One man’s complaint reveals ‘considerable excitement’ about the trade in pauper bodies at Lambeth

body-snatchers

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-VielmasElizabeth 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

A distressed mother hits out at Great Ormond Street Hospital

engraving

Great Ormond Street Hospital, c.1858 from The Illustrated Times 

Most if us are familiar with the amazing work that Great Ormond Street hospital does today. Great Ormond Street (or GOSH) opened in 1852 with a mission to treat  sick children. At the start it only had 10 beds and treated the sick poor from the local area. It was founded by Dr Charles West, who had written and lectured extensively on the particular diseases of children and how to treat them.

GOSH was a charity, and so relied on donations to survive. Within a few years it was in trouble, unable to treat the number of patients that applied to it. In 1858 Dickens gave a performance at a charity dinner, raising enough money to buy the property next door and extend provision to 75 beds. In 1871 readers of a popular children’s magazine, Aunt Judy’s Magazine, donated £1,000 to sponsor a cot; this set a trend for future sponsorships.

So by 1872 the hospital had survived an early crisis and was now well established. it treated the children of the poor, providing a much needed service not available before. In the Victorian age children were increasingly valued and legislation was passed to protect them. The idea of ‘childhood’ (something limited largely tot the children of the wealthy) was extended to all children in the later 1800s.

GOSH was a pioneer from the start, and the hospital has seen many advances in paediatric medicine. In 1872 surgeons began to experiment with the use of electricity to treat paralysis and other ailments.  There years later GOSH’s first purpose built 100 bed hospital opened to the public and in 1878 a dedicated paediatric nursing college started training future nurses.

The extent of medical knowledge in the 1800s had improved considerably from the previous century but it was still very limited by today’s standards. In June 1872 a ‘respectable’ mechanic’s wife came to the Clerkenwell Police court to complain about the hospital to Mr Barker, the sitting magistrate.

Mrs Sarah Hornblower lived at 52 Johnson Street, Somers Town, and when one of her children fell ill she took it to the hospital. The child was an out patient at GOSH from April 1872 but on June 7th it fell dangerously ill and she took it in again.

While she waited to be seen to the poor child died in her arms, and she left it with the hospital while she went to make arrangements for its burial. When she returned later she discovered, to her horror, that a post mortem had been performed.

While this was, it was later established, standard procedure, it came as a terrible shock to Susan. When she complained to the justice she told him that:

‘the surgeons, without her authority or sanction, had cut open her child from the throat downwards’, and no one it seems had apologised or explained it to her.

Later that day Mr Barker was able to discuss the complaint with the hospital’s house surgeon, Mr Beach. He explained that Mrs Hornblower’s child had been suffering from croup or diphtheria and it was important to establish which had proved fatal. Croup (or laryngotracheobronchitis) is caused by a virus and affects the lungs. It causes a ‘barking’ cough and today it very rarely proves fatal.

Croup was not contagious but diphtheria is. Today diphtheria is rare in the UK because children are vaccinated against it, but in the 1870s it was a disease that could and did kill children in London.

So Dr Beach was being sensible he said, in checking for the cause of the child’s death so he ‘better attend to the applicant’s other children’. He was asked if there was any other way to ascertain what had killed the child, short of performing a partial autopsy. There was not he replied, and he had only done what was absolutely necessary.

Dr Beach added that Mrs Hornblower should not seen her child in that state. When she had entered the room where the body lay she had ‘in the most hasty manner pulled the sheet off the body, and thus it became exposed’. Mr Hornblower had been consulted and had agreed to the post mortem so the hospital was covered.

We can only feel sympathy for Susan Hornblower, the loss of a child is always a tragedy however it happens and she was probably shocked to see her son or daughter like that, and understandably in  distress she hit out. The magistrate told her that no one had done anything wrong and while she was upset there was nothing to support a summons.

He added that there ‘was a great deal of difference  between anatomy and making a post-mortem examination’, a possible reference to popular fears of the anatomisation of pauper bodies in the nineteenth century following the passage of Anatomy Act (1832), which allowed hospitals access to the cadavers of the dead poor.

We aren’t told in this report whether the child died of croup or diphtheria. Hopefully the Hornblowers’ other children survived and none were affected as badly as their sibling. We do know that GOSH remains at the forefront of paediatric care nearly 150 years later.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, June 22, 1872]