In December 1857 a poor man appeared at the Lambeth Police court to ask the magistrate’s advice. In November his elderly sister was so sick with consumption (TB as we know know it) she was ordered to be admitted to the sick ward at the Newington workhouse. There, on the 3 December, she died.
Before she died she had begged her friends and family to give her a decent burial because rumours were swirling around the parish about what happened to the bodies of those that died inside the ‘house.
The next day her husband and friends presented themselves at the workhouse to collect her but she was ‘nowhere to be found’. They asked the undertaker there, and all he could tell them was she had been buried by mistake the body mistaken for that of another pauper, a Mr Bazely. Deeply unsatisfied, and understandably upset, they decided to pursue the matter with Mr Norton at Lambeth.
A local parish constable named Cook was called to give evidence of local practice. He told the court that the workhouse master ‘had been in the habit of disposing of the bodies of deceased paupers for anatomical purposes’. This had caused ‘considerable excitement’ amongst the poor of the parish’.
‘Persons who supposed they were following a deceased relative or friend to the grave not infrequently followed perfect stranger, brought from other parishes, while that over which they supposed they were mourning had been disposed of in a different way; and the thought of such deception created great dissatisfaction’.
Cook’s evidence was damning and must have been shocking to the reading public. Dr Elizabeth Hurren (at Leicester University) has demonstrated that there was a lively trade in the bodies of the poor in Victorian England after the the passing of the Poor Law Amendment Act in 1834. Elizabeth has also suggested that the Whitechapel murders of 1888 may well be connected to this dark history in London. The trade was exposed by a series of articles in the popular press leading, as Hurren explains, to the arrest and prosecution of Albert (or Alfred) Feist at the Old Bailey in May 1858. Feist had broken the terms of the Anatomy Act (1832) which had prohibited the sale of dead bodies for profit. That act had been the government’s reaction to the illegal trade in the dead which was exposed by the Burke and Hare murders in Edinburgh and that of the ‘Italian boy’ in London in 1831.
Feist was convicted but sentence was reserved. The case then went for review and he was subsequently acquitted. The use of pauper bodies for the training of surgeons was legal under the Anatomy Act but the practice was effetely concealed from the public and, most importantly, from the poor themselves. As Hurren’s work show:
‘Summaries of the Anatomy Act, just like the New Poor Law, were supposed to be available to the poor, pinned on walls in places they might congregate. However, in such pieces of legislation, the word “dissection” itself was often concealed behind that of “anatomical examination”.’*
The families of paupers were often unaware of what had happened or unable to do anything about it afterwards. The pressure of finding enough body parts to train all the new doctors increased after 1858 when legislation required that all medical students must study anatomy for two years. Whole bodies were now routinely cut up into their composite parts so students could practice, explore and understand.
It must have made grim reading over breakfast and supper and its interesting to see the story unfold within the reportage of the summary courts. At Lambeth Mr Norton told the complainant that the workhouse master (who was of course Mr Feist) had been guilty of a misdemeanour in allowing his sister’s body to be buried so quickly after death. He was required, by law, to keep it for 48 hours so the family could arrange a funeral themselves. He told him he was happy to issue a summons.
As we now know Alfred Feist would face trial for this and a total of 62 other instances of supplying dead pauper bodies for the anatomy trade. In the end of course he, and his accomplice in the trade – the undertaker Robert Hogg – escaped scot free. Hurren estimates that a staggering 125,000 pauper bodies were sold in the Victorian period to benefit the study of medicine.
Poor lives didn’t matter in the 1800s but the reading public didn’t really want to be reminded of that too often. The exposure of the body trade, like the scandals surrounding the treatment of paupers in the Andover workhouse in 1845-6 reminded society of the harsh realities of being poor in Victoria’s Britain in perhaps a similar way that the tragedy at Grenfell Tower has caused a considerable amount of soul searching this year. Ultimately, it seems, even today poor lives don’t matter as much as rich ones.
[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, December 16, 1857]
*Review by Laurence Talairach-Vielmas, Elizabeth T. Hurren, Dying for Victorian Medicine: English Anatomy and Its Trade in the Dead Poor, c. 1834–1929, in Miranda [http://journals.openedition.org/miranda/4586] accessed 16/12/17