Mystery of hanged man's corpse is revealed

WHEN "footpad" James Langar pounced on pawnbroker John Boulton in London's Hyde Park, stealing his coat, fob watch and five shillings, he must have been delighted with his haul.

• Joan Smith with 'Smugglerius'

But that delight would have turned to horror when he and accomplice William Dickinson were caught by the Bow Street Runners – in those days, even the pettiest of thefts could see the culprit swing from the gallows at Tyburn.

It's hard to imagine what his thoughts would be if he could have known what would happen to his corpse after his execution.

Most of those hanged in front of London's baying crowds during the 1770s were cut from the gibbet and handed to anatomists for educational dissection.

But Langar, who had been found guilty of two separate Hyde Park robberies, would have a different fate.

For generations, his form has been well-known to students at Edinburgh College of Art, who blithely sketch a plaster cast made from Langar's flayed body as they study human anatomy.

The cast has been known only to the college by the made-up, mock Latin name Smugglerius, and his identity remained mystery until two academic sleuths decided to delve into his past.

The ECA's Joan Smith had sketched him years ago as a student, and when University of Edinburgh social anthropologist Dr Jeanne Cannizzo turned up at one of the evening classes she was teaching, the pair hit it off and agreed to work together.

Joan recalls: "I put together a list of possible interests like, 'I'm quite interested in sculptures on gravestones' and all these other things, and then I said, 'And, of course, there's also the hanged, flayed man in the basement', and she freaked.

"We went to have a look. We had to pretty much break into the basement and it was all dark, and she just saw him and said, 'Oh. My. God'. She was fascinated as an anthropologist in a person being turned into an object and it speaks of the time it was done – you could never do that now."

The original cast was known to have been made "from life" around 1775, and Jeanne, currently back in her native Canada, began burrowing through art history archives from the period.

In James Fenton's history of the Royal Academy of Arts in London, she found a letter from young sculptor John Deare to his father, where he writes: "I have seen two men hanged and one with his breast cut open at Surgeon's Hall.

"They took the other, being a fine subject, to the Royal Academy and covered him with plaster of Paris, after they had put him in the position of the Dying Gladiator."

Smugglerius is in a classical pose often referred to as the Dying Gaul, and bells began to ring for the researcher.

In transcripts of cases at the Old Bailey around the time of the letter, two men were hanged – Samuel Whitlow for burglary . . . and James Langar.

Langar, as a former soldier, would have had a better physique of the two and was thus more likely to have been selected as a fine physical specimen.

So, one day, Joan received a call from Jeanne. "She said, 'I think I've found Smugglerius.' Shivers went up and down my spine."

Langar's body was handed to renowned surgeon and anatomist Dr William Hunter, who seems to have decided he was too good a specimen to cut up and commissioned sculptor Agostino Carlini to create the original cast – now lost, but once upon a time recast to create the current figure.

Langar must have been prepared fresh from the gallows, his corpse stripped of its skin and manhandled into the Dying Gaul pose before rigor mortis set in, and then preserved for posterity.

The pair stress that their theory will never be confirmed and say they think the mock Latin nickname must have arisen when the cast was mistaken for a smuggler executed later at Tyburn.

But the research had Joan look at the cast differently. She says: "I'd never really looked particularly at his face but I took my digital camera and put it underneath and it brought him to life. He's got a broken nose and pudding lips and that's when I thought 'God, it's a real person'."

It is not known how or when he arrived in Edinburgh, but he now takes pride of place in a new exhibition at the University's Talbot Rice Gallery.

So, what does Joan suppose James Langar would think if he could see himself now, once more the centre of attention? "I think he'd be completely and utterly bemused by the whole thing."

Smugglerius Unveiled opens to the public on Tuesday at the Talbot Rice Gallery in the University of Edinburgh's Old Quad on South Bridge, and runs until 6 March. Admission is free.