St Bartholomew’s Hospital
The Italian Boy
On a moonless winter island, we lurk among the tombstones, Honeycombing graveyards and hawking to the sawbones. Plunging down to dig my earth, beneath the watching tower. Use a noose to yank it loose within the quarter-hour. Jack will log the evening’s haul: four large, one small, a foetus. We’ll hole up in the Fortune, where Bill and Ben will meet us. ‘I first became suspicious when they brought him in the college. I could see that things weren’t right with my post-mortem knowledge: Note the rigid nature. How fresh the body lies. The head is cut, the swollen lips, and see the bloodshot eyes? Blood still coming from the mouth? The teeth have been extracted! Bruised gums and a broken jaw. And that’s when I reacted.’ ‘May walked in the bar room with a silken handkerchief, And sunk within it I could make out several human teeth.’ ‘May knocked on my door and asked a guinea for the set, But one of them was chipped, and so a lesser price was met.’ ‘Violence had wrenched them loose. Of that I was so sure. There were also pieces of sockets, gum and jaw.’ ‘Yes, I remember Carlo. I saw him quite a bit. He wore a cage round his neck with two white mice in it.’ ‘Yes, I remember Carlo. I once spoke to the chap. Blue coat with grey trousers, and he always wore a cap.’ ‘Yes, I remember Carlo. But, if I could explain, He lived with me for just six weeks, down on Drury Lane.’ ‘I saw the boy outside a pub, so cold and woebegone, I gave him half a penny and told him to move on.’ ‘Opposite the pub, I live. I saw the young boy’s face. And then I saw him once again, outside Bishop’s place.’ ‘Bishop has three children, with whom I often play. I saw that they had two white mice on that particular day.’ ‘They wanted me to fetch a stiff. A guinea they would pay. A cautionary nudge made me drive my cab away.’ ‘I saw May at the watering-house put gin in Bishop’s tea. I heard Bishop saying, “Are you going to Burke me?”’ ‘Two men carried, down our street, a heavy-looking sack. A cab drew up alongside and they put it in the back.’ ‘I heard the police were selling souvenirs in Bethnal Green.’ ‘I saw the bloodstained bradawl lying at the murder scene.’ ‘Delve and be a gentleman. The work will keep you fit.’ ‘But then we got to thinking, Let’s cut the middle bit.’ No remorse could Bishop, May or Williams comprehend. Bishop said, ‘It was the blood that sold us in the end.’
‘The Italian Boy’ is based on the accounts and witness testimonies of a body-snatching trial which took place at the Old Bailey in 1831.
Between 1750 and 1830, as the science of human surgery developed in Britain, there was a distinct lack of cadavers available for students to study. Medical schools had been promised fresh bodies from executions. But this was still not enough, as there were only about twenty executions per year, and there were over 1,500 medical students in London alone. And so body-snatching became a lucrative industry.
Generally, the process followed a set formula. Women or children followed funerals and reported on the whereabouts of fresh coffins. Local sextons and gravediggers were paid for this information too. During moonless nights, a team of two or three operators would dig a narrow shaft with ‘quiet’ wooden shovels to expose the top third of a coffin. A crowbar was used to lever off the lid. Then a rope was looped around the neck and the body yanked out and shoved into a sack. A typical shallow grave would take about fifteen minutes to dig. Deeper graves could take up to an hour. The shroud was thrown back. Taking a coffin or shroud was property theft, and thus a criminal act, but the body belonged to God.
Churchyards became honeycombed with empty tombs. The poor suffered most after burying their loved ones. The rich could afford deeper graves, lead coffins or private vaults. Watchtowers were erected to look over graveyards, like the example at St Sepulchre church in Smithfield.
Smithfield was the dark heart of the London industry. It was centred around the Fortune of War pub, which was situated behind St Sepulchre church, opposite St Bart’s hospital. This was where shady operators made deals with hospital porters. In particular, there was a big trade in body parts. The role played by the Fortune of War in the body-snatching racket is remembered in an inscription under the statue of the golden boy at nearby Pye Corner. It was also depicted in the British television drama The Frankenstein Chronicles.
The best ‘season’ for body-snatching was November to February. This was when anatomy classes were mainly held as the bodies would stay colder for longer. Up to ten bodies a night could be managed by a professional team. Babies were taken too. At £16 per body, and taking around 300 in a good season, one could earn up to £5,000 a year: a ‘gentleman’s’ salary.
Over 200 families made their living from the grisly trade in London, but there were inherent risks. Operators had a chance of catching diseases, such as smallpox, from dead bodies. Some coffins were booby-trapped with explosives. There were frequent lynchings by mobs who saw them as the lowest of the low, and there were gang wars too.
The Borough gang, in particular, were prolific. In one year, they took 505 bodies in all. One gang member kept a diary with the following entries typical:
Nov 29, 1811: got 3: Jack, Ben and me 2 in Bethnal Green at 4am, Bill and Daniel 1 in St Bart’s.
Feb 28, 1812: Met at Jacks. Got 4 large, 1 small and a foetus.Got drunk in Fortune of War.
But perhaps the most infamous partnership in London was that of Bishop, May and Williams, who also operated from the Fortune of War. Here, they once tricked the Borough gang into digging up rotting bodies. Like Edinburgh’s infamous duo Burke and Hare, this trio began to transgress the law, murdering their victims and selling the bodies direct to the surgeons, in effect cutting out the whole labour-intensive ‘grave-digging’ stage. Bishop, May and Williams would meet their victims in pubs and spike their drinks with laudanum. At a safe house in Bethnal Green, they would drown their victims in a well, then hang them upside down until the laudanum drained from the body, before whisking it off to be sold.
On 5 November 1831, Bishop and May delivered the suspiciously fresh corpse of a fourteen-year-old boy to the King’s College School of Anatomy in the Strand. They had previously demanded twelve guineas for the body at Guy’s hospital but had been refused. On inspection by the director of anatomy, it was noted that rigor mortis had not fully set in, and the gums were still bleeding from where the boy’s teeth had been pulled out. The anatomists kept Bishop and May talking while a porter summoned the police. The police identified the body as that of Carlo Ferrari, an Italian street urchin from Piedmont who had made a living showing his pet white mice. The police then opened the crime scene in Bethnal Green to the public, charging five shillings for viewing, and selling practically everything inside as souvenirs.
At the subsequent trial, Bishop, May and Williams were all found guilty of murder. Williams confessed to supplying 1,000 bodies over four years and to sixty murders, although some estimate the gang killed at least a hundred more. Bishop and Williams were hanged, and their bodies handed over to anatomists. May was jailed.
The other scandal exposed by the trial was the custom of children being sent to big cities to act as street musicians or pedlars under a gangmaster, who allegedly supervised the children in exchange for a percentage of their profit. The racket formed the basis of the plot for Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist some five years later. In 1832, the practice of body-snatching effectively ended, as the Anatomy Act entitled surgeons to the plentiful supply of bodies of those who had died in the workhouse.
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