return to normal view
 A Ripperologist Article 
This article originally appeared in Ripperologist No. 71, September 2006. Ripperologist is the most respected Ripper periodical on the market and has garnered our highest recommendation for serious students of the case. For more information, view our Ripperologist page. Our thanks to the editor of Ripperologist for permission to reprint this article.
The Victorian Medico-Legal Autopsy
Part I: Dissection in Pursuit of the Cause of Death

Introduction: The Autopsy and Forensic Examination in 1888

It would be wrong to assume that the standards of forensic investigation practiced by medical men during the period of the Whitechapel murders were crude or to suggest that the surgeons were not competent in their conduct of autopsies. An examination of contemporaneous medical texts convincingly reveals an appreciation of the need for thorough and objective investigation of crime scene and bodies, and for the accurate documentation of the findings. These texts give valuable insight into the approach and techniques employed by the surgeons engaged in examining the bodies of the Whitechapel murder victims, and also allows for interpretation of the terminology commonly employed.

During the course of this evaluation I have looked at many pertinent medical books that were published in the United Kingdom toward the end of the nineteenth century. Such texts would undoubtedly reflect the state of knowledge of forensic science during the period of the Whitechapel murders. Indeed, we can hypothesise that some of these texts would almost certainly have been owned by or consulted by Doctors Phillips and Bond and their colleagues.

In 1899, J A P Price defined ‘autopsia’ (autopsy) as ‘a term curiously applied to post-mortem examination or inspection of the body after death’; his definition of ‘Post-mortem’ was, ‘an uncouth expression for the opening and examination of the dead body’. Price also confirmed that ‘Sectio is not satisfactory’, and that autopsia was ‘unintelligible.’ The term Sectio cadaveris meant merely the dissection of a dead body and was clearly inadequate. Price obviously was not too sure what to call the procedure although he passed no judgement either way on ‘necropsia’ (necropsy). Just to confuse the issue further, ‘necroscopy’ was also to be found in the same 1899 edition of the dictionary as another name for a post-mortem examination, but fortunately it never found a way into regular usage.1

The literal meaning of autopsy is ‘self-seen’ or ‘seeing with one’s own eyes’ and the word appears with that definition in the first edition of Samuel Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary of the English Language.2 In another sense, autopsy could even be taken to mean self-examination after death! But the word has since progressed beyond the literal interpretation to establish its own definition and we all know that it means the dissection and examination of a corpse to establish the cause of death, although at best it should only really apply to human corpses and not to those of animals. A Post-mortem literally means ‘after death’ and is taken to mean the same as autopsy, but today it is rather too broad a term. There are many aspects to an ‘after death’ examination that do not just refer to the examination and investigation of the corpse. In any case, its use is not restricted to medical application – there can be post-mortem (or retrospective) analysis on anything. Necropsy, however, is a far better term, referring as it does to examination of the dead and rather more specifically to dissection and investigation of the corpse. All three terms will be encountered here and in the contexts we adopt there is no difference between them. Note also that the term ‘Post-mortem’ is often hyphenated and occasionally one word but that it is never italicised. Here we will use the two-word format and hyphenate the term when we use it adjectivally, ie, as in ‘post-mortem examination’ or ‘post-mortem discolouration’.