London’s Undead – The Humane Society

In 1825 London’s Humane Society held its anniversary dinner, which was followed by a procession of 530 persons who had been returned from the dead by this benevolent charity. Since its founding in 1776 they claimed to have reanimated over 5,000 people in London alone. Add to this all the societies in Britain, North America etc., this makes today’s zombie parades for halloween pretty tame stuff, but there is much importance here.

The first Humane Society was founded in Amsterdam, largely aimed at reviving those accidentally drowned. The first London House of Recovery was on the banks of the Serpentine, where a physician was on duty summer and winter where victims were taken and treated. Victims of drowning were dried out and warmed, lightning tended to be shocked back to life with electricity, both of which were considered far more humane than the peasant habit of beating people back to life.

This could be shrugged off as the strange and varied realms of science in the eighteenth century, but there were important aspects to this which we still struggle with. The revival techniques were often used on suicides, or self murderers, some of whom were very angry at being saved. People who committed suicide were still seen as being denied resurrection in the afterlife for all time, and were often buried at crossroads or in unconsecrated ground.  If a suicide was revived, were they still damned? This was a huge moral question.

There was also links between murder and self murder. Since suicide was such a moral crime, those who opposed the death penalty also promoted the idea that people were pushed by circumstances to self murder, so those responsible for making lives unbearable should have been punished, a notion which is seldom considered today.

The Humane Society was on thin ice when some members suggested reviving criminals recently hanged, which would totally change  the punishment of hanging, so their actions here were seen as a threat to national security.  But it was suggested that such attempts could advance the science and help revive those who accidentally died. Since 1650 there had been a number of famous hangings where the victim survived, so this was not completely far fetched.

This notion was put to the test when one of their founders, a prominent opponent of the death penalty, Rev. William Dodd was convicted of forgery. He was sentenced to death but  believed he would be saved by his supporters.  But this failed to happen, and one of the great opponents of the death penalty was lost, though his sermons survive as a document of the Humane Society’s early days.

4 thoughts on “London’s Undead – The Humane Society

  1. I really enjoyed this post. I hadn’t realised that there was opposition to the death penalty in the 18th century. It would be interesting to know how widespread this opposition was and how people like William Dodd thought that people convicted of what were then capital crimes should be punished instead (e.g. sentenced to life imprisonment or transportation). Did opponents of the death penalty believe that criminals could be reformed and potentially reintegrated into society?
    Thank you for all the fascinating blog posts on your website!


    • There was massive opposition to it as it tore families apart, leaving wives & children dependent on poor relief. Opposition to enclosures & loss of rights to forage impoverished the poor so often driven to poach & trespass. Capital convictions often remitted to transportation to North American colonies, then to found Australia

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you so much for replying to my comment! I hadn’t realised that there was such a thing as poor relief. Please forgive my ignorance but I just wondered what used to happen if someone was found guilty of a capital offence but the sentence was reduced to transportation. Would it just have been the criminal himself who was transported or would his wife and children have gone with him? I was thinking that as transportation was a punishment only the criminal would have been transported but then presumably his wife and children would have been left reliant on poor relief, so an argument against capital punishment based on not wanting families to be dependent on poor relief would also be an argument against transportation (unless there was some way a transported criminal could send money to his wife to support her and the children). I was thinking that an argument like this against capital punishment would probably also be an argument against imprisonment, as I’m guessing that people in prison wouldn’t have been able to work and so, again, wouldn’t have been able to support their families. I guess that the problem, though, is that almost everyone (probably including most of the people who opposed capital punishment) would have felt that people found guilty of serious offences ought to be punished. Were there any punishments that wouldn’t have left wives and children reliant on poor relief?
    Please forgive me if what I have written doesn’t make sense! There may be something really obvious that I have overlooked …


    • The First poor laws were passed by Elizabeth. Based on parishes ppl paid rates to support orphans widows sick & infirm.
      Big opposition to transportation was it left families without breadwinner. Also left wives in limbo as no idea if & when husbands cd return so were unable to remarry


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