The Italian Boy: A Tale of Murder and Body Snatching in 1830s London

The Italian Boy: A Tale of Murder and Body Snatching in 1830s London

Sarah Wise

Language: English

Pages: 400

ISBN: 0805078495

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub


"A work of great skill and sympathy, a meditation on one of the sorrowful mysteries once to be found on the streets of London. For any student of the city and its secret life, it is indispensable reading."
-Peter Ackroyd, The Times (London)

Before his murder in 1831, the "Italian boy" was one of thousands of orphans on the streets of London, begging among the livestock, hawkers, and con men. When his body was sold to a medical college, the suppliers were arrested for murder. Their high-profile trial would unveil a furtive trade in human corpses carried out by "resurrection men" who killed to satisfy the first rule of the cadaver market: the fresher the body, the higher the price.

Historian Sarah Wise reconstructs not only the boy's murder but the chaos and squalor of his world. In 1831 London, the poor were desperate and the wealthy petrified, the population swelling so fast that class borders could not hold. All the while, early humanitarians were attempting to protect the disenfranchised, the courts were establishing norms of punishment, and doctors were pioneering the science of anatomy.

As vivid and intricate as a novel by Charles Dickens, The Italian Boy restores to history the lives of the very poorest Londoners and offers an unparalleled account of England's great metropolis at the brink of a major transformation.

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inspired many retellings and film and stage interpretations; but in fact it was the London case, not Burke and Hare, that sped the passage of controversial legislation to make the unclaimed bodies of paupers legally available to surgeons for dissection. The Anatomy Act was passed by Parliament within ten months of the investigation into the events at Nova Scotia Gardens, heralding the beginning of the end of body snatching in Britain. But the case also revealed some extremely unpleasant aspects

Magendie, who was determined to fathom the mysteries of muscle movement, particularly that of the facial muscles, replied: “One should not say that to perform physiological experiments one must necessarily have a heart of stone and a leaning towards cruelty.”25 In 1824, before a crowd of physicians, Magendie severed part of the brain of a dog, which fell down, stood up, ran around, then died. Edinburgh’s Dr. Knox, purchaser of Burke and Hare’s produce, was another who preferred to work on

laborer’s clothing, which was coming to be associated, in the London mind, with resurrection and burking. Also, at the time of the attack on White, no modus operandi had been suggested for the murder of the Italian boy; but no one had forgotten the iconic woodcut images in various broadsheets of Burke and Hare suffocating their victims by placing adhesive bandages over the mouth and nose—a mythical method of killing, since by their own admission, Burke and Hare had simply pinched shut the noses

a pub and Bishop told her to go in and wait until they returned. They came back again in about half an hour, and then they all went together to another pub, and had a pot of “half-and-half” (half ale, half porter) and smoked pipes. There was no money to pay for the drinks, and Bishop told her to wait there. When he came back, he paid the barman, and then all four of them went to Bishopsgate Street and drank gin in a pub. Shields then left, and later Rhoda, her father, and her husband went home.

to the victim, Colla continued: “He had a cap on his head, something like the one produced. It was torn on one side. I believe this to be the same cap. He had on a blue coat and grey trousers. I observed a large patch on the left knee and from the patch on the left knee of these trousers I believe them to be the same he had on. They are the same kind. I did not so particularly notice the color or patch as I did the stitches, being so great a distance from each other as these are. I do believe

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