On the 26 April 1801 a dreadful discovery was made at a premises on Drury Lane. In what was once the Queen of Bohemia’s head, Wych Street, police officers and magistrates found the bodies of ‘two children and a man, partly dissected’, along with a number of surgical instruments.
Acting on information the officers had obtained a search warrant and the Morning Post & Gazetteer reported that they discovered ‘limbs, heads, etc…in different rooms of the house’. The body parts belonged, it seems, to cadavers exhumed illegally from nearby church yards to be practiced on by trainee surgeons and doctors.
Before the Anatomy Act of 1832 sanctioned the legal use of pauper bodies for medical dissection there was a shortage of executed felons to anatomise. As a result ‘resurrection men’ profited by digging up corpses and selling them; in Edinburgh the infamous pairing of Burke and Hare killed the unloved and lonely in order to bring the freshest bodies to the dissection table. The 1832 Act was supposedly passed to to bring an end to the trade but as Elizabeth Hurren’s Dying for Victorian Medicine reveals it ushered in a new era of horror for the poor.
The Queen of Bohemia had once been a lively public house, a ‘noble palace’ the paper recorded, where the Committee of the Corresponding Society had been arrested in 1798 at the height of fears about sedition and revolution. Now this it was ‘gloomy and desolate’ which added ‘to the horror of the scene’.