‘Period drama’ normally refers to how the moneyed lived. The privileged 1% who get to write history and pretend that’s how it was. At roughly the same time as Jane Austen was penning her tales of country manners the urban poor faced poverty, disease – and the very real prospect of having their body ripped from the soil and dissected by anatomists who weren’t getting enough corpses through the proper channels. This fascinating exhibition at the Museum of London, inspired by a find by the Museum’s own archaeology team, shines a light into this bleak and deliberately forgotten world and somehow manages to make it both challenging and inspiring.
Prior to the 1832 Anatomy Act the only legal route for trainee surgeons requiring bodies to practice on was the corpses of recently hanged criminals. This method could supply about three a year. The schools and hospitals of London required about 1,000. Voluntary donation was practically unheard of. The taking of bodies from graveyards was not itself a crime (the dead did not exist, even as property) but was against both common decency and the religious beliefs of the masses. You can’t rise from the dead on the day of judgement if you’ve already been turfed out of your resting place. So, at best, the grave robbers were doing dark work that was strongly disapproved of. And, at worst, they had to create their own supply to meet demand.
In a rare example of something outside London being more famous than something inside, it’s Burke & Hare who are the famous ones. Sixteen deaths are attributed to them. The ‘London Burkers’ – a gang of three – were caught when attempting to pass off a 14 year old ‘Italian Boy’ who had quite obviously not been buried. Elizabeth Ross added at least one to the tally when she murdered Catharine Walsh and tried to sell the body. The diary of a body snatcher digitally displayed in the exhibition makes the grim mundane: “Tried to sell one large, one small.” Large was an adult, small a child.
Alongside the thrills – if you want to look at this grim side in that way, and you might as well – are the shocks. Here the tools of the surgeon, here a body flayed so that artists could represent Christ better on the cross, here the bodies of the poor, the unknown thrown back into the pit. At the London Hospital they got a Christian burial but were unmarked – and unremarked – and it is only thanks to Crossrail that their stories have reemerged.
But there are inspiring moments of humanity, even if comes via odd versions of beauty. The skeleton of a small boy – varnished and veins dyed, his head tilted back to afford a proper view – is startling. His parents gave his body, and no one knows why. Perhaps they thought that by doing so they would prevent others suffering as they must have done. His is a strange kind of immortality, a disturbing kind of inspiration. But it speaks of the power and hope that even these darkest stories have – without these bodies, however ill-found, there would be no advances in the surgeons’ skill or in medical knowledge of the body.
The exhibition ends with references to Alder Hey, and the fact that it is always the poorest, the most vulnerable who surrender their bodies for medical advances. There are always complications, shades of darkness and questionable morality. It is to this exhibition’s great credit that you leave unsure about your exact feelings towards all that you’ve just learnt nor entirely confident that everything is better now.