Academic Opinion: The ethics of auctioning criminal skulls

Posted by ap507 at Aug 11, 2014 11:53 AM |
Dr Shane McCorristine from the School of Archaeology and Ancient History discusses issues concerning the sale of body parts

Please note: The views expressed below are the views of the academic and do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Leicester

In May 2014 it was reported that the skull of John Parker, a 36 year old man executed at Gloucester gaol in 1813, was sold at an auction in Sussex for £2000. Described as an “antique piece”, the skull, displayed in a glass dome, was inscribed with the words, “John Parker hanged for robbing Henbury Church and De Boudrie’s school”. The skull is 12-inches high and had been partially cut away to serve as a teaching tool for anatomists. A photocopied newspaper cutting placed alongside the skull gave the barest historical details about the man described as a “Wiltshire thief”.  

The auctioneer involved said “It is one of the more wacky items we have had”. Yet it is wrong to think of Parker’s skull as a curiosity, as a wacky object that can be sold just like that. Furthermore, it is wrong for the participants in this sale to leave unquestioned their dark attraction to the body parts of the criminal dead. This sale was disturbing for a number of reasons and should raise ethical concerns among those who sell, buy, and curate the body parts of people who have been executed.

Whenever human body parts are put in a glass case and displayed for public view it is crucial that we are extensively informed about what we see. The gaze is never innocent and to ignore the particular journeys that relics take into auction rooms, anatomy departments, and museums is to be complicit in acts of historical injustice.

Parker was executed during the reign of the ‘Bloody Code’ in England, a harsh system of laws which meant that hundreds of offences attracted the death penalty. However, as someone who was executed for theft, not murder, Parker’s body should have been safe from the surgeons table then and the catalogue of the auction house today. The journey of Parker’s skull from death sentence in 1813 to Lot Number 202 in 2014 therefore discloses the sophisticated illegal trade in corpses which tied together the judicial system, the medical establishment, and the ‘resurrectionists’ or body snatchers – people who procured the bodies of the recently dead for the burgeoning medical schools of England and Scotland.

Someone stole or purchased Parker’s body and dismembered it – this should not be forgotten. We should be concerned when body parts, no matter how old or historic they are, are put up for sale. We need to ask questions about where the human remains have come from, where they are going, and about the appropriateness of display. These ethical imperatives increase in importance when the body part has come from a criminal who has been executed.

Dr Shane McCorristine is Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellow with the ‘Harnessing the Power of the Criminal Corpse’ project at the University of Leicester

The views expressed above are the views of the academic and do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Leicester

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