The Skeleton Trade

Although the human skeleton was well known as a symbol of mortality before 1500, the articulated skeleton does not seem to have come into its own as an object –scientific and artistic as well as symbolic – until the time of Vesalius.  Curiously ubiquitous, since everyone has one, but yet largely invisible, anatomists revealed the skeleton to view.  The well-known illustrations of VesaliusVesalius 1543 Wellcome were plagiarized over and over for two centuries after their publication in 1543.

Vesalius was the first, but not the last, anatomist to give detailed instructions on how to make a skeleton, for although it was a natural object, it was also a crafted object whose construction entailed a lot of work. The human body became an object in motion as it traveled from the scaffold to the dissection table to the grisly cauldron where the bones were boiled to remove their flesh.  While artists and anatomists employed skeletons for instruction, little evidence of their collection appears before the mid-seventeenth century, when they begin to appear in cabinets and collections.  Both the Royal Society and the Paris Academy of Sciences owned several.  At the Paris Academy, André Colson, described as an “ébeniste” or furniture maker, was charged with the making and maintenance of the skeleton room, while the physician Nehemiah Grew, who catalogued the Royal Society’s collections in 1681, may also have made its skeletons.  By the end of the seventeenth century, a vigorous skeleton trade flourished across Europe, and they often appear in auction catalogues and newspaper advertisements alongside books, works of art, and scientific instruments.  At the same time, relics, both old and new, retained their potency in both Catholic and Protestant countries.

After Vesalius, detailed instructions for making a skeleton appeared in many anatomical texts and manuals as part of the education of a physician or surgeons; in the eighteenth century, William Hunter took it for granted that each of his students would need to construct a skeleton for his own use and in addition procure “several skulls.”  While such a process would seem to confer anonymity to the finished skeleton, provenance and even identity often clung to the bones along with religious resonances.  Most skeletons were of executed criminals, some of them widely known.  The skeleton of the “Thief-taker General” Jonathan Wild, executed in 1725, hung until recently in the gallery of the College of Surgeons in London, and Hogarth’s famous 1751 “Fourth Stage of Cruelty”william_hogarth_-_the_fourth_stage_of_cruelty-_the_reward_of_cruelty_-_google_art_project shows the skeletons of other malefactors on display in niches at Surgeons’ Hall while a cauldron awaits the bones of Tom Nero, who is being dissected by the surgeons after his conviction for murder.

Widespread demand and changing scientific contexts expanded the market for skeletons (as well as skulls) beyond Europe to encompass much of the known world by the mid-eighteenth century.  The prodigious collector Hans Sloane received skulls and bones from contacts throughout the world, including native bones that his Jamaican contacts apparently stumbled across in caves.  Sloane’s meticulous catalogues of his collections allow one to trace the provenance of many of his human specimens though other collectors and agents.  Such catalogues, along with account books, advertisements, and illustrations,  reveal this worldwide commerce in skeletons alongside a continued trade in skeletal relics.  Traveling across time and place, skeletons embodied beauty and deformity, crime and punishment, sin and sanctity, science and colonial power, often simultaneously.

The Moving Skeleton

Here’s the full version of the Slate blog post:

British Library
British Library

I’ve been reading Charles Burney’s collection of newspapers for close to two decades:  first turning fragile pages in the Rare Books and Music Reading Room at the British Library, then dipping periodically into the many boxes of microfilm there, and now online, unfortunately behind the Gale paywall.   Charles Burney (1757-1817) was an English clergyman (his sister was the novelist Fanny Burney) who systematically collected old English newspapers, that most ephemeral and perishable variety of print.  His collection dates from the early seventeenth century, but its real strength is in the period after 1695, when the expiration of the Licensing Act allowed a sudden rank growth of newspapers, especially in London — dailies, weeklies, biweeklies, fortnightlies.  Some historians look at the news stories, since each newspaper had its own political slant. I go for the classified ads.  There are ads for lost servants, houses to let, dozens of patent medicines, books, plays, and evening auctions (“For SALE  by the CANDLE”)  as well as dog fights and bear-baiting.  The lady who lost her purse one Friday night in 1720 may apply to a certain Jonathan Wild for its return. Wild, the notorious “thief-taker general,” ran a ring of pickpockets and then demanded a ransom for the return of the goods.  He was hanged in 1725, his career documented by Henry Fielding and his body dissected by the London surgeons.  His skeleton still hangs in Surgeons’ Hall  (more soon on that skeleton).

