Cadavers have been used to teach anatomy and surgical techniques, discover rates of decomposition, and even to develop crash test dummies. Corpses have also been used to settle anatomical debates about how Jesus of Nazareth might have been crucified and test the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin.
The crucifixion of James Legg’s corpse
Because the Crucifixion has been depicted in countless of pieces of art, artists have debated the method the Romans used to crucify Jesus in an effort to make their work historically accurate.
According to the Royal Academy of Arts, 19th century artists Thomas Banks, Benjamin West and Richard Crossway believed that painted portrayals of crucifixion were “anatomically incorrect” and they wanted to crucify a corpse to prove their hypothesis. In 1801 they got their opportunity with the execution of an 80-year-old pensioner named James Legg who was convicted of murder and hanged on November 2nd.
Surgeon Joseph Constantine Carpue helped the artists obtain Legg’s body. Carpue wrote about the experiment (via the Royal Academy of Arts):
“a building was erected near the place of the execution; a cross provided. The subject was nailed on the cross; the cross suspended…the body, being warm, fell into the position that a dead body must fall into…When cool, a cast was made, under the direction of Mr Banks, and when the mob was dispersed it was removed to my theatre.”
Crape flayed Legg’s body and Banks another cast. Banks titled the casts “Anatomical Crucifixion” and for a while they were displayed in his studio. Over the years the casts were moved around. They were stored in Carpue’s anatomical museum, the dissecting room of St. George’s Hospital medical school, and the Royal Academy of Arts.
Only the cast of the flayed body exists, no one knows where the cast of the body with skin is located.
Cadaver experiments and the Shroud of Turin
The Shroud of Turin is a holy relic that many believe is the burial shroud of Jesus Christ. The shroud is a rectangular piece of linen that measures 14.3 x 3.7 feet and has the front and back view of a man with his hands folded over his groin. The male figure in the linen seems to have injuries consistent with the Biblical accounts of the Crucifixion.
In 1931 the Catholic Church wanted to substantiate the Shroud’s status as a relic. Church officials reached out to some doctors meeting at a conference in Paris for volunteers to analyze the Shroud and conduct experiments. Dr. Pierre Barbet, a surgeon at Saint Joseph Hospital in Paris, eagerly volunteered for the job.
After examining the Shroud, Barbet noticed two rust-colored stains that looked like rivulets of blood that seemed to originate from an exit wound on the back of the right hand. In Stiff, Mary Roach describes the stains as “elongated” and coming “from the same source but proceed along different paths, at different angles.” Barbet argued that the stains on the back of the right hand were caused when Jesus had to keep pushing himself up on the cross in an effort to breathe and prevent asphyxiation. He used the angles of the stains to calculate the positions Jesus took on the cross.
Barbet obtained an unclaimed corpse from an anatomy lab and had a cross built. When he nailed the hands and feet to the wood and stood it up, the cadaver sagged into the position like he predicted. But Barbet couldn’t figure out how the nails in the palms could support the weight of the body. So he did a second round of experiments on thirteen amputated arms donated by injured patients.
One of Barbet’s nails eventually went through an area of the wrist known as Destot’s space. Destot’s space is an opening in the pinkie (ulnar) side of the wrist bordered by the hamate, capitate, triquetrum, and lunate bones. The problem with this claim is that the wounds on the Shroud are on the thumb (radial) side of the wrist, which is on the opposite side. So the wounds created during Barbet’s experiments and the Shroud wounds don’t match.
In 2001, a medical examiner in New York named Frederick Zugibe, noticed this discrepancy and performed his own experiments with living volunteers. Zugibe strapped (not nailed) close to one hundred volunteers to a cross in his garage. He found that none of them had problems breathing and none tried to lift themselves up. According to Zugibe in Stiff, “It is totally impossible to lift yourself up from that position, with the feet flush against the cross.”
Zugibe argues that divergent blood trails happened after Jesus’ body was cleaned and the water disturbed the coagulated blood causing some to seep out and split into two rivulets. He doesn’t know why Barbet made the mistake with the position of Destot’s space and the nail wounds in the Shroud despite pushing the nail through it during his experiments. Zugibe believes that the nails went through Jesus’ palm in a downward trajectory so that the tip of the nail exited out the back of the wrist.