The Murder Act stipulated that the bodies of those executed in London or within the county of Middlesex would be conveyed to Surgeon’s Hall to be publicly dissected. In all other parts of Britain, the
judges appointed the surgeon who would receive the corpse. Hurren has shown that criminal corpses
were highly sought after, as they could serve as a lucrative means for medical men to practice dissection
before paying audiences made up of both those within the medical profession and also the
However, in Scotland the bodies of executed murderers were predominantly sentenced to be dissected within one of the country’s biggest universities before a predominantly medical audience. Table 6.1
demonstrates that, between the passing of the Murder Act
in 1752 and the Anatomy Act in 1832, a total of 110 murderers were sentenced to the post-mortem punishment
in Scotland: 85 men and 25 women.
It is evident that in any given decade there were no more than 25 cadavers made available to the medical schools, with the number in some decades falling below ten. The eighteenth century witnessed a marked increase in the numbers of medical students and, as discussed above, an increasing demand for bodies to be dissected as part of anatomy courses. The numbers provided through the legal channel of convicted murderers were not nearly enough to sustain this demand and many corpses were procured, often through illegal or illicit means, elsewhere. However, the focus here is upon the criminal corpses
yielded for dissection
and the first question to be investigated is where the bodies were sentenced to be dissected.
If a murderer had been executed in Edinburgh or Glasgow
, their bodies were delivered to the Professor of Anatomy at the respective city’s university. Similarly, by the late eighteenth century, those executed in Aberdeen
were sentenced to be dissected within Marischal College
Therefore, in over 76% of the total cases the criminal corpses were sentenced by the courts to be dissected at one of the three universities. In terms of those executed elsewhere in Scotland, in the early part of the period their bodies would be delivered to a local physician or surgeon named in the court’s sentencing. However, as the period progressed, the bodies of those executed outside of Scotland’s biggest cities were largely sentenced to be conveyed to either Edinburgh or Glasgow Universities as opposed to being given over to a local medical man. In the 1760s, following executions in Paisley and Lanark, the court ordered the bodies to be delivered to Glasgow University
. Similarly, despite being executed in Perth
in 1775, Alexander Husband’s corpse was to become the first of a few sentenced to be dissected over 50 miles away by Monro secundus
in Edinburgh. There are also examples where bodies were sentenced to be handed over to local surgeons following execution, but ended up in Edinburgh or Glasgow
instead. For example, Robert Keith was executed in Jedburgh
in 1772 and instead of being delivered to Dr Thomas Rutherford as sentenced, he became a subject in the anatomy lectures of Monro in Edinburgh.
Following her execution in 1784 in Stirling
, Sarah Cameron’s body was cut down from the scaffold
, put in a coffin and immediately conveyed to Glasgow University
despite having been sentenced to be handed over to Thomas Lucas, a surgeon in Stirling.
The decision to send bodies executed elsewhere in Scotland to Edinburgh became even more frequent in the early nineteenth century. Following executions in areas of northern Scotland such as Dundee, Montrose, Cupar, Kinghorn, Forfar and Inverness
, some of which were closer to Aberdeen
, as well as areas in the west of Scotland that were geographically closer to Glasgow
, such as Stirling
, the bodies were conveyed to Edinburgh for dissection
by Monro tertius
. This further attested to the monopoly that the main universities, particularly Edinburgh, had over the supply of criminal corpses
. Often, the bodies had to be conveyed miles from the place of execution and we can question the condition of the cadavers upon arrival, particularly in the summer months. Similarly, the Professor of Anatomy at Glasgow University
would sometimes receive the bodies of those executed in its surrounding areas. However, a case in 1823 caused contention. James Anderson and David Glen were tried in Edinburgh for murder but sentenced to be executed in Ayr
before their bodies would then be delivered back to Edinburgh. Duncan MacFarlane, the Principal of Glasgow University, wrote to the Lord Justice Clerk
, David Boyle, to petition against the decision as, despite trial in Edinburgh, the practice had previously been that the bodies of those executed in the west of Scotland were directed to go to Glasgow. He called the decision of the court to send Anderson and Glen to Edinburgh a mistake and asked that Boyle intervene to prevent this becoming a precedent.
By the early nineteenth century, although the number of students continually increased in Edinburgh, the percentage who attended Monro tertius’
anatomy class had fallen since the time of his father. Rosner attributed this, at least in part, to competition from private anatomy lecturers such as John Barclay and John Bell, but also to the increasing prominence of anatomy teaching under James
Jeffray at Glasgow University
In turn, this would have increased competition for cadavers and possibly explains the above petition.
