1752: Thomas Wilford, the first hanged under the Murder Act of 1751

Add comment July 2nd, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1752,* Thomas Wilford hanged at Tyburn — the first person executed under the Murder Act of 1751.

Approved the previous year but just come into effect on the first of June of 1752, the Murder Act proposed “that some further terror and peculiar mark of infamy be added to the punishment of death” for homicides.**

Since even shoplifting could get you hanged at this period, actually killing someone required an extra twist on the punishment. Parliament killed two birds with one stone here by also addressing the country’s need for anatomical corpses, requiring that the bodies of hanged murderers be delivered “to the hall of the Surgeons Company” where it “shall be dissected and anatomized by the said Surgeons.”†

Wilford presented the surgeons a one-armed specimen with questionable impulse control. As a teenager, he met a prostitute named Sarah Williams in their shared workhouse, and married her, but the honeymoon did not last long. Four days later, his bride stayed out late and to his queries admitted having gone “to the Park” — whereupon Wilford grabbed a knife and slashed her neck so deep as to nearly decapitate her.

“He had no sooner committed the horrid deed than he threw down the knife, opened the chamber door, and was going downstairs when a woman, who lodged in an adjacent room, asked who was there; to which Wilford replied: ‘It is me. I have murdered my poor wife, whom I loved as dearly as my own life,'” quoth the Newgate calendar.

A simple and pathetic crime with an easy disposition for the judiciary. The Newgate Ordinary’s account has a few more details. As specified, his remains were indeed turned over for anatomization.

Another provision of the Murder Act: a death sentence for murder is to “be executed according to law, on the day next but one after sentence passed, unless the same shall happen to be the Lord’s day, commonly called Sunday.” Wilford was condemned on a Tuesday and hanged on Thursday morning; however, the predominant practice moving forward would be to issue such sentences on Fridays in order to give the doomed an extra day to prepare themselves.‡

* Thursday, July 2 was the Julian calendar date of Wilford’s hanging. Our norm has been to prefer the local date (Gregorian or Julian, depending on the country) prior to England’s changeover in 1752 — and then generally to prefer the Gregorian date thereafter. (We’ve made a few exceptions.)

England spent the first eight months of 1752 on the Julian calendar, then transitioned to the Gregorian calendar in September of that year, so in this particular instance we’re hewing it close to the bone.

I infer that the calendar switch is probably also the reason why the Newgate Calendar incorrectly attributes Wilford’s hanging to June 22: the discrepancy between the Julian and Gregorian calendars at this point was 11 days, so a later interlocutor might have supposed that July 2 was a Gregorian date that wanted subtraction. It was a confusing, 355-day leap year for Old Blighty, complete with a new New Year’s Day, so if that’s the explanation I’m inclined to give the author a mulligan for making an unnecessary date adjustment and then miscounting the number of days to adjust.

** The Act’s preamble claims that the “horrid crime of murder has of late been more frequently perpetrated than formerly, and particularly in and near the metropolis of this kingdom, contrary to the known humanity and natural genius of the British nation.” We lack dependable crime statistics for this period to verify this sense of parliamentarians.

† The Murder Act also empowered judges, at their discretion, to order a criminal hung in chains, like these blokes.

‡ The eleven other people — non-murderers — condemned at the same assize were not executed until July 13.

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1829: William Burke, eponymous body-snatcher

4 comments January 28th, 2011 dogboy

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.

In 1821, Knox moved to France to work in the shadow of his heroes, Georges Cuvier and Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire; a year later, he was back in Edinburgh, making himself a career academic.

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.

Lecture complete, the good doctor opened the doors to all comers to gaze upon the body, and tens of thousands of Scots obliged. Burke’s skeleton remains on exhibit at University of Edinburgh medical college, and, as was the style at the time, his skin was used to make a pocket book now on display at the Surgeons’ School there.


Hello there. William Burke’s skeleton, on display in Edinburgh. (cc) image from ejbaurdo

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.

As detailed by George Mac Gregor in The history of Burke and Hare and of the resurrectionist times: a fragment from the criminal annals of Scotland, the first known case of anatomy murder occurred in 1752, also in Edinburgh.

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.

Human Trafficking

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.

This was particularly true in Edinburgh, which boasted an internationally known medical college.

Burke and Hare? Just call them entrepreneurs.

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.

We like the poetic explanation of this 19th century popular crime reader:

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.

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1803: George Foster, and thence to the reanimator

9 comments January 18th, 2009 dogboy

It’s not too often that a typical convicted murderer becomes a source for not just law, but also literature and science. George Foster (sometimes spelled George Forster despite few, if any, contemporaneous spellings as such) managed just that on this date in 1803, and his legacy lives on to this day.

Foster’s case was, in the annals of capital punishment, unremarkable.

He was accused in the drowning of his wife and youngest child in the Paddington Canal, one of the many canals being improved at the time to connect various parts of England by water. Foster was found guilty based on circumstantial evidence and sentenced to hang at Newgate Prison on 18 Jan 1803.

Shortly after 8 a.m., Foster was executed; minutes later, he was a science experiment.

