Gallows Superstitions and the Bodies of the Condemned

While writing my steampunk murder mysteries, I read a lot about dead bodies and hangings. Gallows superstitions—those associated with executions—were rife in Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Got a hanged man’s corpse? Don’t know what to do now?

Here are a few ideas from the pages of history:

Use him for science

If you were a medical student, you needed corpses to dissect. Unfortunately for you, folks were fussy about the fate of their fleshly remains. To be dissected was shameful and undignified, and in the pre-antibiotic age of epidemics, stories of prematurely diagnosed death were rife: fear of being “buried alive” and cut up before you’d fully expired was real. Not to mention that on Judgment Day, the dead were supposed to rise from the grave to be changed—if you weren’t buried according to Christian rites, your soul was in serious trouble.

So in 18th century England, only the bodies of executed criminals could legally be dissected. The Murder Act 1751—“an Act for better preventing the horrid Crime of Murder”—made being “anatomized” part of the death sentence. After you were hanged, your body would be dissected in public, your bones boiled, your organs pickled in jars, your hide tanned. Presumably because slowly strangling in front of a howling crowd until you died covered in your own excrement just didn’t suck enough to stop people murdering each other.

Still, university dissections were limited to 10 felons per year—none at all for private anatomy schools—which meant a chronic cadaver shortage. Which in turn meant thriving opportunities for grave-robbers and body-snatchers—which in its turn meant middle-class paranoia about body theft and a burgeoning market in tamper-proof burials. Cemeteries employed armed guards, graves were enclosed with iron grilles, coffins were made theft-proof. When people started murdering in order to sell their victims’ corpses (such as notorious Burke and Hare, and in London the case of the Italian Boy), Parliament decided they’d had enough and, despite ongoing public uneasiness about dissection, passed the Anatomy Act 1832, allowing the unclaimed bodies of poor people (not the upper classes, naturally) to be anatomized.

Turn him into cash

For the hangman, execution day was a bonanza. Not only did you get paid for your work, there were many sidelines where you could squeeze extra cash. For instance, the touch of an executed person’s hand was said to cure skin lesions. People bribed the hangman to let them line up beneath the gallows, and when the unfortunate villain expired, they’d file past and wipe the dead hand over their warts. Nice.

Additional lucrative areas included selling pieces of the hanging rope (another lucky charm and disease cure) and the hanged man’s blood (ditto). The condemned liked to put on a brave face and dress in their best to be hanged, so the hangman made a profit selling their clothes. If you wanted to cheat the bastard, you turned up in your nightgown—or already dressed in your shroud.

Bring him back to life

Long before it was popularized by Frankenstein, scientists had noticed that applying current from a galvanic battery to muscles—such as a frog’s severed legs—made them move. Could electricity be the “spark of life”? The Italian scientist Aldini electrified the corpse of a man named Forster at Newgate Prison in 1803, causing the body’s face and limbs to contort alarmingly. Audience members were said to have fainted, and one supposedly died of shock.

In Glasgow in 1818, the galvanic “resurrection” of the hanged man Mathew Clydesdale caused a sensation. According to witness reports, the dead man revived and had to be stabbed back to death with a scalpel by one of the anatomists.

Make him a warning to others

Back then, the establishment didn’t consider that crime has social causes. To keep those pesky poor people from stealing your stuff, you only had to make the punishments extremely horrible. In addition to executing people for pretty much everything under the so-called “Bloody Code”—which probably actually exacerbated crime, as evidenced by the saying “might as well hang for a sheep as a lamb”—this included putting the corpse on display for other people to sneer at.

Gibbeting, or “hanging in chains,” involved pickling the corpse with tar and hanging it in a cage by the roadside. People would steal the body parts to sell (the Anatomy Act didn’t cover parts, only whole corpses) or other purposes. Drinking from a gibbeted criminal’s skull (?? who was the first to try this?) cured epilepsy, for instance. And there’s always this:

Make a ‘Hand of Glory’

The severed hand of a newly-executed prisoner was a prized commodity for burglars. What you do is pickle or dry the hand—preferably the one that “did the deed”—then you make some wax (by rendering the felon’s fat, naturally) and fashion a candle cradled in the pickled hand, with the dead man’s hair as the wick. Lighting this monstrosity would put everyone in the house you were robbing to sleep … or render them motionless … or maybe it made you invisible? Something like that. Whatever.

The Hand of Glory is a staple of English folk tales—and a desiccated human hand in Whitby Museum purports to be one—but there’s little hard evidence of anyone actually trying this. Perhaps it worked, so they were never caught! During the North Berwick witch trials (1590) one John Fian confessed to employing a Hand of Glory, but when a witchfinder is pulling your fingernails out you tend to tell him what you imagine he wants to hear. Needless to say, poor John was burned—which at least saved him from being anatomized, I suppose.

Originally published in April 2017.

Viola Carr was born in Australia, but wandered into darkest London one foggy October evening and never found her way out. She now devours countless history books and dictates fantastical novels by gaslight, accompanied by classical music and the snoring of her slumbering cat. She likes steampunk, and thought it would be cool to investigate wacky crimes with crazy gadgets…just so long as her heroine was the creator of said wacky gadgets: a tinkerer, edgy, with a dash of mad scientist. Her Electric Empire series—The Diabolical Miss Hyde, The Devious Dr Jekyll, and The Dastardly Miss Lizzie—is available from Harper Voyager.


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