Murderer James Legg's story resurrected at body snatchers exhibition

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

New show reveals that during 19th century medical science boom artists were as keen as surgeons to lay their hands on cadavers

An exhibition of 19th century dissection apparatus, including gruesome wax figurines of body parts, sheds new light on the practise of body snatching – revealing that it wasn’t just surgeons who wanted to get their hands on cadavers, but artists too.

A body cast of Chelsea murderer James Legg with his skin removed and strung up on a crucifix, will form the centre-piece of the Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men exhibition opening at the Museum of London on Friday.

The piece, dated 1801, was made by sculptor Thomas Bank along with artists Benjamin West and Richard Crossway. The experiment was made as part of an artistic debate - the three Royal Academicians wanted to demonstrate that historical artistic depictions of Christ on the cross were anatomically incorrect.

Click here or on "View Gallery" for more pictures

While still warm from the gallows Legg’s corpse was nailed into position on the cross and flayed by a well-known surgeon Joseph Constantine Carpue. A cast was then made of the cadaver when it cooled.

At the time anatomy classes were offered at the Royal Academy of Arts and many artists forged relationships with surgeons and anatomists. It signalled a boom in the accuracy of life drawing and painting.

The Anatomy Act, passed thirty years after Legg's hanging, stipulated that only the bodies of executed murderers could be used for dissection. It came about because the demand for subjects of human dissection among scientists, doctors and artists had led to the illegal trade in dead bodies.

Gangs of ‘resurrection men’, a name given to those who robbed graves - and in the worst cases, murdered -, to trade cadavers for money, rose up, leading to an atmosphere of fear. Relatives held guarded vigils at the gravesides of their loved ones. 

But because only around 50 public executions of murders took place annually in the 1830s the demand for bodies still wildly outstripped the supply – and the bone trade went on unhindered.

The exhibition includes portraits of members of the notorious Gang of Burkers who sold the “suspiciously fresh” corpse of a 14-year-old Italian boy to King’s College School of Anatomy on the Strand. It was suspected that the body had not even been buried and three resurrection men were arrested.

Two of the men, John Bishop and Thomas Williams, gave written confessions of the murder and were hanged at Newgate in December 1831. The third man, James May, was exonerated. The case contributed to the passing of the Anatomy Act in 1832.

Also on display will be gruesome artefacts used for dissection and autopsy including a rusted mantrap, a skull saw, an amputation saw and dissecting hooks and table.

Many of the items were taken from a 2006 excavation of a burial ground at the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel. It revealed some 262 burials, including a confusing mix of bones and animals dissected for comparative anatomy.

From 19 October to 14 April 2013, www.museumoflondon.org.uk

 

Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
musicReview: Wembley Stadium ***
Arts and Entertainment
‘Dawn of Planet of the Apes’ also looks set for success in the Chinese market

film
News
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Super Mario crushes the Messi dream as Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil

    Super Mario crushes the Messi dream

    Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil
    Saharan remains may be evidence of the first race war, 13,000 years ago

    The first race war, 13,000 years ago?

    Saharan remains may be evidence of oldest large-scale armed conflict
    Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

    Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

    Researchers hope eye tests can spot ‘biomarkers’ of the disease
    Sex, controversy and schoolgirl schtick

    Meet Japan's AKB48

    Pop, sex and schoolgirl schtick make for controversial success
    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor