Sunday, April 17, 2005

"The Italian Boy; A Tale of Murder and Body Snatching in 1830s London" by Sarah Wise. Metropolitan Books, 2004


In the late autumn of 1831, Nova Scotia Gardens (a neighborhood of workers cottages in London's East End) became famous as the home of three body snatchers, or "resurrection men," who were charged with murdering a young boy, who became known as "The Italian Boy" of the title, in order to sell his body for dissection. This was three years subsequent to the Burke and Hare killings of the same type, when 16 victims were murdered in Edinburgh Scotland. The case sped the passage of the "The Anatomy Act"--an act of Parliament in 1832 that made the unclaimed bodies of the poor legally available for dissection, thus ending the "resurrection" trade.

The suspicions of Richard Partridge, anatomy "demonstrator" at King's College, had been aroused by an unusually fresh body of a young boy brought to him for sale by a group of professional body snatchers. Partridge delayed the men with a ruse, while the police were sent for. John Bishop, James May, Thomas Williams, and Michael Shields were arrested on suspicion of murder.

Bishop and Williams shared a cottage in Nova Scotia Gardens, and did much of their drinking at a pub called "Fortune of War," at Smithfield (near the famous meat market). The "Fortune of War," named for an owner who had lost both legs and an arm in a sea battle, was the pub most associated with the resurrection trade. Snatchers could stash their stolen bodies under the benches, and talk openly about their unpopular trade.

The two men had met up with James May in the pub, who agreed to help them sell a "Thing" (corpse as sold to a medical school for purposes of dissection and teaching). The price of a Thing ranged from around 8-12 guineas, or close to what an East End silk weaver might earn in a year. The teeth could be sold separately, and those of the Italian boy went for 12 shillings (the price of 6 pints of porter).

In another pub deal, Michael Shields was hired to "carry a heavy load" between the various hospitals, while the others looked for a buyer. At King's College, the dissecting room porter, William Hill, sent for anatomist Richard Partridge, who authorized Hill to pay nine guineas for the as yet unseen body. Having struck a deal, the men fetched the body and returned with it to King's. The state of the body aroused Hill's suspicions; Hill alerted Partridge, who delayed the resurrection men by claiming to need change for a 50 pound note.

In 1831, there were around 800 medical students distributed between London's 4 hospital medical schools and 17 private anatomy schools. About 500 of those students dissected corpses as part of their training; each student was said to require two for learning anatomy and a third for practicing surgical techniques. The only legal source of corpses was executed murderers, but there simply weren't enough executions to supply the demand.

Body snatchers raided city graveyards or traveled to country villages to steal bodies and transport them back to London. Snatchers, or their wives, might also pose as relatives of dying paupers--claiming the body of the deceased for private burial. Bodies were even stolen from the parlors of private homes where they had been laid out prior to burial. The law did not define the human body as property, therefore "stealing" a dead body was classified as a "breach of common decency" rather than theft. Punishment was typically a fine or up to 6 months in jail. To avoid charges of theft, resurrection men took care to replace shrouds and coffin lids.

Bishop and Williams were executed and their bodies given to anatomists for dissection. James May was sentenced to transportation, but died in route to Botany Bay. Michael Shields was reprieved, but remained an outcast.

William Hill, the dissecting room porter who first suspected a murder, was dismissed from King's without a reference. None of the London resurrectionists would do business with him, so the surgeons' supply of corpses dried up. Richard Partridge became a professor of anatomy at King's College, but never did well as a surgeon, and eventually died in poverty.



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This book provided inspiration for my short story, "The Resurrection Men," which appeared in the Potter's Field 2 Anthology, edited by Cathy Burburuz, Sam's Dot Publishing. In particular, I borrowed a couple of documented street artists as characters: Samuel Horsey, who had lost his legs and got around on a cart, and "Black Joe Johnson," a West Indian man (a former seaman, stranded in London) who wore a model of Nelson's ship, Victory, on his head. Mr. Johnson would move alongside ground-floor windows, giving the impression that the ship sailed along the sill while he sang a sea shanty.