Towards the end of 1831, the authorities unearthed a series of crimes at Number 3, Nova Scotia Gardens in East London that appeared to echo the notorious Burke and Hare killings in Edinburgh three years earlier. After a long investigation, three bodysnatchers were put on trial for supplying the anatomy schools of London with suspiciously fresh bodies for dissection.They later became known as The London Burkers, and their story was dubbed 'The Italian Boy' case. The furore which led directly to the passing of controversial legislation which marked the beginning of the end of body snatching in Britain.
In The Italian Boy, Sarah Wise not only investigates the case of the London Burkers but also, by making use of an incredibly rich archival store, the lives of ordinary lower-class Londoners. Here is a window on the lives of the poor - a window that is opaque in places, shattered in others but which provides an unprecedented view of low-life London in the 1830s.
British historian Wise's well-written first book explores the grisly underbelly of pre-Victorian London by examining the trial of three "body snatchers," John Bishop, James May and Thomas Williams, who were arrested in 1831 while attempting to sell the suspiciously fresh cadaver of a teenage boy to a medical college. Drawing on astonishingly detailed research, Wise places the crime in context by describing how a shadowy "resurrection" trade in exhumed bodies had grown up to meet the rising demand of the new science of anatomy. She explains how various Londoners, including several Italians, testified that a hat found at Bishop's home matched that of a recently vanished Italian boy peddler. Soon the new London police force was sleuthing its way to the bottom of a case that caused widespread alarm and a media circus in a city notorious for its numbers of missing persons. Wise energetically explicates every twist of the evidence with fascinating detours into the wider social context of newly vulnerable urban family life, punitive poor laws and fragmented philanthropy. Biographies of the trio of body snatchers demystify the Victorian criminal. Wise's deft prose contributes vastly to our understanding of pre-Victorian London's everyday street life, districts, trades, policing, prisons and press. Meanwhile, she skillfully manages the narrative, keeping her story gripping without sensationalizing it. Generously illustrated, this is a macabre yet historically serious work, invaluable to anyone interested in the truth of London's gory past.