re more excited by what happened after he died.
The chief surgeon of San Quentin prison, Dr. Leo Stanley, would write that the “swaggering” Buck Kelly came unmanned at the scaffold: “vanity cannot climb San Quentin’s thirteen steps and survive.” The prisoner took his leave of this world shrieking “Good-by, mother!” from under the hood.
Dr. Stanley was of course present to certify Kelly’s death, but also as the local emissary of the medical gaze so long directed at the fresh clientele of the gallows — that “absolute eye that cadaverizes life,” as Foucault put it.
Once Dr. Stanley’s stethoscope fell silent 13 minutes after the trap fell, the cadaver of Clarence “Buck” Kelly was cut down by the prison’s inmate “scavenger crew” and laid out for autopsy.
It is here that the “terror bandit” gives way to the “gland scandal”.
When the late Kelly’s family received the body for burial, post-autopsy, they discovered that the corpse had been relieved of “certain organs essential to a rejuvenation operation.” These “glands,” in the prevailing euphemism of the newsmen, had been removed by Stanley and installed into a charity patient at a nearby hospital.
He did this because ball transplant therapy was the little blue pill of the 1920s, and made some colorful medical charlatans some colorful mountains of cash.
Indeed, fresh testes were promoted not only for virility, as one might suppose, but as an all-purpose spring of rejuvenation good for a diverse array of afflictions large and small. According to Thomas Schlich, gland therapy had been credited with addressing
chronic skin problems, impaired vision, neurasthenia, epilepsy, dementia praecox, senile dementia, alcoholism, enlarged prostate, malignant tumors, rheumatism, loose teeth, various kinds of paralysis, “moral perversion of old age,” and arteriosclerosis.
(Testicular transplant was also tried out as a treatment for homosexuality.)
The leading exponent of such procedures was a Russian Jewish emigre, Serge Voronoff, who plied his trade in Paris. Having worked with eunuchs in Egypt around the turn of the century, Voronoff got to thinking big things about the little head.
Voronoff’s ball-transplant fad was so successful that demand from rich old dudes for fresh packages far outstripped what France’s guillotines could ever hope to provide. (This is a longstandingtheme in the history of condemned prisoners’ medical exploitation.)
So Voronoff emigrated again, to the animal kingdom.
Image from Voronoff colleauge Louis Dartigues’s book Technique chirurgicale des greffes testiculaires … methode de Voronoff.
Voronoff became the guy who would help you sack up with monkey power,* writing: “I dare assert that the monkey is superior to man by the sturdiness of its body, the quality of its organs, and the absence of those defects, hereditary and acquired, with which the main part of mankind is afflicted.” All one had to do to get a piece of that simian sturdiness was graft on a little piece of their sex organs.** “Monkey glands” were even an early entrant (pdf) in performance enhancing medicine for the burgeoning sports world.
Voronoff had plenty of detractors, but before monkey glands were decisively discredited in the 1930s he also had plenty of imitators.
Our Dr. Leo Stanley was not as outre as some of the graft grifters afoot, but he too went in for the medicinal power of the testis.†
Immediately upon discovering Kelly’s anatomization, which was never properly authorized by either the family or the prisoner (Stanley said he had Kelly’s verbal okay), the terror bandit’s former defense attorney Milton U’Ren‡ made the situation into the aforementioned scandal. U’Ren demanded Stanley’s resignation and eventually filed a civil suit.
Los Angeles Times, May 16, 1928.
It would emerge in the course of the “scandal” that Dr. Stanley had since 1918 cut out the balls of about 30 hanged cutpurses to hang them in other men’s coin purses — “engrafting human testicles from recently executed prisoners to senile recipients.”
Being a doctor right at one of the nation’s more active death chambers gave him a steady supply of donors, although Stanley too had expanded to experimenting with testicular tissue from goats, boars, rams, and stags. If you were an animal whom European nobility was interested in placing on a heraldic crest, you were an animal whom Dr. Stanley was keen on emasculating.
