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By Stewart Emmens on

Skin, Bones And The ‘Dust Of Death’

'Dust of Death'
Container for the 'Dust of Death' collected in 1859 (Stewart Emmens)

These days John Hunter (1728-1793), the celebrated surgeon, anatomist and collector, lies safely buried amongst the great and good in Westminster Abbey – not far from the likes of Ben Jonson, David Livingstone and Robert Stephenson.

This was not always the case. For over 60 years, his body lay in the vaults of London’s St Martin-in-the-Fields church. Only in 1859, when the vaults were being cleared for public health reasons, were Hunter’s remains reinterred in their current prestigious place.

This transfer was down to the actions of one man, Francis (‘Frank’) Trevelyan Buckland – surgeon, natural historian, fellow collector and general eccentric. Son of William, a leading naturalist and the Dean of Westminster, Frank was a larger than life character whose approach to recovering Hunter’s body was typical. With the help of a few hired hands, he rolled up his sleeves and set to work himself.

Finding Hunter amongst the hundreds of coffins crammed in the vault took two weeks, at the beginning of which even the strong-stomached Buckland had a wobble. His diary for the first day of the search reads, “The stink awful; rather faint towards the end of the business”. But he knuckled down and, ever the collector, couldn’t resist nabbing a few souvenirs while he was there. 

More 'Dust of Death'
More 'Dust of Death' collected by Frank in 1859 (Stewart Emmens)

Alongside more “Dust of Death” sweepings from the church vault – a second example of which is shown above – Buckland retained some more solid remnants, such as these unusual skull fragments. 

Skull fragments
Skull fragments with "remarkable crystals" (Stewart Emmens)

But alongside the nameless human detritus, he was clearly intrigued by encounters with known individuals. Twins Robert and Daniel Perreau, infamous gentlemen criminals hanged in 1776, appear to have held a particular fascination.

Human skin
Skin from a hanged man (Stewart Emmens)

Not content with the skin from the neck of one brother, on which he could still see the marks of the rope, Buckland also retrieved several neck vertebrae – described by another of his hand-written notes.

Neck vertebrae
Neck bones... no longer connected (Stewart Emmens)

Surprisingly, such ad hoc ‘body-snatching’ was not so out of the ordinary as there is evidence of other prominent figures acquiring similarly grisly relics when presented with the opportunity. And, given that Buckland only found Hunter’s remains in the second last of the 3,260 coffins in the vault, perhaps he felt entitled to some grisly mementoes from a truly grisly task.