Execution and dissection

Convicts sentenced to death in the colony for murder, acts of bushranging and other serious crimes were hanged on the gallows next to the jail in George Street, and after 1841, at Darlinghurst Gaol. Their bodies were carted back to the Rum Hospital, where the surgeons dissected and studied their corpses, and practised surgical techniques, in the dissecting room at the back of the south wing yard (now The Mint). We can only imagine the scene in the room.

Since 1752 in England, the Murder Act allowed the dissection of bodies of executed murderers for study, but the supply did not meet the demand from medical schools. A black market of corpses resulted, with ‘body snatching’, grave robbing and even murders committed in order to sell the bodies. Dissection was intended to be an additional deterrent to serious crimes like murder, but in the colony of New South Wales, there seems to have been no shortage of executions, and bodies for the surgeons. Between 1826 and 1838, there were 363 executions in the colony, most of them of convicts. The Anatomy Act of 1832 allowed for the legal procurement of corpses of bodies that remained unclaimed 48 hours after death, which meant that any convict who died in the Rum Hospital, without family to collect them and give them a proper burial, was available for dissection. The newspapers regularly reported on the executions and the sordid details of the crimes committed, providing a full list of the identities of individuals who underwent anatomisation here.

On the morning of 13 October 1823, a prisoner named Gorman was executed and his body taken to the hospital, but overseer William Mattingly refused to accept the body, saying there was no room for it. Gorman’s body was left in the street opposite the hospital until at least 4pm, but buried later that evening, presumably having escaped dissection.

Many executed convicts did not receive proper burials. The Australian newspaper pointed out that this added punishment:

does not appear to have that horrifying effect upon delinquents in this country, as elsewhere ... here where the unfortunate criminal is most generally far removed from kindred … he becomes indifferent as to the disposal of his body after death, and is most generally consigned to the earth unlamented and unhonored.

In October 1831 a human skull and arm bones were found at the rear of the General Hospital, which an inquest proved to be the remains of William Roberts, who had been executed for murder and dissected at the hospital. The Australian reported: ‘It appeared that when the medical gentlemen had done with the above members of the human frame, they had been but superficially intered [sic], and that the recent heavy rains had washed or carried them to the spot where they were yesterday discovered’.