Dissecting and Anatomising Moreton Bay Convicts

‘The sentence of the Court was that they should be taken to the place from whence they came, and on Wednesday morning to the place of execution, and there be hanged by the neck until they were dead, their bodies afterwards to be given over to the Surgeons, to be dissected and anatomised.’ (Sydney Gazette, 9 August 1836)
In a recent post I wrote of a Moreton Bay convict being hanged in 1828 and his body - as stipulated by law - being dissected and anatomised afterwards.
William Hogarth's 'The Reward of Cruelty' (1751) showing a fanciful version of the dissection of a hanged criminal. (Wellcome Images)
William Hogarth's 'The Reward of Cruelty' (1751)
depicts a fanciful version of the dissection of a
hanged criminal. (Wellcome Images)

This law was an offshoot of the ‘Bloody Code’, the extensive capital punishment regime of 18th-century England. A vast range of crimes were punishable by death, but this led to the inequity of murderers and petty criminals receiving the exact same punishment. In 1752 legislation was passed to make the consequences of murder even worse. Legislators claimed that the crime was ‘contrary to the known humanity and natural genius of the British nation’, and their Act for the Better Preventing the Horrid Crimes of Murder 1752 (commonly known as the ‘Murder Act’) had the stated aim of adding ‘some further terror and peculiar mark of infamy’ to the death sentence for murderers. This was done in order to ‘impress a just horror in the mind of the offender, and on the, minds of such as shall be present, of the heinous crime of murder’.

This ‘peculiar mark of infamy’ included a range of post-death punishments, such as handing over murderers’ corpses to surgeons for public dissection and anatomisation. Bodies of the dead had an emotional power, and this was exploited by the law to ensure conformity. At the time, this was the only source of such specimens for the medical profession, which was going through a key period in the development of modern medical knowledge. Much was being learned as anatomists carefully explored and described these corpses.

18th-century anatomy class, England.
18th-century anatomy class, England.

In Britain, this law often led to gallow-side situations in which the surgeon’s assistants would physically struggle with the family or friends of hanged murderers for possession of the corpse. There were no such scenes at the executions of colonial convicts, who were hanged under the watch of armed soldiers, and their bodies were able to be removed without drama.

There was no ‘college’ or ‘Surgeon’s Company’ in Sydney but the law was followed, with the usual venue being the Military Hospital. In Britain, strong-stomached members of the public had access to the dissections of hanged murderers, but that does not seem to have been the case in Australia. In fact it was reported in one newspaper that dissections were sometimes not carried out all:
‘While our Judges dwell with a becoming solemnity on the awful crime of murder, in passing the sentence of hanging and dissection, the public know very well that the latter part of the sentence to be a solemn farce. They know, that the Surgeons mean Dr Bowman, the Inspector of Hospitals, and his two or three assistants, and that these gentlemen have had the dissection of so many bodies in their day, that they are tired of the art, their skill in anatomy being complete… and of course incapable of further improvement. But supposing this not to be the case, still, three corpses on one morning… was certainly apportioning too hard duty on the Surgeons of Sydney…’ (Sydney Monitor, 2 March 1833)
Military hospital, Sydney c.1821. (SLNSW V1/ca1821/5)
Military hospital, Sydney c.1821. (SLNSW V1/ca1821/5)

Burial of any remains after dissection was forbidden (again, part of the law), and if the newspaper report below is anything to go by, the hospital staff didn't go to much effort in disposing of them:

(Sydney Gazette, 12 October 1831)

The only two men hanged under these laws at the Moreton Bay settlement (John Bulbridge and Charles Fagan in 1830) were executed for armed robbery and would therefore not have been dissected. The Moreton convicts hanged in Sydney included William Johnson (1828), John Brunger, Thomas Matthews, Thomas Allen, Patrick Sullivan (all 1829), Stephen Smith, John Hawes, Henry Muggleton (all 1830), and Patrick McGuire (1832), and they were all dissected. Charles McManus, hanged in 1831 for attempted murder, was spared their fate.

By the 1830s the excesses of the 'Murder Act' were being scaled back. The original list of over 200 capital crimes had been greatly reduced, and elements of capital punishment itself were being reviewed. The introduction of the 'Anatomy Act' in 1832 allowed for the anatomical dissection of unclaimed corpses, especially those people who died in prison or workhouses, and also corpses donated by their next of kin in exchange for free burial. No longer were surgeons reliant on the cadavers of murderers for specimens.

Dissection of hanged prisoners ceased in 1837 when a new law stipulated that the bodies of such prisoners now belonged to the Crown, and that they be buried within prison grounds, receiving full funeral rites if they so wished. These changes were part of an ongoing and rapid shift to the age of modern execution, and two decades later public hangings would be stopped altogether. It was a clear admission that the hoped-for ‘deterrent effect’ of the ‘Murder Act’ had failed to impact on murder rates.

Dissection of the corpse was not the only possible punishment meted out to executed prisoners under the ‘Murder Act’, as ‘hanging in chains’ was also an option. This entailed securely hanging the body in a public place for as long as a few years. This was also known as ‘gibbetting’ and I will cover that practice in another article here.

The stories of the executed Moreton Bay men can be found in the book Dirty Dozen: Hanging and the Moreton Bay Convicts.