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New study investigates fate of the criminal corpse

William Hogarth’s The Reward of Cruelty (1751) showing a fanciful version of the dissection of a criminal (copyright: Wellcome Images)

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A new major research programme bringing University of Leicester academics in the School of Archaeology and Ancient History, and the School of Historical Studies together with expertise from the University of Hertfordshire, will examine the fate of the corpses of executed criminals.

Between 1752 and 1832 the bodies of executed murderers were legally denied burial in consecrated ground. Instead they were donated for anatomical dissection or ‘hung in chains’ (displayed in a gibbet). This new research programme brings together scholars from archaeology, medical and criminal history, folklore, literature and philosophy to explore the ways that the dead body of the criminal could still be powerful.

The 5-year project, supported by the Wellcome Trust with a grant for nearly a million pounds, uses the criminal corpse as a focal point from which the team can spin out to explore the many ways that human bodies were understood in the period between the seventeenth and the nineteenth centuries, and how attitudes that took shape at that time continue to affect our ambivalent feelings about how the dead should be treated.

Death mask and a pocketbook made from the skin of notorious murderer William Burke (of Burke and Hare) who was executed in 1829, now in the collection of the Surgeons’ Hall Museum, Edinburgh (photograph by Kim Traynor)

“This is a great opportunity to study the history of the body at a fascinating time,” said Professor Sarah Tarlow, an archaeologist at the University of Leicester and the leader of the team. “This is a key period in the development of modern medical knowledge, where the inside of the body was carefully explored and described by anatomists. At the same time it was generally believed that the touch of a hanged man’s hand could cure cancers of the neck, and that suicides should be buried with a stake through their bodies.

“The emotional power of  the dead body of the criminal was exploited by the State to enforce conformity with the law, they were exploited as sources of scientific or medical knowledge; they gave meaning to places in the landscape, for example, ‘Gibbet Hills’ and so on. At a popular level, their ghosts were believed to stalk the living and their bodies to be places of lurking malevolence which might threaten our comfortable lives  – as Frankenstein’s monster did.”

Professor Peter King, of the University of Leicester’s renowned Centre for English Local History, added: “We aim to look at the whole journey of the criminal body from sentencing to eventual disposal. Sentences passed were not always carried out; we want to find out what determined the eventual fate of the body. We need to locate the places where bodies were dissected and displayed – both when they were hung in chains and when bodies or body parts were preserved as curios or as part of scientific collections.”

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Professor Owen Davies of the School of Humanities, University of Hertfordshire, explained how the project will also explore the use of criminal corpses in the medical and magical cultures of Europe. “One of the fascinating areas we are researching is how corpses that, in one sense, emanated evil, were also thought to have powerful beneficial healing properties for the living: in short the criminal body was life giving,” he explains.

Philosopher Dr Floris Tomasini will work closely with the other team members to trace the history of some of our modern attitudes towards the dead body. “Why is there a public outcry when organs are retained by doctors after a death? Why do we attach so much importance to bringing the bodies of our war dead ‘home’?” asks Dr Tomasini. “These are important questions in moral philosophy, but they have deep historical roots. I am excited to be working a new way with colleagues from other disciplines.”

The team will be producing a number of academic publications but will also be setting up a website to host an online exhibition and keeping a blog of their findings and ideas as the project gets underway.

Contributing Source : Leicester, University of

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Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan is multi-award-winning journalist and the Managing Editor at HeritageDaily. His background is in archaeology and computer science, having written over 8,000 articles across several online publications. Mark is a member of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), the World Federation of Science Journalists, and in 2023 was the recipient of the British Citizen Award for Education, the BCA Medal of Honour, and the UK Prime Minister's Points of Light Award.
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