Professor Giovanni Aldini was the nephew of biological electricity guru Luigi Galvani, and he wanted to electrify a body. Galvani had shown that frog legs responded to electricity, twitching when current was passed through the muscle, and he was in academic competition with his associate and sometime dissident Alessandro Volta over why this occurred. Galvani claimed that an electrical fluid flowed through the corpse, activating the muscles; Volta said that the cells passed electrical signals between one another. It was this latter assertion that led to the development of Volt’s first battery, a voltaic pile.* Aldini was convinced that his uncle was right about electrical fluid, but he was keen on Volta’s ideas for creating portable electricity.

His stated reason for delving into what was known as galvanic reanimation was to aid the recently drowned, who, he said, might be resuscitated. Galvani leaned on some earlier experience with beheaded victims in Bologna, as well as animal experiments, to convince British government agents of the viability of the plan. As one witness to those events stated:

A very ample series of experiments were made by Professor Aldini which show the eminent and superior power of galvanism beyond any other stimulant in nature. In the months of January and February last, he had the courage to apply it at Bologna to the bodies of various criminals who had suffered death at that place, and by means of the pile he excited the remaining vital forces in a most astonishing manner. This stimulus produced the most horrible contortions and grimaces by the motions of the muscles of the head and face; and an hour and a quarter after death, the arm of one of the bodies was elevated eight inches from the table on which it was supported, and this even when a considerable weight was placed in the hand.

Which is not to say it was really difficult to get permission.

Aldini’s experiments were a very public roadshow demonstration of Galvani’s ideas. London’s Royal College of Surgeons was, at that time, fascinated with the boundaries of life and death, and Aldini was more than happy to offer his services. As well, the 1751 (or 1752) Murder Act would not allow hanged criminals to be buried, and their corpses were often used for scientific discovery. Foster’s body, which had hung for an hour in slightly sub-zero temperatures, was the first complete corpse Aldini acted upon, but he wasn’t the first to get a chance.**

The Newgate Calendar summarizes the events:

On the first application of the process to the face, the jaws of the deceased criminal began to quiver, and the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and one eye was actually opened. In the subsequent part of the process the right hand was raised and clenched, and the legs and thighs were set in motion. Mr Pass, the beadle of the Surgeons’ Company, who was officially present during this experiment, was so alarmed that he died of fright soon after his return home.


An illustration of Aldini’s experiments with executed corpses. His notes of George Foster record that “the jaw began to quiver, the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and the left eye actually opened … The action even of those muscles furthest distant from the points of contact with the arc was so much increased as almost to give an appearance of re-animation … vitality might, perhaps, have been restored, if many circumstances had not rendered it impossible.” (cited in Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters)

Aldini’s act was yet another public showcase of strange new technologies, this time sparking the imaginations of the Brits. Within a generation, Scottish experimenters were performing similar feats, and the College of Surgeons had, after further attempts similar to Aldini’s, revived the heart of another convicted murderer, John Bellingham. It was the first recorded heart shock revival in modern medical history.† (Even today’s scientists turn to electricity to instantiate life’s precursors in trying to solve the riddle of abiogenesis.)

But even more than that was the effect these results had on popular culture, where Mary Shelley, well aware of Aldini’s work (as well as that of Erasmus Darwin, a proponent of evolution well before the concept of “natural selection” was framed by his more famous grandson), used the idea of reanimation — such as was attempted on her husband’s first wife after she drowned — to inspire her signature characters, Victor Frankenstein and his “monster.”

As a cultural icon, Frankenstein did exceedingly well. Considered a true Gothic novel, the story was remade for stage as early as 1887, turned into a variety of films which were subsequently parodied (c.f. The Rocky Horror Picture Show, “Treehouse of Horror II”, The Re-Animator, etc.), retold on radio, brought up in song, and re-written in novels.

Galvanization was never mentioned directly in that book, but the studies at the College of Surgeons were clearly an inspiration. And galvanization transcended that book, striking a chord in the public imagination. It continued to pop up in publication for decades after the Aldini/Foster event, for instance in the 1836 illustration “A Galvanized Corpse”, in which the editor of the Washington Globe, Francis Preston Blair, is shown being “galvanized” by two demons, who represent the interests of Andrew Jackson.

* The Voltaic pile was originally used to disprove Galvani’s fluids theory. However, the two were largely non-adversarial, so Volta actively advanced Galvani’s name through the word “galvanism” and, by the time of Foster’s death, “galvanize.” The term “galvanized” metal refers to a conductive element coated with something non-conductive and dates from the late 1830s. Volta, of course, is the recognizable source of the the electrical potential unit of the “Volt.”

** Indeed, the College of Surgeons was receiving all hanging victims from London since 1752, and most were put through rigorous postmortems. Such scientific experimentation is also often blamed for the revival of Patrick Redmond in 1767, who received a windpipe incision following his hanging in Cork, Ireland; Redmond, however, was documented as hanging for just nine minutes, only slightly longer than the average person takes to die if deprived of oxygen.

† Those interested in the history of cardiology in general should take a look at Louis J. Acierno’s The History of Cardiology; those interested in the use of human remains in medical science should seek out Human Remains: Dissection and Its Histories by Helen MacDonald.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Language,Murder,Notable Participants,Popular Culture,Public Executions

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