Contents Index

Frankenstein and the 1832 Anatomy Act

Tim Marshall

In Gothick Origins and Innovations, ed. Allan Lloyd Smith and Victor Sage (Amsterdam; Atlanta: Rodopi, 1994), pp. 57-64.

{57} The year 1832 is generally known, in the English political context, as the monumental moment of the passing of the Great Reform Act. A good deal less well known is the fact of the successful passage through Parliament of another piece of legislation, the 1832 Anatomy Act. It concerned the dissection of corpses, the raw material of new empirical teaching methods in the science of morbid anatomy. In the early years of the nineteenth century dissection was fast becoming an imperative prerequisite to the furtherance and the legitimation of medical science. The cultural context here is the professionalization of medicine and an urgent requirement for trained surgeons. By the 1820s, the decade between the three editions of Frankenstein in 1818, 1823, and 1831 respectively, several thousand bodies were required per annum, but there was no legal provision of bodies in such quantities. The Murder Act of 1752, which ordered either public dissection or hanging in chains for executed murderers, failed to supply a sufficient quantity for the medical schools' needs.

Historically, the hangman served the surgeons. From the mid-eighteenth century onwards, it increasingly occurred that the crowds at the scaffold openly contested the ownership of the body. The surgeons, as they waited in the wings of the scaffold, were frequently accused by the crowd of being 'murderers'. The spectacle of excessive violence on the scaffold -- as Foucault has argued -- gave officialdom a negative and controversial public image, as the exceptionally low public standing of the medical profession in the 1820s also attests. The new legislation in 1832 requisitioned, instead, the bodies of the poor, transferring the penalty from murder to poverty. The medical men of the 1820s were working towards dissociating themselves from the illicit, the profane, and the unclean, as exemplified in particular by the men who took corpses from graves and sold them to the surgeons -- the 'resurrectionist' fraternity. Grave-robbery, and dissection, crossed class barriers in the 1810s and 1820s, and this fact is the key to the labyrinth of the social implications of the legislation.

There are commercial developments prior to 1832 in the lucrative business of grave-fortification. A profusion of gadgetry appeared, available to those with money, to purchase privacy and wholeness in the tomb, to insure the soul's survival, or future resurrection. By the time of the late 1810s, the afterlife was fast becoming a marketable commodity. The famous leaden, or 'Patent' Coffin, was registered in 1817, one year before Frankenstein; it was advertised with explicit reference to the malign activities of the grave robbers. This coffin ap- {58} pears in Oliver Twist, a post-legislation text, as an antique, a commercial relic.1 Surgeon teachers came to rely on their own ingenuity to obtain the materials of their trade. Before the 1790s this usually led to small bands of students exhuming newly buried corpses from cemeteries in the dead of the night.

1831, the year of the third edition of Frankenstein, saw the arrival of the cholera. The surgeons exploited the epidemic, especially where low-level mass burials in unconsecrated ground were concerned. In the culture of poverty, dissection was hated and feared. It raised the question whether physical resurrection at the Last Judgment was possible. This question had long existed for the poor, who could not afford leaden coffins. Michael Durey comments:

The same fundamentalist religious beliefs which made burial in unconsecrated ground unacceptable applied equally to resurrectionism. The doctrine of 'Resurrection of the Flesh' has been part of the basic faith of Western Christendom throughout the ages . . . In an age when the reading of the Bible was commonplace, and its interpretation personal, such statements as 'the identical structure, which death had previously destroyed' will be restored, or the 'particles composing each individual's flesh' will be collected together, were unambiguous and allowed of only one interpretation.2
Also, the dissection of the body was widely regarded as morally degrading, for the law permitted the dissection only of convicted murderers. There was, therefore, a social stigma on dissection. Jeremy Bentham's famous donation of his body for dissection after his death in 1832 testifies to his long commitment to break this perceived stigma, and hence to legitimate the medical profession in a troubled phase of its historical development. It was Bentham in fact who devised the Anatomy Act -- in considerable secrecy in the first instance -- while his Utilitarian disciples piloted the legislation through Parliament in the late 1820s. The first unsuccessful attempt to legislate acquired from its opponents the nickname of the 'Midnight Bill', which alongside the reference to the time of night in the graveyard, alludes to the skillful Parliamentary time tabling by those who wanted to limit the discussion of the social implications of the proposed law.