As noted above, criminal corpses
had been used for anatomical demonstration prior to the passing of the Murder Act. In 1702, as per the agreement made in the late seventeenth century regarding the procuring of bodies in Edinburgh, the body of David Myles, executed for incest, was publicly dissected over the course of a week. Different medical men from the Royal College of Surgeons demonstrated upon it each day. They began with a general discourse of the body before moving on to an inspection of key organs such as the stomach, intestines, liver, kidneys, parts of generation, the brain and finally the muscles of the extremities and the resulting skeleton. A vote was subsequently taken to determine if the assembled College masters were satisfied with the standard of the dissection
To use a contemporary term, the body had been ‘cut to its extremities’ yet it was to conduct an in-depth demonstration rather than solely to serve the ends of criminal justice.
In consulting the available records of criminal dissections conducted within the universities following 1752 it is evident that the bodies were often used as subjects during anatomy lectures and to educate those witnessing the dissection rather than merely acting as a post-mortem punishment
. Following his execution in 1772, Robert Keith became a subject for Monro secundus
. He was used particularly to conduct demonstrations on parts of the eye.
Monro had, for several years, devoted much attention to the anatomy of the eyeball and published a treatise on the subject. Similarly, when dissenting from the views of others regarding the effects of sudden death upon the stomach, namely that it caused a dissolving of the mucous coat, Monro argued that, from his own examinations of executed criminals, he had found no uniformity of appearance of the mucous membrane.
When Margaret Shuttleworth was executed in Montrose in 1821 her body was subsequently delivered to Monro tertius
. Her dissection
formed part of his lectures on the congestion of blood in the brain. Upon removing the membranes, it was found to be of a paler colour than usual and so soft that he could not demonstrate more internally. As this was something he had not previously encountered he sent notes of the dissection to Dr Kellie, who had experience in dissecting the brain.
primarily conducted his anatomy course using only the titles of lectures, as he taught from memory and experience. However, it is possible to ascertain the contents and structure of the course from some of his notes, now catalogued at the university, and a volume of his lectures based upon his essays and correspondence with others in the medical field published by his son, Monro tertius. A specific area of interest here is his accounts of the dissections
of criminals, more specifically his attempts to ascertain the primary cause of their death, which he placed within wider subject areas of his anatomy course. Different opinions were offered in this period as to the cause of death by hanging with some citing dislocation of the cervical vertebrae and others the effusion of blood within the brain as the primary
cause of death. From his examinations of the criminal corpses
delivered to him, Monro claimed that he never detected a dislocation of the neck nor internal congestion alone to be the main cause of death. Instead he argued that death was to be imputed to a stoppage of respiration.
Hurren argued that the wording of the Murder Act sentencing the criminal corpse to be anatomised and dissected was carefully chosen as each practice presented a distinct medico-penal stage. She
stated that the hanging of a criminal was their legal death, the anatomisation performed by the surgeon was their medical death, and the dissection
was the post-mortem part of the sentence. Hurren
identified cases where it was the surgeon, and not necessarily the hangman, who was the final executioner
of the law. Upon receiving the bodies there were cases where the surgeons found the heart still beating and removed it from the body, thus committing euthanasia.
In the early eighteenth century there were spectacular tales of criminals experiencing a complete revival hours after their execution. The most famous Scottish case was that of ‘Half Hangit Maggie’ who was executed for the murder of her illegitimate infant in 1724 but woke up in her coffin en route to her burial. She was
pardoned and lived for another forty years. The Scottish records consulted here do not explicitly detail instances of surgeons finding criminals alive on the dissection table. However, in cases where the bodies were conveyed directly to the universities, as opposed to being held for a short time in a lock-up house as was sometimes the case, it is evident that the effect of hanging on the body and the eventual cause and timing of death was an area of debate.
In this period apoplexy referred to death that was caused by a sudden loss of consciousness, but it could also refer to certain forms of internal bleeding. Monro secundus
argued that in some cases of executed criminals, though sensation and voluntary motion may have been suspended, secretion, the process by which substances were produced from organs such as the heart, was not necessarily affected.
During his demonstrations on blood circulation and observations on the causes of sanguineous apoplexy on the brain, Monro demonstrated that, while the carotid arteries and jugular veins of hanged criminals were compressed by the rope, the vertebral arteries, being less obstructed, could continue to transmit blood to the brain if the action of the heart continued. Therefore, for minutes after suspension and loss of consciousness, the blood could flow to the brain via the vertebral arteries but its return was interrupted by the pressure on the jugular vein.
When lecturing upon the inflation caused by the momentum of the blood flow, and attempts to alleviate this in the living patient, Monro cited the possibility of opening a large vein or artery. In terms of the use of criminal corpses
to demonstrate this, if they were immediately conveyed to the dissection
theatre from the scaffold
, as were John Brown and James Wilson in 1773, incisions were made to the jugular to show the blood flow.
