Richard Dawson, Robin Williams & The Resurrectionists.

UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1754: Resurrectionists or Body Snatchers raiding cemetery to provide a cadaver for dissection. Illustration by 'Phiz' (Hablot Knight Browne) from Camden Pelham The Chronicles of Crime, London, 1887. (Image courtesy of wikicommons)
UNSPECIFIED – CIRCA 1754: Resurrectionists or Body Snatchers raiding cemetery to provide a cadaver for dissection. Illustration by ‘Phiz’ (Hablot Knight Browne) from Camden Pelham The Chronicles of Crime, London, 1887. (Image courtesy of wikicommons)

This week, the blog is a two parter that starts in London in the early 1700s and ends (next week) in the middle of a cold October night in a Newcastle Cemetery. Make sense of that!

In 1723, the riot act was read against ‘several people’ present at St Giles Churchyard ‘upon the reasons that they had to suspect some inhuman practicses with regard to dead bodies, which it seems were no sooner interr’d than dug up and sold to anatomists.’¹ Thirteen years later, in 1736, the grave-digger of another church, St Dunstan’s in Stepney, was subject to the wrath of a similar mob for being caught. selling bodies to a private surgeon.

A mob of sailors and chimney-sweeps rendevouz’d in Stepney Church-yard and When the poor Culprit was ty’d to the cart, they led the horses so slow, that he received some Hundreds of Lashes, the hangman being encouraged by the Mob (who gave him a good deal of money) not to favour the Delinquent, but to do his duty.

Peter Linebaugh, “The Tyburn Riot Against the Surgeons,” in Albion’s Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth-Century England (London, 1976), p.71.

These two instances, taken from Linebaugh’s seminal article on public disorder against anatomists, were indicative of the public anger aroused by the procedures for a body after death and especially after a hanging. Advancements in science had created a need for bodies that students of anatomy could dissect, however government statues at the time allowed only ten bodies per year to be used. This led to the now infamous practice of grave robbing and illicit payments for the bodies of executed people, by private surgeons – for the most famous example, see Burke and Hare. As ever, if there’s a gap in the market, someone will fill it.

The vehemence of the public against this practice can be seen as late as the 1830’s and 40’s, as shown in this correspondence from a Surgeon at the time.  Writing to the lancet, Surgeon P.H.Green, was reacting to the burning down of an Aberdeen operating theatre, saying “To me it seems that anatomy is on its last legs” no pun intended, sorry i’ll let him continue.

shackled by the prejudices and ignorance of the public, exposed on the slightest excitement to the blind fury of the mob, nothing but a bold and vigorous effort of the profession can save us from the difficulties and dangers with which we are beset.

Green, P.H. Letter in the Lancet 7 Jan. 1832. Print, cited in the dissertation of Vernoy, Lisa Beth, The Value of a Body: Anatomy Lessons in Nineteenth-Century British Literature and Visual Culture. p.35

As Lisa Vernoy has pointed out, Green here not only refers to physical threats that anatomists were frequently subjected to, but also the very real threat that without legislation surgeons were ‘essentially criminals’.

The use of bodies after death was a hugely contentious subject. Indeed it is also the study of a fascinating £1m Wellcome Trust funded project that is currently in full swing.

My period of study (1750-1880) opens with the Murder Act of 1751 which asserted that,

For better preventing the horrid crime of murder…some further terror and peculiar mark of infamy be added to the punishment…in no case whatsoever shall the body of any murderer be suffered to be buried.

Provisions of the Murder Act 1751

The intent of the act is clear. The very public presentation of the dead body will be a symbol to the masses of the ends of a criminal life and will simultaneously heap shame and ignominy on the body of the condemned. Certain provisions of the act show how aware the law makers were of how it would be received, with special measures put in place for any person convicted of attempting to rescue the condemned’s corpse from the surgeons. The punishment was seven years transportation.

The intention of the act was to induce fear and shame and it clearly worked on that front.

criminals began to fear dissection more than death itself.

The Guardian Science Blog Monday 7th November 2011, posted by Lindsey Fitzharris

Indeed, in his 1751 series ‘Four Stages of Cruelty’, William Hogarth makes it abundantly clear what a horrifying and humiliating prospect dissection was viewed as. The tale, told over four plates, is a moral lesson on the ends of cruelty, in which the central character Tom Nero goes from acts of animal cruelty on the streets of London to eventually suffer the hideous fate of his cruel behaviour – hanging and then dissection. His final ignominy is having a dog eat his discarded entrails (a neat touch by Hogarth as it is Nero’s initial cruelty to dogs that starts the series).

William Hogarth's The Reward of Cruelty. 4th plate in a series of 4, courtesy of
William Hogarth’s The Reward of Cruelty. Plate IV in the series The Four Stages of Cruelty 4, 1751

Behold the Villain’s dire disgrace!

