Strand 2: Harnessing the Power of the Criminal Corpse in the Expanding Anatomical and Medical World of Georgian Society

Strand Researcher: Dr. Elizabeth Hurren, University of Leicester

In Strand 2, Dr Elizabeth Hurren undertakes two novel perspectives on the history of anatomy and its connections to the criminal corpse. Firstly, record linkage work reconstructs the economy of supply in dead bodies, detailing the physical journeys of criminal bodies from the gallows to the grave. Secondly, using new source material, including archaeological sources supplied by Professor Sarah Tarlow in Strand 3, the physical condition of executed corpses (often mutilated) and the myriad ways bodies could be dissected and dismembered for display are examined. Harnessing the anatomical power of criminal corpses involved questioning what it meant to be human and, more broadly, how the human body was viewed by contemporaries.

 

c17th Dissection
Dr Tulip's anatomy lesson on the body of a criminal, by Rembrandt (1632)

The dissection of dead bodies has been one of "medicine's defining practices, the symbol of its commitment to science, its power to transform and controlCheselden nature" Historical opinion however differs about whether the dissected body was an object of entertainment, a new mode of natural historical enquiry, or a grisly spectacle. The criminal body could be both medical commodity and material locus of public engagement. At Cambridge, for example, corpses were cut for three audiences. The medical fraternity first studied each cadaver's medical features; educated townspeople next paid a fee to view the lifelike qualities of the skeleton; finally the crowd bought tickets to watch the punishment of deviance "dissected to its extremities".

c18th dissection
An anatomy lesson in eighteenth-century England

 

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