As the demand for bodies intensified, the teachers became increasingly {59} reliant on part-time bodysnatchers and resurrectionists. Of course, grave-robbing, in a declining market, leads to the further step of committing -- or commissioning -- murder, and Bentham had long foreseen the possibility of this development. In 1828 the famous Burke-and-Hare scandal erupted. Two men, named Burke and Hare, murdered at least sixteen people and supplied the bodies to Dr Robert Knox, the leading light of the Edinburgh medical academy. Knox appeared to the public to have knowingly connived in the affair. He kept silent, however, and the point was never proved. The scandal brought to public attention the medicine of murder; it directly associated medicine -- the cause of life -- with the commission to kill. Suddenly, in a great public outcry, the corpse hit a the headlines. The subsequent 'Burkophobia' panic sent a wave of fear all through the country. Historians of the bodysnatching era have argued that the terror was skillfully co-opted and tacitly encouraged -- via copycat developments -- in order to press the case for a legislative solution to the problem. The legislative solution, as Ruth Richardson has noted, 'acted in support of the ruling elite in a re-definition of poverty, and the use of dissection to terrorise the poor'.3 In effect, the new law criminalised poverty and contributed to a number of ideological and political agendas. The Anatomy Act, in short, was an advance clause of the 1834 Poor Law. As it became law in 1832, it remained more or less masked by the momentous moment of the Reform Bill. After 1832 the new middle-class cultural hegemony began, and the common dread of dissection was transposed on to the world of poverty.

I will limit my remarks to Frankenstein, and the two moments of its appearance in 1818 and 1831 respectively. I shall attempt to reconstruct a contemporary reader's response, and try to identify the way historical events inscribe themselves into certain signs in the text.

Victor Frankenstein studies anatomy, of course. His nocturnal visits to graveyards are a famous part of the story. He combines the roles of resurrectionist and anatomist, and these visits supply the dissection room which is a conspicuous part of his laboratory. As the story progresses, however, he encounters murder after murder, corpse after corpse. First it is William, then Clerval, and finally his bride, Elizabeth. After 1828, the continuing scandal affecting the medical profession would have supplied a context in which each corpse in the story appears to be left, in effect offered, to the surgeon in the spirit of a body-snatching commission. The monster supplies the bodies, of course, but the {60} 'doppelgänger' motif which binds Frankenstein to his creature implies an unspeakable complicity. Here is Frankenstein the resurrectionist, just after he has seen and spurned the monster in their first encounter:

I thought I saw Elizabeth, in the bloom of health . . . I embraced her, but as I imprinted the first kiss on her lips, they become livid with the hue of death; her features appeared to change, and I thought that I held the corpse of my dead mother in my arms; a shroud enveloped her form and I saw the grave-worms crawling in the folds of the flannel (p. 102).
This is the story's resurrectionist cameo. It is the first hint that even Frankenstein's family is not immune from Victor's professional requirements as an anatomist. As the murders occur, Frankenstein becomes encumbered by a criminal association which he cannot publicly declare; a position he holds in common with the historical figure of Dr Knox, the beneficiary of Burke and Hare. There is also, of course, the cameo in the story of the new town of Edinburgh itself (p. 203). The city is visited by Frankenstein and Clerval, as they tour en route to the Orkneys. The historical context here supplies a crucial addition or accentuation of meaning in respect of the 1831 edition. Burke and Hare would have seen to it -- alongside the talk at large in the country -- that the vision of Edinburgh would have meant something very different from its earlier distinctly romantic accentuation in 1818.