Hogarth, Southwark Fair, 1733

Another set of bones occupied the ads in the Daily Courant for about 15 months in 1716-17.  The “Moving Skeleton” announced its first appearance “To all Gentlemen, Ladies, and others, who are Lovers of Curiosities” in September 1716, during the Southwark Fair, “at the Perfumer’s next to the Half-Moon Inn.”  The fair was suppressed in 1762 for attracting the wrong kind of crowd.  By a “Mechanical Projection,” the skeleton emerged from an upright case with a spring-loaded door.  A curtain then slowly rose to reveal a full human skeleton, holding an hourglass in one hand and a dart in the other.  When the hourglass ran out, the hand with the dart plunged through the air three times.  The skeleton then emitted a groan “like a Dying Person.”  Its jaw bone struck a bell to tell the time.  When the hands lowered, the operator stuck a pipe into the jaw, and the skeleton lit it and smoked the pipe “as naturally as if Alive.”  It also blew out a candle. To end the performance, the operator poked the skeleton with a stick, and the jaw dropped open, allowing the pipe to be removed.  Then “the Curtain falls down in its Place, and all is over.”

Old Hungerford Market, 1805

This mechanical marvel made the rounds of London for the following year.  In December 1716 it turned up “at the First House on the Left-Hand in Charles-Court in the Strand, near Hungerford Market.”  Hungerford Market stood at the site of the present Charing Cross Station.  But “the Moving Skeleton, or the Skeleton of a Man” played second fiddle to “the wonderful Machine,” “Pinchbeck’s most surprising Astronomical and Musical Clock.”   Visitors to the Clock paid from 2 shillings down to sixpence for the sight; no price is listed for the Moving Skeleton, which was shown  separately.  However, by the next week the skeleton had earned its own description, and the two sights alternated ads for the next several weeks.  Both were on display from 10 in the morning until 9 or 10 at night.  While the skeleton attracted lovers of curiosities, the clock addressed “all Lovers of Art.”

Shortly  after Christmas 1716, the Moving Skeleton retreated into its case once more, only to re-emerge several months later in a new location, without the Clock.  At the end of April 1717, Lovers of Curiosities could once more see this sight “At the next House to Sir John Old-Castle’s, in the Field between Gray’s-Inn lane and New River-Road.” (Sir John Oldcastle, a leader of the Lollards, had been executed for heresy in 1417).  No price is mentioned, and the skeleton could be seen “without hinderance of Time.”   It is advertised again two weeks later and then vanishes once more.

The Moving Skeleton made a final appearance at the end of November 1717, in another newspaper, the Original Weekly Journal.  It is for sale.

Bishopsgate, ca. 1650
Bishopsgate, ca. 1650

The ad describes its performance in detail, which “of late had given so Universal a Satisfaction to those that have seen it.”  If it was the “Artificial Skeleton” described in the Weekly Journal  or British Gazetteer the previous October as having been “shew’d up and down the Country Fairs in England,” it may have lost  some of its novelty at this point, and the 10 shillings a year  it cost in maintenance may have become onerous.  The owner, who remained anonymous, offered to meet prospective buyers at Poole’s Coffee House outside of Bishopsgate.

But we hear no more of the Moving Skeleton.

An Eighteenth-Century Sweeney Todd

Skeleton, after Vesalius, 1670, Wellcome Images
Skeleton, after Vesalius, 1670, Wellcome Images

2 January 2015

A human skeleton was an essential ornament to the early modern dissecting room.

