Science Fiction Studies

#71 = Volume 24, Part 1 = March 1997


David Ketterer

"Furnished...Materials": The Surgical Anatomy Context of Frankenstein

Tim Marshall. Murdering to Dissect: Grave-robbing, Frankenstein and the anatomy literature. A Manchester UP book. St. Martin's Press (800-221-7945), 1995. xiv+354. $79.95 cloth, $24.95 paper.

Murdering to Dissect is an odd amalgam--or bizarre suturing--of fascinating social history and often shoddy but "inventive" literary scholarship. There is no question that the criminal practice of robbing graves in order to provide inquisitive surgeons with corpses to dissect--a necessary aspect of medical research--is relevant to the basic conception of Frankenstein. Victor Frankenstein needs corpses to construct his monster and he gets them in the main from "vaults and charnel-houses" (Frankenstein, ed. Joanna M. Smith, 54; this is the edition of the 1831 text that Marshall uses and that I shall continue to cite). At the same time, "The dissecting room and the slaughter-house furnished many of my materials..." (Frankenstein 56). And he "became acquainted with the science of anatomy" (Frankenstein 53). But Tim Marshall wants to go beyond this general observation and link Mary Shelley's novel with the specific historical events, culminating in the Anatomy Act of 1832, which had to do with how the surgeon's need for an increasing number of bodies to dissect was met. His argument, however, is not that Mary Shelley specifically alludes to these events, or in any real way takes account of them in her major revisions for the 1831 third edition of Frankenstein, but that the events themselves retrospectively "accent" the 1818, 1823, and 1831 texts of Frankenstein and make possible the allegorical interpretation that Marshall--with much theoretical massaging--elaborates.

A "Chronology of Events," which precedes Marshall's exposition proper, begins with the Murder Act of 1752 which made the medical dissection of all executed murderers compulsory. But there were not enough such murderers to provide the College of Surgeons--or the Royal College of Surgeons as it became in 1800--with all the corpses it required and hence the grave-robbing trade. It is pointed out in the chronology that "More than a thousand corpses a year disappear from burial grounds in England and Scotland in the first decade of the nineteenth century" (xiii). But still the demand exceeded the supply. The utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Benthan believed that people should be encouraged to volunteer their bodies for dissection after their deaths, and set an example by volunteering his own. In accordance with his will, his body was publicly dissected after his death in 1832. It was a short step from digging up corpses for the surgeons to actually creating corpses. The Irishmen William Burke and William Hare took that step in Edinburgh in 1828 and 1829. The corpses they sold to the Edinburgh anatomist Dr. Robert Knox were the result of murders they themselves committed. After Hare turned King's evidence, Burke was hanged and dissected in Edinburgh in 1829. Back in 1819, the surgeon John Abernethy (whose lectures Percy Shelley attended in 1811) proposed in print for the first time that pauper bodies be used for dissection. In 1824, Thomas Southwood Smith published an article recommending "that all unclaimed bodies from hospitals and workhouses should automatically be handed over for dissection" (xiii). Smith's article was reprinted as a pamphlet entitled The Use of the Dead to the Living in 1828, and in 1832, with the passage of the Anatomy Act (a first version of which failed in 1829) Southwood Smith's recommendation became a legal requirement. Invariably, after the Anatomy Act, the corpses made available to surgeons were those of the poor. It was their corpses which were most likely to be unclaimed by relatives. Instead of being a murderer in order to be a candidate for dissection, it was now only necessary to be poor. Marshall's chronology reveals that the Anatomy Act became law on 1 August 1832, shortly after the First Reform Act which became law on 7 June 1832. Both acts targeted the poor--the first Reform Act denied them voting rights and the Anatomy Act equated them with the murderers of the 1752 Murder Act. The government sneaked by the horrific Anatomy Act while the nation's poor was still incensed by the provisions of the First Reform Act.