The three editions prior to 1832 -- 1818, 1823, and 1831 -- are a prolepsis, a script which anticipates the legislative intervention in the anatomy context. Frankenstein is a palimpsest text -- a parchment which has a second use or meaning after the original writing has been erased. After 1828 it becomes apolitical, a writing on the wall slogan which spells out that BURKING ISN'T WORKING. The narrative is a portrait of the medical man's 'arrival' in modern society 'in the form of Frankenstein's voice, as he tries to assemble political allegory -- that is to say, a statement ideologically favourable towards the 1832 settlement -- while lacking the legitimation with which to do so. The monster, an assemblage of many corpses, is staging political satire. The text in all sorts of ways is a riot of what Bahktin calls multi-accentuality, signs which in social crisis become -- like the corpses which appear in the story -- inflected by different social accents and evaluations. The monster is striking at social hypocrisy; but he is also provoking the power of hypocrisy. William's, Clerval's, and Elizabeth's are middle-class bodies. They are the 'wrong' class of bodies for the surgeon, and the carnival of killing makes a powerful case in favour of the legislation. The 'body of the condemned man' that figures so large in Foucault's argument con- {61} cerning the transition to disciplinary society obviously looms large in Frankenstein.4 Mary Shelley's tale belongs to the genre of stories in currency throughout the body snatching era, 'in which anatomists suffer horror when the corpse they are about to dissect turns out to be a relative or friend'.5 The denouement recognises the difficulties involved in acquiring clinical detachment. The victims in Frankenstein are all throttled -- an enactment of the manner in which Burke and Hare's victims were popularly believed to have met their deaths. William Hare was famous for his perfection of a stifling technique that apparently left no signs of violence on the body; and his beneficiary, Dr Knox, acquired popular notoriety at the time of the nationwide scandal by appearing to have consistently colluded with the deception. In the 1831 edition of Frankenstein the black stifle marks left on the neck of the victims -- the tell-tale signs which Frankenstein always observes -- would have spoken volumes about Knox's corrupt silence on the point as to exactly how much he knew about what was going on. Throttled, symbolically 'Burked', the bodies in the story need only be left, for the surgeon is forever on his way to the scene of the body. The medical profession preferred the corpses of young human beings. The anatomically 'young' corpse was favoured for its flexible exhibition of human structure; and the victims in Frankenstein meet this requirement.

With his famous galvanic creation, Frankenstein creates a prize specimen which eludes criminal detection and therefore, pre-1832, automatic dissection as a murderer. Well before 1832 officialdom mounts a series of propaganda moves designed to legitimate dissection, conscious of its severe stigma in popular perceptions. The propaganda project -- as Bentham realised -- was riddled with circularities. Dissection, Richardson notes, 'would become stigma-free only by the elimination of popular prejudice, but this in turn depended on the removal of the stigma'.6 There are instances in the bodysnatching era of surgeons employing all kinds of subterfuge to secure the remains of impressively large human beings, coveted items for the glass cabinet. The great body in Frankenstein is explicitly withheld from the surgeons and the whole propaganda game:

I shall collect my funeral pile [asserts the monster] and consume this miserable frame, that its remains may afford no light to any curious and unhallowed wretch who would create such another as I have been (p. 260).
{62} It is essential to take the point that before 1832 dissection was a feared and hated punishment for murder. In addition, it offended against a large number of longstanding practises in popular culture concerning the importance and the integrity of the corpse, especially the practice of 'corpse-watching' which took place in the period between death and burial. In Frankenstein Elizabeth, Frankenstein's bride, spent her early childhood in poverty. She in fact hails from the culture of death where corpse-watching was practised, and after she is murdered we are told that the room where her corpse lies suddenly fills with weeping women (p. 260). However, Elizabeth on her wedding-day is a figure who has just recovered her aristocratic status and wealth -- and she is attacked for her class betrayal, as the monster sees it. On the very day which symbolises his professional and social legitimacy, Frankenstein has Elizabeth's corpse delivered to him on its 'bridal-bier' [3.6.2]. He is the aspiring middle-class surgeon, who, as the phrase goes, marries not for money, but where money is. Frankenstein stages a charade rehearsal of the political marriage of the middle-classes and the aristocracy which in 1832 was to sanction the passing of the anatomy legislation. The bodies of the poor were to be used for the benefit of the wealthy: it was not, after all, as if anybody poor would personally benefit from an improved system of medical education in the early to middle nineteenth century.

In Frankenstein's proleptic script the monster exhibits in his physical constitution the stigma which the law was to impose. His existence at large enacts the management-crisis that a number of historians identify, in the decade between the two editions of Frankenstein, as critical to the transition to capitalism: a rising crime rate, and a dire lack of prison provision. The short-term prison provision in the 1820s was provided by the Hulks, as they were called, vastly overcrowded prisonships moored on water in an uncomfortable proximity to civilisation. The figurative hulk in Frankenstein is the monster himself, a contemporary possibility in the signs which is supported by a detailed scheme of imagery in which he is effortlessly amphibious, a large body in water, and a figure moving at speed on land. This big person -- this massive hulk -- shadows the growing shortfall in the legal supply of subjects.

