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Murderer James Legg's story resurrected at body snatchers exhibition

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.

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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