Strand 1: The Criminal Justice System and the Criminal Corpse

Strand Researchers: Professor Peter King and Dr Richard Ward

Led by Professor Peter King, Strand 1 investigates the links between the criminal justice system and the criminal corpse in Britain from the late seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth century. Particular focus is given to the statutory framework and attitudes which underpinned post-mortem punishments, the judicial journeys which criminals followed, and the decision-makers and decision-making which influenced those journeys.


Although criminal justice historians have analysed the physical and public

Elizabeth Brownrigg
Elizabeth Brownrigg's skeleton in the niches of Surgeons' Hall

nature of punishment in the period before the reforms of the early nineteenth century, there is little research on punishment after execution. The two main forms of post-execution punishment in Britain – hanging in chains, and dissection and anatomisation – were in use in a limited way by the seventeenth century but peaked in the period between the introduction of the Murder Act in 1752 - which first established dissection and hanging in chains as a systematic punishment for murder - and its repeal in the 1830s. Using this period as its primary focus, Strand 1 will investigate the ways in which the social, symbolic, and even political powers of the criminal corpse were harnessed for the ends of criminal justice.

Strand 1 Mindmap

Strand 1 addresses five core areas:
Crowds waiting to see the body of the executed murderer Earl Ferrers

  1. The Satutory Framework: From the pre-eighteenth-century acts which first granted criminal bodies to the Surgeons Company, to the 1752 Murder Act, attempts in the later eighteenth-century to extend the dissection of convicts, and the ultimate repeal of post-execution punishment in the 1830s.
  2. Attitudes to Post-Mortem Punishment: What were the underlying attitudes towards post-execution punishment, and what can this tell us about the power, or lack of power, of the criminal corpse in different contexts? Attitudes will be traced across various social groups, from the crowd, legal commentators, and judicial officers, to the middling sorts and criminals themselves.  
  3. Judicial Journeys: The various journeys and diasporas which criminal corpses followed will be traced, charting the patterns of post-mortem punishments across time and place. We will rethink the different layers of decision-making surrounding the criminal corpse within the justice system.
  4. Decision-Makers: The several actors who shaped the journeys of the criminal corpse will be examined, particularly the judges, sheriffs, hangmen, crowd, surgeons, and criminals.  
  5. Decision-Making: Particular attention will be given to the impact that the class, gender, race, and offence of the executed criminal had on how their corpses were treated.

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