Repost: George’s choice: an 18th-century convict and a medical experiment

Originally posted here (February 2008)

Last November, I dashed off a quick post about someone I’d encountered in an Ordinary’s Account: It’s Your Neck or Your Arm

On the evening before execution, a respite of 14 days was brought for George Chippendale, and to be continued, if within that time he shall submit to suffer the amputation of a limb, in order to try the efficacy of a new-invented styptic for stopping the blood-vessels, instead of the present more painful practice in such cases. For this indulgence, he, together with his brother and his uncle, had joined in a petition to his Majesty, and thankfully accepted it, appearing in good health and spirits, ready and chearful to undergo the experiment. (Ordinary’s Account, May 1763.)

Well, I got at least one important thing wrong, anyway. It wasn’t George’s arm that was, er, on the block. It was his leg.

How do I know this? Well, by sheer chance, a few weeks after I posted that, I got an email query at work, from a family historian who was searching for a George Clippingdale in the Old Bailey Proceedings. The problem was that the OBP reporters (unlike most other sources the researcher had consulted) spelt his surname Chippendale. (Spelling variations are not an uncommon problem in 18th-century sources, as I’ve mentioned here before.)

So, we got that sorted out, and that would normally have been the end of it. But then the researcher happened to mention that his George was reprieved from a death sentence because a surgeon wanted to use him in an experiment.

At which point, I thought ‘Hang on a minute… that sounds familiar’, and came over here and checked my earlier post. And it’s the same man!

Naturally, of course, I had to write back with a barrage of questions. And the researcher was kind and generous enough to send me his write-up of everything he’d found out about George – and to agree to let me tell you lot about it.

(But I warn you, there’s a sad ending.)

George was born in January 1742, the youngest of five children in a family from Shadwell in Middlesex. He was apprenticed to a waterman when he was 14, but didn’t complete his apprenticeship. Both his parents had died well before the time he turned up in the Old Bailey in April 1763.

He was accused of highway robbery, a capital felony, so he was on trial for his life. He didn’t have much of a defence (‘I was not the person that took the isinglass’) and was duly convicted and sentenced to death.

At this point, a surgeon by the name of Thomas Pierce enters the picture. He claimed to have discovered two ‘powerful and valuable styptic medicines’, as he described in a pamphlet he published in 1767.

He tested his new medicines on ‘the animal creation’ with (he says) encouraging results. The obvious next step was to test them on humans and ‘the larger arteries divided in amputations’. But where would he find human subjects for such experiments?

Well, in the mid-18th century, there was one quite obvious answer: condemned convicts. It was standard practice in England to use the bodies of executed murderers for medical dissection, following the 1752 ‘Murder Act’, which enacted that after death their bodies should either be publicly hung in chains or turned over to the surgeons. (This was not at all popular, and it was not unknown for riots to ensue from surgeons’ efforts to claim the bodies of the executed convicts.)

So Thomas Pierce petitioned the king

for one of the convicts, then under sentence of death in Newgate, upon whom the experiment might be lawfully made by cutting off his leg, and apply the styptic only, instead of taking up the vessels in the usual way [needle and ligature].

His petition was successful, and George either volunteered or agreed to participate in the experiment. He received a temporary reprieve and his execution was postponed. At this point ‘the King’s Serjeant Surgeons’ were consulted for their opinion on the proposed experiment.

And they were not impressed:

the Proofs laid before [us] in Mr Pearce’s Proposal to your lordship, together with the declaration of the extraordinary efficacy of his medicine, are founded only upon experiments made upon the blood vessels of brutes … that this kind of comparative evidence is often fallacious & inconclusive, there being in truth no precise analogy between the human arteries & the arteries of brutes with respect to the violence of their bleeding…

As a result of this negative report, permission for the experiment was withdrawn. Nonetheless, George’s death sentence was commuted to transportation for life. He may have been quite relieved. Pierce, however, was furious, and complained strongly about the rejection in his 1767 pamphlet. Although he reported a success story using his styptics in 1766 – albeit far away in Africa – he never managed to carry out his experiment.

And George – well, I warned you there was a sad ending. He should have been transported in July, but this did not happen. Perhaps he was ill, for he died in prison on 13 August. He was only 21 years old.

Many thanks to Jack Clippingdale for sharing his research with me and giving me permission to quote from his paper ‘Noose or Knife… The Choice for George’.

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