On Thursday 14 November the HA held a successful joint meeting with the Northamptonshire Archaeological Society, who hosted the meeting at the Humfrey Rooms.
Professor Tarlow introduced the project ‘Harnessing the power of the criminal corpse’ which examines the post-mortem punishments of criminals from the Murder Act (1752) to the Anatomy Act (1834). The project examines the power held by the criminal corpse in the landscape, judiciary, folklore and medicine. The criminal corpse murders was treated differently to other criminals, ordered to be either hung in chains or dissected. Dissected bodies usually had little remains left as they were ‘dissected to the extremities’ leaving little archaeological evidence. Bodies hung in chains were placed in an iron cage on a high post, close to the scene of the crime, indefinitely.
Prof. Tarlow went on to explain what happen to some of the body parts of men executed under the Murder Act. Eugene Aram, one of the most famous criminals of the eighteenth century, was hung in chains His skull was later used for phrenology lectures, giving his body a life after death. William Burke had a curious afterlife, famous for murdering people to take to the surgeons for cash, he ended up suffering the same fate as hits victims: dissected and anatomised. William Corder had a particularly interesting cultural afterlife, depicted on the stage and screen right up to the 21st century. His skeleton was used for medical training following its direction, and his tanned skin is still on display in Moyses Hall, Bury St. Edmunds.
The talk was summarised with the question of the ethics of displaying human remains, something that is a topic if discussion now, but at the time of the Murder Act was a cultural norm. Fully illustrated with images or criminal remains and curios, this lively, if at times gruesome, talk was enjoyed by all!