"A peculiar mark of infamy": Punitive dissection and England's Murder Act of 1752

2016-10-25T17:27:20Z (GMT) by Nickoal Eichmann-Kalwara
Abstract: In 1752, the English Parliament enacted An Act for the Better Preventing the Horrid Crime of Murder, which allowed judges to augment murderers’ death sentences with punitive dissection. On the surface, the Murder Act seems anomalous and anachronistic because it was introduced at the cusp of a significant penal reform era. However, as much as the writers of the statute hoped punitive dissection would serve as a crime deterrent, the public reaction resulted in something quite different.

The Murder Act ultimately epitomizes the culmination of a negotiation and appropriation of several early modern English attitudes pertaining to crime and punishment and corporal violability, all stemming from scientific, legal, and popular discourses on death. In creating a hierarchy of superior and inferior bodies, it transmitted a message of marginalization and amplified the distinctions between classes and illustrated that gap in death. Transforming the body into a site of knowledge and punishment, the criminal was, essentially, excised from the social body. This contradicted popular ideals of a “good” death primarily by denying proper Christian funerary and burial services and especially in denying life after death to the dissectee. As such, punitive dissection represented a form of spiritual banishment and reflected mortalist views contrary to established Anglican eschatology of life after death.