Beginning with Vesalius, a number of anatomical textbooks offered instructions for making an articulated skeleton from a dead body, and there was a flourishing clandestine industry in making skeletons and in stealing or otherwise procuring the necessary dead bodies for their construction.  By the 1720s, a guide to London referred to a mythical “Corporation of Corpse-Stealers,” and the London surgeon Nathanael St. André advertised that he could provide skeletons made to order if you did not want to attend his classes and learn how to make your very own.  In the spring of 1718, the London Weekly Journal reported on a pair of enterprising apothecaries in the English town of Lincoln who endeavored to make a skeleton. However, the apothecaries decided to leave most of the dirty work to someone else:

 A Man being hangd there at the last Assizes, within three Days after his Execution; a couple of Apothecaries contracted with a Butcher, for a Sum of Money, to take the Body out of the Grave, and cut off all the Flesh, fit for them to make a Skeleton of.

The butcher, however, turned out to be equally enterprising, as the story continues:

Which Flesh he sold for Venison to an Inn-Keeper; who making it into a Pasty, invited many of his Neighbours to the eating of it.

The innkeeper and his friends remained unaware of what they had eaten for a while;

But sometime after the Villany being detected, the Butcher and the two Apothecaries were committed to the Lincoln Gaol.

No word of their ultimate fate.

The fictional character Sweeney Todd made his first appearance in the 1840s.  I saw the original Sweeney-Todd-Broadway-PosterBroadway production of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s musical in 1979, with the wonderful Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou.


Dead Man Eating

2013-02-13_15-23-54_556A week ago I saw the Eugene Opera’s production of Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean.  The story is well known, thanks to the 1995 movie.  Sister Helen is asked to be the spiritual advisor of a man on death row at Louisiana’s notorious Angola prison.  There is no doubt that the man – here called Joseph de Rocher – is guilty of a particularly horrific murder.  He claims he is innocent.  Sister Helen works to get him to admit his guilt and seek forgiveness.  This forgiveness comes both from God and from the family of his victim, and the theme of forgiveness is less religious than based on universal values and emotions.

The opera, wonderfully acted and sung by the leads Janis Kelly and Michael Mayes, was powerful and moving.  Heggie’s music, tonal rather than abstract, carried the story and its emotions effectively, with hints of jazz and rock and a folkish hymn that threads through the work.  Michael Mayes, his body pumped up and tattooed, his gait hunched and splay-footed, showed us Joe de Rocher before he ever opened his mouth.  The only false note was in the execution scene, when de Rocher is posed against a wall with outstretched arms, a forced and unnecessary evocation of Christ.

The last wish of de Rocher’s mother is that he be allowed to have the cookies she baked for him.  We don’t hear about his last meal.  But the Corvallis artist Julie Green2013-02-13_15-27-46_835 has, in her series “The Last Supper,” painted over 500 plates with images of the last meals of death row inmates.  I saw them at the Corvallis Arts Center last month, where I took these pictures.  Most of them, like Mrs. de Rocher’s cookies, are painfully banal: cheeseburgers, pizza, fried chicken, French fries, ice cream.  Occasionally the prisoner refuses a meal; one requested only “God’s word.” Painted in blue on found plates, Green’s series gives the date of execution and the state, and the description of the meal as provided by the Department of Corrections.  The plates form a sorrowful parade of mundane wishes.  Green aims to add fifty plates a year until capital punishment is abolished in all fifty states; it has been abolished in 17 states plus the District of Columbia, but the vast majority of executions since 1976 (when the death penalty was reinstated after a brief hiatus) have taken place in Texas, Virginia, and Oklahoma.  (The Death Penalty Information Center gives full background.)

Green’s work makes no overt statement about the death penalty, but like Dead Man Walking, it forcefully expresses the essential humanity of even those we deem the worst among us.  It challenges the idea that we can, or should, legally kill others as a form of punishment.