This was similarly the case in 1829 when husband and wife John Stuart and Catherine Wright were dissected side by side. Incisions to both of their jugular veins caused profuse bleeding and their bloodshot eyes, locked jaws and clenched fists attested to the manner of their death.
, when performed upon the dead human body in the early nineteenth century, was used as an attempt to stimulate the body with an electric current. Professor Giovanni Aldini, a famous proponent of galvanism, claimed that, for the experiment to work, he needed access to the bodies of those who had died very recently, although not of any disease. Thus, the executed criminal was an ideal test subject. In 1803, he performed a demonstration on the body of an executed murderer in London which lasted over seven hours and produced a quivering of the jaw and convulsions of the face.
Experiments in galvanism were also carried out on a few Scottish criminals immediately following execution in the early nineteenth century, the most spectacular of which was that performed upon the body of Matthew Clydesdale in 1818. Clydesdale’s body was left to hang upon the scaffold
for the usual hour before it was cut down and conveyed immediately to James Jeffray
, the Professor of Anatomy at Glasgow University
. Jeffray had invited Dr Andrew Ure to assist in the demonstrations and five minutes prior to the arrival of the body he charged the galvanic battery in preparation. The success of the experiments was believed to depend upon the speedy transmission of the body from the scaffold to the commencing of the demonstration.
Various incisions were made to apply the galvanic power. Strong convulsions caused Clydesdale’s limbs to be thrown in every direction. Furthermore, after connecting rods to the left phrenic nerve and the diaphragm, his chest heaved and fell as if breathing. The scene caused several of those present to turn away and one man to faint.
Dr Ure wrote up an account of the experiment and delivered it in a lecture to the Glasgow Literary Society, demonstrating the wide dissemination of his findings.
In 1771, medical student Sylas Neville recorded that “the melancholy nature of my present studies increases the lowness of my spirits.” His evident trepidation at commencing his studies was to be further exacerbated by the dissection
of the first female subject before the class in Monro’s lecture theatre.
Medical knowledge of the female body, particularly the internal anatomy of the reproductive system, was still an ambiguous and difficult field within the profession, as the primary source of practical investigation was the dead female body. As discussed in Chap. 4, the capital punishment
of women was quite a rare event and, in terms of the supply of their bodies for dissection, there were only 25 murderous women given the sentence. In addition, Table 6.1 shows that the highest number of female criminals dissected in any one decade was six and, after the mid-eighteenth century, the figures could be as low as one per decade. The situation was similar south of the border as, of the bodies received by the College of Surgeons in London between 1800 and 1832, only seven were women. Of these, five left the College in relatively pristine condition having only received an incision over the sternum labelled a “theatrical cut.”
Their bodies were then gifted to surgeons in London’s hospitals or private anatomy schools and, as four of these women were deemed to be of reproductive age, their bodies were valuable subjects for dissection.
In terms of female criminals dissected within Scottish universities, it is to the dissection of Barbara Malcolm in 1808 that we now turn in order to demonstrate how her body was utilised by Monro tertius
for the acquisition of knowledge of the female anatomy.
Monro tertius began taking his father’s anatomy lectures in 1808 and thus Barbara Malcolm would have been the first female criminal to arrive on his dissection
and, due to the rarity of the occasion, he would not have another until 1813. From a reading of the lecture notes from the time, it is evident that special preparations were made in anticipation of her dissection. She had been sentenced on 5 January but, as with all capitally convicted criminals in Scotland, waited over a month before her scheduled execution on 10 February. In the first week of February, prior to Barbara’s dissection, several lectures took place. Those on the first four days looked in-depth at the anatomy of the organs of urine and generation in the female. Interestingly, a lecture on the fifth day changed track to focus more upon the structure of the neck and throat. The dissection of Barbara’s body took place the day following her execution and Monro focused particularly upon the naval arch and abdomen, providing an examination of the crural hernia, a cellular substance larger in women than men. He then moved on to an examination of the kidneys, liver and stomach.
Within the records the lecture was entitled ‘Dissection
of a Criminal’ and Barbara was not named. Additionally, despite the court having sentenced her to dissection as a form of punishment, the fact that the anatomy course was almost certainly adapted so an examination of gender-specific parts happened at the same time supports the argument that, for the medical men at least, her dissected body was a valuable means to an end in the acquisition of knowledge.
Despite the above cases demonstrating that dissection
was used within the universities in the pursuit of anatomical knowledge, the theme of notoriety was often the subject of public debates over the supply of cadavers in the years immediately prior to the Anatomy Act. The discussion now turns to investigate a case that embodied this notoriety and heaped further public disdain upon the practice of dissection.