There are no direct allusions to the events described above in the three editions of Frankenstein(of course at the time of the original 1818 edition most of them had yet to come to pass). Nor are there any in Mary Shelley's letters and journals. I know because I have checked Betty T. Bennett's edition of the letters and Paul R. Feldman and Diana Scott-Kilvert's edition of the journals. There are no references to any editions of Mary Shelley's letters and/or journals in Marshall's "Select bibliography," and he gives the unfortunate impression that his knowledge of their contents depends upon whatever letter and journal quotations happen to be included in Joanna Smith's Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism edition of the novel. An example occurs in this quotation from Smith's introduction which is of particular importance to Marshall's argument:

It is significant that the novel was re-issued in 1831, at a time when "[t]he burnings, the alarms, the absorbing politics of the day render booksellers almost adverse to publishing at all" (Letters 2.120). The "politics of the day"...are the increasingly violent public debates over a Reform Bill whose early version would have enfranchised a portion of the working as well as the middle class. (Smith 14; quoted, minus the paragraph indentation, Marshall 24)

Marshall claims that both the Anatomy Bill, which failed in 1829, and the Reform Bill were responsible for the unrest to which Mary Shelley refers in her letter. So useful are the supposed links between the Anatomy Bill, the copycat "burkings" of 1831, and Mary Shelley's reference to "[t]he burnings, the alarms, the absorbing politics of the day" that Marshall repeats her statement, as quoted by Smith, near the end of his book (310). Had he checked Volume II of Betty T. Bennett's Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley--and perhaps he did--he would have seen that the quotation comes from a letter to Edward John Trelawny dated 27 December 1830 and that, almost certainly, it should be understood in relation to statements in letters to John Murray (dated 9 August 1830), to General Lafayette (dated 11 November 1830), and to Robert Dale Owen and Frances Wright (both dated 30 December 1830) which all celebrate the July 1830 revolution in France (Lafayette headed the radical support for Charles X as President of a French republic).

Murdering to Dissect requires a very suspicious reading. It is necessary to distinguish between reasonable theoretical, biographical speculations and wire-drawn--often theory-driven--analogies. Among the former are what may be deduced from the Frankenstein quotations in my first paragraph. It is certainly relevant to note that grave-robbing was rife in the Scotland that Mary Shelley knew as a girl and that "Frankenstein's grave-robbing exploits anchor the story in the medical realities of the day . . ." (5). Frankenstein may reasonably be described as "a comparative anatomist" (71) and the monster as "the artificial product of the dissecting room" (69).

But there are many other statements which, if not exactly untrue, variously stretch the truth. An early example is this sentence: "In Mary Shelley's tale [which, be it noted, is set in the 1790s], one suggestive--and provocative-- scenario transforms the story into a plausible cameo of the late 1820s: the appearance of corpses which continuously turn up in close proximity to the surgeon Frankenstein, as if in delivery to him" (11). The shaky allegorical notion here that the corpses in Frankenstein should, in the light of historical events related to the dissection question, be understood as "delivered to the anatomist" (32) is further repeated at least three times (108, 134, 139). It may well be, as Marshall claims, that "Mary Shelley's story is haunted by the spectre of death in poverty" (147)--an understandable enough human fear--but is it so in Frankenstein because dissection would be the inevitable consequence? After "delivering" the corpse of Elizabeth, Frankenstein's new "gallows bride," the monster,

With a parting gesture...figures as the angry gallows crowd of the early eighteenth century. Appearing to Frankenstein's sight, he 'jeers' and, in a claiming gesture, points to the corpse as one of his own. (159)

The "figure" in this quote of the monster as the proletarian crowd of potential pauper dissectees is crucial to the development of Marshall's thesis. The monster, it is repeatedly stated (55, 125, 158, 169, 226) is, in effect, more than one person; he is an assemblage of corpses; he is therefore the crowd. With this "established," Marshall liberally incorporates the Foucault-influenced theory of Elias Canetti's Crowds and Power--with assists from Michel de Certeau and Bakhtin--and away we go.

