Penny Dreadful: From True Crime to FictionThe Madding Crowd: 18th Century LondonBloodletting: Barber Surgeons and Early MedicineThe Play's the Thing: From Melodrama to Musical
Early Practitioners
The Humours
Surgical Procedures
Barbers and Surgeons Part Ways
Dissections and Corpse-Taking

Liver and Lungs and Everything Offal
Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street in Concert
Dissections and Corpse-Taking

Henry VIII also decreed that the barber-surgeons were entitled to receive the bodies of four executed criminals for dissection for the study and practice of "Anatomies." These dissections were performed publicly four times a year in the Barber-Surgeons Hall, which still stands today in London. Before this decree, physicians only knew about human anatomy from books and theoretical diagrams. Surgeons-in-training dissected animals to perfect their skills at cutting flesh and stitching up wounds, but until the 18th century, no one had trained regularly on the human body.


Dissections were heavily regulated by the Company of the Barber-Surgeons. Only barbers, surgeons, physicians and apprentices were allowed in to observe and learn. There were many rules about what tools could be used and what clothing would be worn by the surgeon performing the dissection. The biggest hazard in this practice was procurement and maintenance of the corpses. While the barber-surgeons guild was entitled to the bodies of four executed criminals per year, there were often fights at the gallows over the bodies. According to the Annals of the Barber-Surgeons, "The practice was for the Beadles to attend at the gallows and select bodies as they pleased. Their opponents were generally the hangman, who himself trafficked in these uncanny goods, the relatives of the criminal, and the populace who were encited by the relatives to resist the Beadles. Many were the unseemly fights which took place over these bodies, and oftentimes when the Beadles secured a 'subject' and were driving off with it in a coach, they were attacked and beaten, and the body rescued from them. The hangman appears to have been entitled to the dead man's clothes, for on more than one occasion the Company gave him compensation for them, they having been torn to pieces in the brutal struggle for possession." (13)

Another hazard referred to in the Annals of the Barber-Surgeons was the discovery that a corpse was not actually a corpse at all. A ruling recorded by the guild in 1587 reads "That if any body which shall at any time hereafter happen to brought to our Hall for the intent to be wrought upon by the Anatomists of our Company shall revive or come to life again as of late hath been seen, the charges about the same body so reviving shall be born levied and sustained by such person or persons who shall so happen to bring home the body. And further shall abide such order or fine as this House shall award." (14) The most notable instance of this kind occurred in 1740 when a 16-year-old boy named William Duell was hanged, then while being prepared for dissection was found to still be living. He recovered fully and was returned by the Company of Barber-Surgeons to Newgate Prison.

As knowledge progressed and more and more discoveries were made about human physiology, anatomies became an increasingly necessary tool in the training of surgeons, and demand for corpses increased dramatically. Four bodies per year was simply not enough. This crisis in "subject matter" led to desperate measures on the part of surgeons. Grave-robbing, though extremely dangerous and punishable by death, became a common part of the surgeon's practice. The diary of one surgeon-in-training dated December 24, 1751 notes "My dissection of the trunk now finished and to wonder where the next subject is to come from; can see that we shall perforce have to Raid that Miserable Graveyard again, unless the Doctor can obtain a copse (sic) from the authorities. It is Intolerable that the progress of our Art should depend upon such uncertain foundations. Have heard that one Professor Rondelet of Montpelier University did for want of subjects dissect the body of his own child before his class; the which I can well believe." (15)

Read a 1751 account of a grave robbery.


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