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Fun fact about dueling from a liver transplant surgeon

August 26, 2013

In her book Final Exam: A Surgeon’s Reflections on Mortality, Pauline Chen discusses the medical student’s first rite of passage: gross anatomy lab, where, over the course of a semester, a human cadaver is painstakingly dissected and memorized. People donate their bodies to science nowadays, but for most of Western history, (legal) supply was a bit of a problem. Starting around the 13th century, European surgeons learned on executed criminals; Chen calls a sentence of dissection a “supra-capital punishment,” and goes on to say that according to a 1784 Massachusetts law, “a slain duelist could either be buried without a coffin in a public place and with a stake driven through his body, or given to a surgeon.”

The text of the law, from Acts and Laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, is pretty juicy reading:

“Whereas divers persons, from the want of a due regard to the life of man, and in contempt of the authority and government of the Supreme Giver and Disposer of life, a regard to which is essentially necessary to the preservation and happiness of a republic, and in violation of the wise and righteous laws of civil society, have voluntarily and maliciously engaged in the detestable and infamous practice of duelling, whereby upon false notions of honor, that result from a want of moral sense and human feeling, many lives have been lost, and many families have been brought to distress and ruin:

“Be it therefore enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives, in General Court assembled, and by the authority of the same, That whosoever shall for private malice, displeasure, fury or revenge, voluntarily engage in a duel with rapier or small sword, back sword, pistol, or any other dangerous weapon, to the hazard of life, although death doth not thereby ensue, and shall in due course of law… be convicted thereof, shall be carried publicly in a cart to the gallows with a rope about his neck, and set thereon for the space of one hour… and be committed to the common gaol of the county, without bail or main-prize, for the space of twelve months, and fin[e]d sureties for the peace and good behaviour for the space of one year after the expiration of the said twelve months, or in lieu of the said imprisonment shall be publicly whipped, not exceeding thirty-nine stripes….

“And be it further enacted, That when it shall appear by the Coroner’s inquest that any person hath been killed in fighting a duel… the body of such person so killed be immediately secured and buried without a coffin, with a stake drove through the body at or near the usual place of execution, or shall deliver the body to any surgeon or surgeons to be dissected and anatomized, that shall request the same and engage to apply the body to that use ; but in case the body shall not be delivered to any surgeon or surgeons as aforesaid, it shall be buried as before directed….

“And be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid, That any person who shall slay or kill any other in a duel, or fight as aforesaid, and shall upon conviction thereof on an indictment for murder receive sentence of death, part of the judgment of the Court upon such conviction shall be, that the body be delivered to any surgeon or surgeons to be dissected and anatomized… but if none shall appear as aforesaid, then the Sheriff… shall bury the body without a coffin…  June 30, 1784.”

Detestable! Infamous! So if you’re dueling onstage, remember — you might not only be killed, but also buried like a vampire or have your innards put on display.

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