The Power of the Criminal Corpse

The power of the criminal corpse remained long after death. From the healing touch of the criminal hand to the use of the corpse’s skin for book binding, these bodies retained a certain dark glamour. Even to this day parts of the bodies executed in the eighteenth and nineteenth century form the basis of museum exhibitions and are highly prized collectibles…

After suffering the dual punishment of execution followed by either gibbeting or dissection, the criminal corpse underwent a further final punishment. The Murder Act of 1752 dictated that, “in no case whatsoever shall the body of any murderer be suffered to be buried.” The denial of a proper Christian burial caused deep distress not just to the criminal awaiting punishment, but to their family and friends after. Many contemporary reports detail prisoners’ fears of what would happen to them after death outweighing the more immediate fear of a public hanging and dissection. In that sense, far more so than execution, the refusal of burial was a punishment in line with a wider system of public punishments that were as much about bringing shame on the criminal as they were about meting out physical violence. One of the many offshoots of this punishment was that the criminal corpse and its many constituent parts became sought after commodities, curatives and curios.

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