His work in this sensitive area was not exactly a secret; Stanley himself published and spoke on the topic, and it had even hit the papers in a laudatory vein.
It was only the cavalier approach to consent in this instance that made it the “gland scandal”, and Stanley was able to weather the embarrassment job intact. He remained at San Quentin until 1951 and continued experimenting with testicular transplant; the procedure’s promise of restoring youthful virility to aging men appealed as strongly then as it does in our day, and he had no shortage of volunteers eager to freshen up their junk. Stanley, for his part, was ceasing to see his operations as “experimental” — just therapeutic. For years Stanley’s scalpel probed scrota, free and incarcerated alike, for the font of youth.
According to Ethan Blue’s “The Strange Career of Leo Stanley: Remaking Manhood and Medicine at San Quentin State Penitentiary, 1913-1951,”§ over 10,000 testicular implant operations took place at San Quentin by 1940.
** This period’s interest in transplantation and interspecies medicine is reflected in interwar literature. In Bulgakov’s 1925 novel Heart of a Dog, the titular pet undergoes this procedure in the opposite direction — receiving human testicles. The 1923 Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure of the Creeping Man” revolves around an elderly character who has been treated with a rejuvenating “serum” extracted from langurs, which reduces him to the bestial behaviors of its donor.
† Stanley also shared his era’s fascination with eugenics; as with the testicle thing, this was (pseudo-)science with a social reform agenda. Stanley urged prisoners whenever he got the chance to undergo (voluntary) sterilization — urged successfully, on some 600 occasions.
On this date in 1993, Joseph Paul Jernigan died by lethal injection in Texas. Yet he lives on still.
A career burglar, Jernigan was surprised mid-robbery in 1981 by 75-year-old Edward Hale: the thief promptly shot the homeowner dead, then finished his looting. His life as a free man would be over within days.
As a criminal you wouldn’t much notice Joseph Paul Jernigan — unless it was your house he was burgling, of course — and you wouldn’t exactly call his smash-and-grab act state-of-the-art. But little over a year after his death, Jernigan was making headlines for a groundbreaking scientific project.
Jernigan donated his body to science, joining an ancient tradition of condemned men and women whose bodies are “cadaverized” for whatever medical material is required of their own day and age.
But instead of serving as a med school’s pincushion, “science” in Jernigan’s case turned out to be — Jernigan had no idea of it while he lived — the Visible Human Project.
So, after his execution, Jernigan’s entire body was “sliced” from head to foot into 1,871 one-millimeter slides. (The “slicing” process ground away the body completely; it did not literally slice it like salami.)
Joseph Jernigan’s thorax, including the heart. (From here.)
The project is still online, and has never yet been replicated/surpassed with the the advancing technologies of the intervening decades. It’s a weirdly beautiful, unsettling, and ethically questionable artifact — a Smugglerius of the digital age — but it’s also inescapably awe-striking.
So here: take a tour down Joseph Jernigan at the, er, cutting edge of anatomization.
On this date in 1945, Japanese forces occupying Indonesia cut off Dr. Achmad Mochtar’s head for a medical experiment gone horribly awry.
Officially, Dr. Mochtar had been responsible for a supposed vaccine whose administration killed hundreds of Indonesian foced laborers.
Latter-day research, however, indicates that it was the Japanese military who administered the vaccine (Indonesian link), an experimental tetanus-cholera-typhoid-dysentery combination shot, getting a trial run before it was administered to Japan’s own soldiers. When this drug proved lethal to most of its recipients, Mochtar and his staff at the Eijkman Institute were arrested in 1944 and subjected to harrowing torture.
According to Jakarta-based British researcher Kevin Baird, Mochtar agreed to take the fall for the experiment in exchange for the release of his colleagues.
“We think of this sort of heroism as the reserve of military men and not learned intellectuals,” Baird told the Guardian. “Achmad Mochtar was not only a hero of Indonesia, but a hero of science and humanity.”
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.