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.
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.
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 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.
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.