Book Review: The Italian Boy- Murder and Grave-robbery in 1830s London

The Italian Boy front cover

The Italian Boy by Sarah Wise.

Sarah Wise. The Italian Boy: Murder and Grave-robbery in 1830s London. London: Pimlico, 2005. RRP £7.99 paperback

Most people have heard of Burke and Hare, the infamous Edinburgh murderers. Fewer people know that London had its own episode of ‘burking’ in 1831. In the early 19th century, London’s anatomists and medical schools needed many more bodies for dissection than could be provided by legal means. A lucrative trade in corpses developed, and ‘Resurrectionists’ could make a good income by digging up the recently buried and selling them to hospitals and medical schools. In late 1831, two Resurrectionists in Bethnal Green decided to cut out the middle man, and began murdering London’s poor and neglected in order to sell the bodies. They were caught trying to sell the body of a young boy to the anatomy department at King’s College. The ensuing court case, and eventual conviction and execution of two of the men, John Bishop and Thomas Williams, caused a morbid scandal that enthralled London. It led to the passing of the 1832 Anatomy Act, which eventually put an end to the illicit trade in corpses. In The Italian Boy: Murder and Grave-robbery in 1830s London, Sarah Wise tells the story of the murderers, their apprehension, trial, and execution in impressive detail. She also uses the story as a springboard, branching out to look at many elements of London in the first half of the nineteenth century, including poverty, housing, healthcare, and even animal welfare. The result is an interesting account of a gruesome story that captures London on the verge of rapid and dramatic transformation.

The case of the Italian boy (it was quickly decided, although never decisively proven, that the final victim was an Italian street performer) captured the public imagination in a way that only an incredibly gory crime can. As such, a significant amount of archival material about the case, largely court records and newspaper articles, has survived. As such, Wise is able to provide an incredible amount of detail about the events surrounding the case. At some points, it was almost a little too much detail; I got distracted trying to keep track of the sheer number of pubs that the men visited in the days before they were arrested at King’s, and the order in which they visited them. Despite all this detail, there are still many elements of the case that are unknown, and will never be known. It will never be possible to confirm exactly how many people were killed, for example, nor to find out what happened to John Bishop’s children after their father was executed. Wise was able to trace the some of the children to Shoreditch workhouse in 1835, but then they disappear without trace.

It is a well-known frustration amongst researchers who use archives that the voices of the poor rarely get preserved. In the Preface of The Italian Boy, Wise argues that she saw this story as an opportunity to find out about the poorest residents of nineteenth century London: “The story appeared to me to be a window on the lives of the poor at a period of great change: a window that is badly damaged – opaque in places, blocked out or shattered in others – but offering a glimpse of those who have left little authentic trace of themselves” (Wise, 2005; p. xvii). It is true that you have to use archives creatively in order to find out about the lives of the poor in the past, but this might be the most creative method I’ve come across. Whilst I’m not sure it is representative of the lives of the vast majority of London’s poor, it does provide an insight into the society in which they struggled to survive.

The Italian Boy strikes a good balance between academic rigour and popular appeal. Wise tells the story of the London burkers well, but also uses it to look at broader themes in a way that is more common in academic journal articles or books. If you are interested in the history of London, crime and the criminal justice system, or indeed the development of modern healthcare, then I recommend you give it a go.

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