There is a specific reason why the monster must logically go for the entire Frankenstein family. Under Bentham's directive, the stipulation in the legislation was that the surgeons were to have automatic access to all unclaimed bodies from the workhouse. Outside of nearest known relatives, bona fide claimants in any ordinary sense were not recognised. In both pre-legislation texts, it appears, the shortfall of corpses is working to define and target this 'monstrosity' in cer- {63} tain socially useful ways. Quite simply, the monstrosity of this body consists in its having no relatives, though it seeks them: it thus qualifies as unclaimable by relatives, and answers to the legislation's most contentious clause.

The 'relatives' issue is complicated in Frankenstein by its duplication in surrogate forms. 'No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely . . .' [1.3.6] muses Frankenstein, as he contemplates his project. This metaphor of paternalist success entails a bind of 'gratitude' which he himself will revoke as the allegory of a failing political paternalism proceeds. The history and complexion of Frankenstein's family, and Elizabeth in particular, shows a hybrid class complexion, a family in fact constituted -- and duly grateful for it -- by benevolent philanthropy. In this respect the family belongs, as does Frankenstein, to a distinctly pre-1832 political and social climate in which poverty was bonded to forms of humanitarianism in ways that, post-1832, it manifestly ceased to be. The complexities of the Reform crisis and its resolution were to see to it that, politically and ideologically, benevolent paternalism effectively ended in 1832.

The passage of the Anatomy Act into law is at once symbol and agency of the new politics of reprisal and social inequity, the politics of 'two nations', rich and poor. The hybrid elements in Frankenstein's family, notably, are progressively differentiated along class lines by killings, and corpses, that signify intractably hardening social divisions. It is clear that developments in Frankensteim intensify after Frankenstein's own broken promise to his own creation, of a mate. The pledge is initially prompted by a dutiful, if equivocal, paternalism. The monster, however, describes what he wants from Frankenstein as a 'right' which means a political right. If Clerval doubles with Frankenstein, it is as a portrait of the surgeon he might have been, minus the monster. It bears saying, then, that Clerval is the bourgeoisie in 1832, idealised, minus the Anatomy Act. His murder is a desperately close-to-home affair, not least in 1831. Producing this of all corpses, Clerval's, the monster 'produces' the political underside of 1832: the Anatomy Act's contribution to policies of class reprisal and class war. After Clerval's murder, Frankenstein can talk only the language of antagonism and reprisal.

The political allegory apparent in the broken pledge in Frankenstein is readable as a remarkable prolepsis of 1832, the political bad faith of which has prompted some historians, and E. P. Thompson in particular, to employ a whole vocabulary of betrayals and dishonoured bargains. As Thompson notes of 1832, 'blood compromised with gold to keep out the claims of égalité.7 In the 1830s, {64} as Richardson notes, rule by division was born in the political convenience of alliances forged between elites and rising middle-class aspirations.8 The marriage of the aristocracy and the upper middle classes in 1832 insured, for the surgeons, that their unwelcome dependency upon the ghouls of the night, the resurrectionists, was at an end.

Frankenstein is the classic story of the bodysnatching era. It is also a fictional account of the legislation which ended that era. With the Anatomy Act as law, the monstrous face of the Utilitarian culture of mid-Victorian England was born.


1. The snuffbox which Mr Sowerberry offers Mr Bumble in chapter four of Oliver Twist is a miniature model of the patent coffin. Fagin and Sykes are ex-resurrectionists. They have been made redundant by the Anatomy Act and are turning to new forms of crime.

2. Michael Durey, The Return of the Plague 1831-2 (London: Gill & Macmillan, 1979), pp. 174-75.

3. Ruth Richardson, Death, Dissection and the Destitute (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1989), p. 152.

4. See Foucault, Discipline and Punish, Chapter One.

5. Richardson, op cit, p. 31.

6. Ibid, p. 160.

7. E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (London: 1963), p. 902.

8. Richardson, op cit, pp. 265-66.