"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 <i>An Act for the Better Preventing the Horrid Crime of Murder</i>, 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.<div><br></div><div>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.</div>