The Italian Boy, by Sarah Wise

When the poor were fodder for scalpels
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The Independent Culture

In the 1830s, town planners condemned the City of London as a metropolitan abomination. Smithfield meat market was choked with animal fat and foam; Pissing Alley was ankle-deep in excrement. The sale of livestock in the city centre must have been an extraordinary sight for a newcomer. Carlo Ferrari, a teenage migrant from rural Italy, was an inhabitant of the area. He scraped a living by exhibiting caged white mice to Smithfield passersby. By associating with card sharps and other chancers, he had exposed himself to danger. On the afternoon of 3 November 1831 the boy was killed by "resurrection men", or body-snatchers, who then sold his corpse to anatomists.

In the 1830s, town planners condemned the City of London as a metropolitan abomination. Smithfield meat market was choked with animal fat and foam; Pissing Alley was ankle-deep in excrement. The sale of livestock in the city centre must have been an extraordinary sight for a newcomer. Carlo Ferrari, a teenage migrant from rural Italy, was an inhabitant of the area. He scraped a living by exhibiting caged white mice to Smithfield passersby. By associating with card sharps and other chancers, he had exposed himself to danger. On the afternoon of 3 November 1831 the boy was killed by "resurrection men", or body-snatchers, who then sold his corpse to anatomists.

Over 200 body-snatchers were estimated to operate in London at this time. Anatomy was still in its infancy as a science and surgeons were eager to practise their skills. Smithfield's proximity to a hospital - St Bartholemew's - meant it was ideally situated for the traffic in human corpses. Most resurrectionists of course did not murder but instead disinterred fresh bodies from graveyards. Three men, Bishop, May and Williams, however, stood accused of abducting and slaughtering Carlo, and their crime outraged all London. Yet the truth behind their deed was muddied by newspapers and witnesses. From the trial documents it seems the trio had not snatched an Italian street boy at all, but delivered to a hospital the body of a Lincolnshire drover who worked the cattle pens off Smithfield's Chick Lane. Why the elaboration? In London's febrile imagination, the slaying of a pretty, olive-cheeked Italian made for a more satisfyingly brutal story; nobody cared about a Lincolnshire boy.

In The Italian Boy, a hybrid of social documentary and a police procedural, Sarah Wise brilliantly reconstructs the 1831 murder and its wide-ranging consequences. Eerily, modern issues of child safety and vagrancy are raised in her book, and London's Georgian underworld is brought vividly to life. Smithfield's most densely populated neighbourhood - Golden Lane - teemed with children whose mothers had been widowed by the Napoleonic Wars or who were orphaned. Squalid localities such as Burying Grove, Rope Walk and Thumb Yard attracted predatory men; May, Bishop and Williams planned their snatchings and exhumations in the taverns there.

The three had no sooner consigned the boy-cadaver to King's College, off the Strand, than the anatomy department raised the alarm. The 14-year-old body looked too suspiciously "fresh" to have been recently disinterred. Could this be murder? With the help of informers, the suspects were traced to their east London homes and arrested. During their trial it emerged that their ringleader, John Bishop, had been involved in the sale of between 500 and 1,000 bodies in 1831 alone. Throughout the Old Bailey hearings, sentimental sketches of the "Italian Boy" appeared in the London tuppeny press while his presumed assassins were gleefully pilloried. By now the new term "burking" was on every Londoner's lips as the Burke and Hare killings-for-dissection had occurred in Edinburgh just three years earlier.

At the trial's end, Bishop and Williams confessed to killing two more people, though many others were believed to be "missing-presumed-burked". May himself was acquitted through lack of evidence, but his two accomplices were hanged. Craniometrists afterwards went to work on their corpses and, with the aid of boxed precision instruments, agreed that the shape of their skulls betrayed a criminal tendency.

The trial caused a public outcry. Hospital surgeons were found to be complicit in the trafficking of cadavers; many in the London medical profession considered the city's poor to be merely fodder for their scalpels. The 1844 Anatomy Act was passed as a result of the case and put an end to the resurrection trade. Sarah Wise vividly conjures the "squalid frowsiness" of 1830s east and central London, with its spirit-shops and tippling houses, and recreates the fearful antheap that was ordinary lower-class city life. In documenting so minutely the lives of London's dispossessed, Wise lends them dignity. The Italian Boy, her first book, is a triumph of archival research and imaginative speculation that will take its place as a classic of London literature.

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