Not Death Itself can end.

He finds no peaceful Burial Place

His breathless corpse, no friend.

The last person to suffer the igmony of dissection in Newcastle was Jane Jamieson, for the murder of her mother in 1829. Hung, according to reports, in front of upwards of 20,000 on the Town Moor, Jamieson’s lifeless body was left to hang for an hour before it was ‘conveyed to the Surgeon’s Hall for dissection, where lectures have since been given upon it’ (Newcastle Courant 14th March, 1829 p.2).

In a broadsheet ballad, entitled the Lamentation of Jane Jamieson, printed in Gateshead at the time of her execution, we see in the final stanza that the mark of shame was as feared in the North-East as anywhere else.

Oh pity my unhappy state,

And now take warning by my fate

My lifeless body must be torn,

By Sad dissection’s dreadful arm

The Lamentation of Jane Jamieson, who was executed at Newcastle, on Saturday, the 7th day of March, 1829, for the murder of her own mother.

Dissection was by no means the only weapon in the state’s arsenal of shame, gibbeting being a major one that infrequently blighted the North-East landscape (most notably in the case of William Jobling, of last weeks blog and posthumous Real ale fame). However, Jobling and gibbeting in themselves deserve far more than a passing mention, so I will hold off on it until another week.

The dreaded punishment of dissection finally came to an end with the anatomy act of 1832 and two years later, gibbeting or ‘hanging in chains’ was also removed from this land (Jobling being one of the last two men to suffer that fate). The Anatomy Act, passed after several previous failed bills, allowed unclaimed bodies in workhouses, prisons, and hospitals to be sold to medical schools for dissection – effectively ended the illicit trade in bodies. This is not to say that popular protest disappeared (see P.H.Green above), far from it, indeed anger remained as in many ways the act just cemented a fate of ignominy on the poorest in society, as is evidenced by the thoughts of Pamphleteer and journalist William Cobbett;

they tell us it was necessary for the purposes of science. Science? Why, who is science for? Not for poor people. Then if it be necessary for the purposes of science, let them have the bodies of the rich, for whose benefit science is cultivated.

William Cobbett cited in Crowther, J. G. (1965). Statesmen of Science. London: Cresset Press. p. 9.

With the end of dissection comes the burying of the executed’s bodies within prison grounds. I am fascinated by how seemingly unnoticed and unchallenged this change went, particularly given the furore over dissection and gibbeting and it is a discussion I will enter into next weeks blog, by way of a teaser, there will be uncovered empty coffins and midnight reburials!

As for me, I am heading home to Cornwall for a week – already booked my trip to Bodmin Jail and the working model of an execution pit (after years of rainy Cornish holidays where Bodmin was the last place we ever wanted to go as kids, it is ironic that I now am wanting to go there).

PS. It is interesting to note that, at the time of me writing this, there is a groundbreaking exhibition at The Centre For life in Newcastle, on the human body in all it’s revealed glory. Even more interesting, that the press have consistently created a furore around the founder of the exhibit (Gunther Von Hagen) or as the press know him ‘Dr Death’  – it appears the selling of bodies is still very much alive and kicking. On that awful pun, I’m off.

Body Worlds @ The Centre for Life, Newcastle.


I would like to thank Barry Redfern, who once again has been invaluable in my searches for information and has provided some great material for this and next weeks blog and hopefully the starting block for agood chapter on the punishment of the body in my dissertation.
1. Peter Linebaugh, “The Tyburn Riot Against the Surgeons,” in Albion’s Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth-Century England (London, 1976), p.71.

Distraction 1: Robin Williams

I don’t really want to add much to the reams that have been written about Robin Williams, other than to express what a great comedian he was. His 1986 Live at the Met gig is one of my favourite stand up comedy performances ever and it is a tragedy that he couldn’t bring himself the sort of joy he brought to so many others.

Distraction 2: Richard Dawson

I was lucky enough to catch musician Richard Dawson this week at the Cluny 2. I have seen Richard many, many times now and his name and music are held in the highest esteem by most people I know – irrespective of their musical leanings. It’s a fruitless exercise trying to describe what it is to see him live, the old cliche of ‘words can’t describe’, in this case, are completely valid. If you have never seen him I urge you to, I know no-one more affecting to watch and if you like this blog, his songs are embroidered with tales of criminal goings on and tragedies from the distant shores of the eighteenth and seventeenth century…..well that should make it clear that at the very least it’s clear that ‘my words can’t describe’- just go and see him.

One thought on “Richard Dawson, Robin Williams & The Resurrectionists.

  1. Pingback: Birthdays, Bigg Market Hangings and Going Bloody Viral! | lastdyingwords

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