William Duell 1740
William Duell was a young boy of 17 in 1740 but he was not the sort of character that most would want in their company. He was put on trial that year for raping and murdering a young woman by the name of Sarah Griffin in Acton, London. During the trial, William Duell was in a very poor state. The records suggest that he was suffering from delirium and fever throughout the process and never recovered. Despite this, the trial continued and the young boy was sentenced to death for his crime.
His sentence was to be carried out by hanging, as was the custom at the time. On November 24, 1740 he and four other men were taken to the noose to be hanged. As he hung from the gallows he lost consciousness and ceased all signs of life. The hangman declared him dead and he was brought down from the noose and prepared for transport. It was also the custom of the time for the dead bodies, of criminals to be sent to nearby medical colleges.
At the time dissection was viewed with prejudice both religiously and culturally so it was hard for medical students to come by bodies with which to learn. That was why arrangements were made that the bodies of dead criminals be sent to the school so that they may be dissected by students and professors. Due to this arrangement, medical knowledge was growing and improving at a rapid rate. But as fate would have it, William Duell was not at all ready to be dissected. It was several hours after his death that William Duell was being prepared for dissection by the students at the college. He was stripped and laid on the board and the students were washing the body when it was discovered that there was life in him.
Here there are varying accounts. In one the surgeon confers with others and decides that because the boy was convicted of a brutal murder, the dissection should continue. With that decision, the surgeon plunged the knife into William Duell’s chest. In the other account, the surgeon makes efforts to revive William Duell. The surgeon at the college then took several ounces of blood from William Duell and within hours the young man was sitting up and converse. Once his health returned he was sent back to prison where his sentence was reduced from hanging to transport. He was sent to North America and was never allowed to return.