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Murder Was So Common In 18th-Century Britain, Parliament Had To Get Creative With Punishments

During the mid-18th century, murder was so rampant in Britain that Parliament needed to create an equally brutal law in response. Some said legislation as a fate worse than death. The British Murder Act of 1751 became law the following year, with the purpose of terrorizing the public into a reasonable facsimile of human decency. 

The laws and punishments for murder were designed not only to denigrate and shame criminals in this life, but in the afterlife as well. While they were purposefully Draconian and vindictive, they did manage to aid many surgeons, and Renaissance artists, who needed bodies for their research. It was also, naturally, a terrifying time to be a bodysnatcher. Still, it's important to understand this unsettling and macabre part of the history of capital punishment, that we might never be tempted to repeat it. 

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  • The Goal Of The Act Was To Add More “Infamy” To Murderers’ Punishment

    There was a time in Britain’s dark history when public execution was practically an everyday affair. Something as simple as sheep poaching could condemn you to the gallows. With that in mind, what if you committed a more serious crime? Enter the British Murder Act of 1751, which begins as follows:

    WHEREAS horrid crime of murder has of late been more frequently perpetrated than formerly… it is thereby become necessary, that some further terror and peculiar mark of infamy be added to the punishment of death, now by law inflicted on such as shall be guilty of the said heinous offence.

    In other words, in addition to killing you for your crime, they used you as an example to others in the process. 

  • The Act Made Sure You Wouldn't Get A Proper Last Meal

    Once you were convicted, there was no recourse for an appeal. The law stated that a person found guilty of murder should be executed two days after being sentenced - unless the third day was a Sunday (for religious reasons). This gave one plenty of time to think about a last meal.

    In some countries, the condemned could order whatever they wanted, and in copious amounts: the “hangman’s meal.” Wine and beer were (thankfully) typically included. Unfortunately, according to the Murder Act, the convicted could only be fed just bread and water once the sentence was passed. The only exclusions were “in case of receiving the sacrament of the Lord’s supper, and except in case of any violent sickness or wound.”

  • The Bodies Of The Hanged Were Dissected, Often In Public

    The Murder Act stipulated that the dead person’s body should not be buried. In some instances, the corpse was hung in public places. This was meant to shame the family of the victim, while reminding the populace what was in store for them if they committed murder. The other post-execution degradation was dissection by the town’s surgeons. These dissections could sometimes be public affairs, adding to the disgrace for family and friends.

    The purpose here was twofold. On one hand, the public display deprived the individual of their dignity. On the other, the violation of a corpse was an act of desecration to God-fearing Christians. And, again, both punishments were thought to be an effective deterrent to vicious crimes. The latter punishment served an eminently practical purpose as well.

  • Hanging Wasn't Enough, So Most Judges Added Gibbeting To Sentences

    Thomas Wilford was the first person executed under the Murder Act in the summer of 1752. See, hangings were elaborate public spectacles. Hundreds, if not thousands, of morbidly curious onlookers showed up at executions. 

    Once the hanging was done, a judge could impose further punishment. This was “gibbeting,” wherein the body was placed in a cage and hung from a gallows-type structure called a gibbet. It was meant to be a stern warning to would-be wrongdoers.

    The Murder Act of 1751 put this practice into regular use. The gibbets with the bodies of the executed criminal were usually placed at the crossroads of public highways for all to see – and smell. Eventually, their remains were scattered anonymously into public fields.

  • British Christians In The 18th Century Were Obsessed With Being Buried On Holy Ground

    Dissection was the other, more common method of posthumous execution stipulated by the Murder Act. Many Christians believed the body needed to be buried whole in order to rise from the dead on Judgment Day. If you could be buried on holy ground, such as in a church cemetery, all the better. Dissection and dismemberment prevented this, thereby serving as a punishment after death. 

    The desire to be buried in holy ground was so intense, bodies were interred on top of one another. In his book At Home, Bill Bryson writes that when the poet William Blake died in 1827, he was buried at Bunhill Fields on top of three others. Four more were later placed on top of him. St. Marylebone Parish packed a staggering 100,000 bodies underground in less than an acre. 

  • The Bodies Of The Poor And Criminals Were Used To Better Understand Human Anatomy
    Photo: Andreas Vesalius / Wikipedia / Public Domain

    The Bodies Of The Poor And Criminals Were Used To Better Understand Human Anatomy

    Throughout the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance, there was a stigma attached to cutting open corpses to understand the workings of human anatomy. In the early 1500s, artists like Michelangelo were known to secretly dissect bodies in order to better understand the human body for sculptures and paintings. Leonardo da Vinci did this as well, but he also wanted to understand anatomy from a scientific perspective.

    Within the course of the next few decades, the taboos were gradually dispelled. There was a watershed of scientific curiosity, and - along with it - anatomical dissections. Andreas Vesalius published the first great anatomical text in 1543, De Humani coporis fabrica libri septum. You can see an example of early operating theaters, with their throngs of onlookers, on the title page of his opus.

    So, where did the bodies come from? From the poor and from criminals. By 1751, it was the latter group who furnished the surgeons of Britain with the much-needed supply of corpses needed for scientific experimentation.