Rachel Bennett - Presenter Profile

"A Fate Worse than Death?" Post-Mortem Punishment and the Criminal Corpse 1752-1834

In this article, Rachel Bennett describes her research into how beliefs about death influenced the ways in which the bodies of executed criminals were treated.

About My Research

Death is a process rather than an instantaneous occurrence.

The issues of death and dying occupy a pervasive attraction and are potent issues for contemplation in life. In particular the fate of the human body after the point of physical death is an area of intense and contradictory belief across time, place and religion. We are concerned with where and how our bodies are disposed of in death, if we are to be buried where will this be and how will it be commemorated? We question when the last vestiges of life leave our body and what, if any, fate awaits us beyond our mortal life. The research presented in this poster, which has been  conducted as part of the Wellcome Trust funded project Harnessing the Power of the Criminal Corpse, will place such concerns, and other contemporary beliefs about the body, into an investigation of the post-mortem punishment of the criminal corpse. Following the passing of the 1752 Murder Act those executed for the crime were to be either hung in chains or dissected in order to add some further terror and mark of infamy to their death. This poster will highlight the motives of those inflicting the punishments as well as questioning their effects upon those witnessing them. In turn the poster will demonstrate their significance when placed within wider beliefs about the body and death.

Throughout history, despite much debate about the fate of the body and the soul after the point of physical death, our beliefs, whether religious or secular, remain subject to speculation. Therefore, in order to attempt to question how far, if at all, the infliction of post-mortem infamies upon the body acted as a further punishment my research is two-fold. First, it questions what the criminals themselves felt about such punishments. Through the use of surviving accounts in the court records and contemporary newspapers it is clear that for some, the prospect of the post-mortem punishment to be inflicted upon their bodies caused them more fear than the prospect of the death sentence itself. Second, the theme of deterrence was a key justification of public punishments in the eighteenth century and thus their potential effects upon those who witnessed them remained important. My research questions what, if anything, we can gauge about how people felt when witnessing the public punishment of the body through the use of surviving accounts of such events.

My Research Findings

A key finding of my research is that beliefs and fears about the body prior to and in death were not uniform nor founded solely in religious or secular parameters. However it is clear that the criminals to be executed were often concerned with the fate of their body. In the eighteenth century, and today, a key contemplation was the desire to see their bodies decently buried. This desire then, as now, was also a concern for the living. My research has found cases when bodies to be subjected to the post-mortem punishment of hanging in chains were stolen to prevent the punishment and were later found to have been buried. In addition, popular beliefs about the dissection of the body were characterized by fear, suspicion and contempt based upon the uncertainties surrounding the fate of the body in death. Within this a key finding in my research, and that of the wider research project, is that death was not an instantaneous occurrence and, in the case of executed criminals, it did not necessarily occur upon the scaffold. Instead it is better understood as a process, with indeterminate parameters subject to multi-faceted beliefs and fears. In terms of the significance of my research beyond the context of crime and punishment in the eighteenth century, it is clear that throughout history the concepts of death and dying evoke a range of emotions. Whether we belief the disposal of our body will affect us beyond the point of physical death or not, it is difficult to remain entirely indifferent. For the criminals subject to post-mortem punishment, and those witnessing them, while the prospect of such had not deterred them from crime, it is clear that for some the fate of their body weighed more heavily than death itself. In attempting to link our own beliefs about the body today with those inflicting post-mortem infamies and those subject to them in the eighteenth century, my research is attempting to reconcile the two in order to answer whether the post-mortem punishment of the body really was a fate worse than death?

About Rachel Bennett

Rachel Bennett is a research student working towards completion of her doctoral degree in the School of History. Rachel is supervised by Professor Peter King and Professor Sarah Tarlow.

Rachel will present her work at the Festival of Postgraduate Research 6 July 2015 - see Rachel's Festival poster.

The Festival is open to all members of the University community and the public - book your place here.

Contact Rachel

School of History

University of Leicester

University Road

LEICESTER

LE1 7RH

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