Saturday, 9 March 2013

Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men

The unpredictable weather may not be inspiring you to stroll idly around the city streets at the moment but it's absolutely perfect for planning a day in a museum. The Museum of London should be high on your list anyway but there is a must-see exhibition on right now (until 14th April) with a true and wonderfully gruesome London tale behind it. Ready to immerse yourself in the murky depths of nineteenth-century London? Are you sitting comfortably? Then let's begin . . .

In the summer of 2006, Museum of London archaeologists stumbled across an unmarked burial site at the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel, believed to have been used for patients who had died and whose bodies had been unclaimed. What they found was unexpected and disturbing: many of the graves contained bones from several different bodies, some human and some animal, all showing clear evidence of dissection and anatomical study. Even more disquieting was the fact that the graveyard was used between 1825 and 1841 - despite the fact that before the Anatomy Act of 1832 it was illegal to dissect any cadaver other than that of an executed criminal.

The exhibition sets the background perfectly, with a finely-balanced blend of history and theatre. Medical science was still in its infancy: the accepted treatment for a broken limb was amputation and as there were no anaesthetics any surgery was a brutal experience, with many patients dying of blood loss or shock. Speed was vital: for this, surgeons needed a thorough knowledge of human anatomy, and for this they needed fresh corpses to practise on. The only legal source was hanged murderers from the gallows and competition was fierce.

Grave-robbing became prevalent, with a fresh adult corpse fetching over five times the average weekly wage. Grieving relatives would take shifts watching the graves of the newly-interred, watchmen with dogs patrolled the cemeteries and special iron coffins designed to secure their contents from theft became popular with those who could afford them. As so often, the poor were most at risk; many could not afford burial costs and even for those that could, it was common for several bodies to be in one relatively shallow grave - easy pickings for the so-called 'resurrectionists'. The exhibition has a fascinating diary belonging to a body snatcher, detailing the phases of the moon - careful preparation for planning a raid under cover of darkness.

In an age when many of us carry an organ donor card, it is difficult to appreciate the dread and horror that nineteenth-century Londoners would have felt at the prospect of dissection. At that time dissection was a terrible punishment meted out only to the vilest criminals; mob outcries and riots at public executions had prevented the bodies of those hanged for relatively minor offences being taken, resulting in an official policy of using executed murderers only. In addition, the commonly-held religious belief of eventual resurrection on the Day of Judgement led to a fear of the body not being whole for the afterlife. With donation almost unheard of and the graves becoming harder to rob, some resurrectionists looked to another supply - the living.

In a practice made infamous by Edinburgh's Burke and Hare, London's poor and homeless were now in danger of being 'befriended' before being drugged, murdered and sold for dissection. The case that made headlines, and ultimately led to the passing of the Anatomy Act, was that of London 'Burkers' Thomas Williams, John Bishop and James May - and their victim, the Italian Boy. The corpse's  intended buyer at King's College was alerted by the fact that the body was 'suspiciously warm' and kept Bishop and May talking until police arrived. They were arrested, the house that Bishop and Williams rented in Nova Scotia Gardens was searched, and several items of clothing found in a well. Bishop admitted that he and Williams would offer lodgings to those sleeping rough, drug them with rum and laudanum, then tie a rope around their feet and pitch the unfortunate victim headfirst down the well to drown whilst they went out drinking at a local tavern.

Bishop and Williams were convicted and hanged for murder. In a karmic twist, as executed murderers their bodies were  then sent for dissection - one of the more macabre exhibits is pieces of tattooed skin said to be from their bodies. Another is a plaster cast of murderer James Legg, whose corpse was taken fom the gallows, crucified and then flayed to expose the muscles. A cruel and terrible punishment for some unimaginable crime? No, merely a way for artists and sculptors of the time to settle an argument as to whether depictions of Christ's crucifixions were anatomically accurate or not. Whatever the intended purpose, it is a dramatic sight that will stay with you.

The exhibition ends in a brightly lit, clinical and modern look at where we stand today with medical science and politics and a film where young Londoners discuss how they feel about what happens to their body after death. It's not for the squeamish (or children under 12) but it is a fascinating, thought-provoking and excellently-presented exhibition and I really enjoyed it. Check online for discounts.

Yours, delving into London's dark past just for you,
Girl About Town xx