The ground rules of interpretation have changed considerably over the past twenty years. At issue is what constitutes evidence. The kind of analogical argument that abounds in Murdering to Dissect is today pretty much the norm and no doubt many readers, given the appropriate post-structuralist assumptions, will be more favourably disposed towards its endlessly generative analogies than I am. What used to be strained is now liberating. A good example is Marshall's treatment of the "hulks," as the moored, rotting ships used as overcrowded prisons were called: "In 1815 there existed five hulks holding around 2,500 convicts; by 1828 ten hulks held around 4,500" (185). Among eleven very interesting illustrations in his book, Marshall reproduces on page 186 E.W. Cooke's painting "H.M.S. York as a hulk at Portsmouth, 1818." Because of the overcrowded conditions, the mortality rate on these hulks was very high and thus they provided "a convenient source of [young] corpses for the [dissection] slab" (187). Mary Shelley does not use the word "hulk" to describe the monster but obviously, given his size and general physical appearance, he is a bit of a hulk so Marshall goes on to state that "The figurative hulk in Frankenstein is of course the nameless Creature [the politically correct term for the monster] himself" (187); he later says that "Frankenstein creates a great 'hulk'..." (226). Call me old-fashioned but I find this far-fetched.

The prisoners aboard the hulks died of diseases caused by overcrowding and insanitary conditions. It was not yet understood when Frankenstein was written that diseases were caused by germs often related to vermin. The term "vermin," of course, can be related to human beings as well as rodents. Consequently and anachronistically, Marshall feels justified in applying Canetti's metaphorical theories about germs to Frankenstein's fear that his monster and potential mate will spawn "a race of devils" (Frankenstein 140). Translating all the analogies, the working class and the poor (both represented by the monster), are to be equated with "rampantly procreating bacilli." "The developments in Frankenstein which are the work of the Creature's hand can be cast into a 'germ-ism' scenario of the invisible enemy" (243).

According to Marshall's summation,

The historical monster in Frankenstein is the 1832 Anatomy Act, the lineaments of which were assembled after the story appeared in 1818. The resurrectionist culture Mary Shelley grew up in . . . is present in Victor Frankenstein's famous nocturnal visits to graveyards. But history recasts Frankenstein after Burke and Hare.... In this book I have tried to read the script which history put into the tale of Frankenstein. (327-28)

Certainly, Marshall does demonstrate that, if one wishes, the dissection issue and the activities of Burke and Hare (and others) can be used, and could have been so used by some of the book's early readers, to "rewrite" Frankenstein, i.e., to generate a new and interesting interpretation of the novel. But there is no evidence--as Marshall himself admits--that that interpretation had anything much to do with Mary Shelley's intentions, insofar as they can be persuasively reconstructed. But the work itself is always amenable to new readings. If one wishes, a reader may understand "The hare mockingly offered to Frankenstein" as "a metonymy of the reversal crowd [a term drawn from Canetti's theory]" (291). Marshall is referring here to the final pursuit when the monster leaves Frankenstein "a dead hare" (Frankenstein 171) to eat. But one wonders why Marshall did not go the additional distance and allow history to rewrite this hare so that it is understood as a mocking figure for William Hare!

Finally, there is something misshapen and distorted about Murdering to Dissect. It is not really a book about Frankenstein. It is really a very interesting and engagingly written work of cultural history dealing with the anatomy legislation, its context, and related literary works, including Frankenstein. For much of this material Marshall is indebted, as he acknowledges, to Ruth Richardson's Death, Dissection & the Destitute (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1989). He thanks her "for commenting on the book's final draft" (xii). Marshall has useful things to say about various dissection-related publications such as De Quincey's On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts (1827, 1839), Dickens' Barnaby Rudge (184O), and Mrs. Gaskell's Mary Barton (1848). A better book would have resulted had Marshall simply treated Frankenstein as one further such example and not over-inflated that case by making it the primary subject of his book. Marshall has taken what should have been an article on Frankenstein and, with too much repetition, combined it with what should have been a general sociological/cultural/literary study in a way that seriously skews the relative weights of the two components.


Canetti, Elias. Crowds and Power. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981.

The Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Ed. Betty T. Bennett. 3 vols. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980, 1983, and 1988.

Mary Shelley. Frankenstein. Ed. Joanna M. Smith. Case Studies in Contemporary Literature. Boston: Bedford Books, 1992.

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