Thursday, 9 May 2013

After the Execution

Until 1832, and the passing of the Anatomy Act, the bodies of murderers were the perquisite of the Royal College of Surgeons. This is how they dealt with their responsibility, before passing the body on to a medical school for full dissection (or, in one rare case - Earl Ferrers in 1760 - actually returning it to the family).

The executions generally took place at eight o'clock on Mondays, and the 'cut down' as it is called, at nine, although there was no cutting at all, as the rope, with a large knot at the end, was simply passed through a thick and strong ring, with a screw, which firmly held the rope in its place, and when all was over, Calcraft, alias 'Jack Ketch', would make his appearance on the scaffold, and by simply turning the screw, the body would fall down. At once it would be placed in one of those large carts with collapsible sides, only to be seen in the neighbourhood of the Docks, and then preceded by the City Marshal in his cocked hat, and, in fact, all his war paint, with Calcraft and his assistant in the cart, the procession would make its way to 33 Hosier Lane, West Smithfield, in the front drawing room of which were assembled Sir William Blizard, President of the Royal College of Surgeons and members of the Court [of the RCS, ed.] desirous of being present, with Messrs. Clift (senior and junior), Belfour and myself. On extraordinary occasions visitors were admitted by special favour. The bodies would then be stripped, and the clothes removed by Calcraft as his valuable perquisites, which, with the fatal rope, were afterwards exhibitied to the morbidly curious, at so much per head, at some favoured public house. It was the duty of the City Marshal to be present to see the body 'anatomised,' as the Act of Parliament had it. A crucial incision in the chest was enough to satisfy the important City functionary above reffered to, and he would soon beat a hasty retreat, on his gaily-decked charger, to report the due execution of his duty. These experiments concluded, the body would be stitched up, and Pearson, an old museum attendant, would remove it in a light cart to the hospital, to which it was intended to present it for dissection.

James Blake Bailey, The Diary of a Resurrectionist, 1811-12 (Sonnenschein & Co, London) 1896

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