Cutting up rough – the early years of the autopsy

Mortuaries and pathology labs were rare in England before the end of the nineteenth century and only really began to be built after the passing of the 1875 Public Health Act. If a dead body was discovered, it would often be taken to the nearest pub for initial examination, public houses traditionally fulfilling many public roles such as register offices and courtrooms, as well as mortuaries, in areas where there was no other suitable venue. If a death was unexplained or suspicious, then the local coroner could order a post-mortem examination to be carried out.

Just as we refer to an ‘operating theatre’, hospitals also had ‘post mortem theatres’ and historically the ‘theatre’ element was literal as these spaces had tiers from which an audience of students and other onlookers could watch as surgeons carried out operations or dissections. The line between education and spectacle could easily become blurred. As often as not, though, post mortems did not take place in hospitals. The idea of seeing inside a human body was both fascinating and horrifying and a post mortem would draw a crowd if it took place in public. The Medical Officer for Portsmouth, George Turner, complained about the crowds of bystanders when he had to carry out post-mortems in a police station in the 1870s.


But because of the lack of suitable venues for post mortems, Victorian autopsies very often took place in the victim’s own home. My book, The Apprentice of Split Crow Lane: The Story of the Carr’s Hill Murder, is a forensic investigation of a child murder that was committed in 1866 in Gateshead. When the body of five-year-old Sarah Melvin was found on a footpath, it was first carried to the nearest public house, where a doctor examined her external wounds. Then, the next day, the same doctor went to the little girl’s house, where her body had been taken, and carried out an autopsy. He was accompanied by a second doctor.

Word of the murder had spread like wildfire and there was already a large crowd outside the very humble home where Sarah had lived with her mother and sisters. The fact that Mrs Melvin had recently separated from Sarah’s father was looked on askance and suspicions were quickly entertained about her possible hand in her child’s death. Imagine the circumstances: your youngest child has died a violent death, hostile crowds are gathering outside your front door, and then two men come into your home to cut her up.


In his Practical Pathology of 1883 Sir German Sims Woodhead wrote instructions for carrying out post-mortem examinations, including that ‘where the examination has to be conducted in a private house … a good firm kitchen table is to be placed in the room where the cadaver is lying. (If this cannot be obtained, the coffin lid makes a very fair substitute.) … Over the table is spread a piece of stout Mackintosh.’ Sims Woodhead listed the many specialist instruments that a doctor carrying out an autopsy ought to have, including a dozen different cutting tools, forceps, hooks, a blowpipe, a mallet and chisels. Compasses and weighing scales were also required, for measuring body parts. However, he recognised that ‘many post-mortem examinations have to be made without the aid of many of the above instruments (and the lack of some of them should never be put forward as a reason for not making an examination)’.

It is very hard to imagine the invasive procedures that Sims Woodhead goes on to describe being done to your own child in the very place where the child ate and slept and played. Sarah Melvin’s grieving mother must have been beside herself. And it’s not even as though the post mortem always revealed definitive answers as to what had happened to the victim. One of the things my investigation of Sarah Melvin’s murder has revealed is the way that the doctor who carried out the post mortem subtly altered his conclusions the better to fit a new narrative of the crime as it emerged. As in so many areas of human activity, objectivity was elusive.

Main image credit: Sources Pintrest & Pintrest. All other images, author’s own. 

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