The Italian Boy: murder and grave-robbery in 1830s London, by Sarah Wise

The gruesome joy of this grisly tale
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The Independent Culture

One chilly morning in November 1831, a trio of well-known "resurrection men" turned up at Kings College with the corpse of a 14-year-old boy. The boy's teeth had been knocked out - they were a lucrative sideline in those dentally-challenged days - and there was a wound on his forehead. But it was the "unusually fresh" condition of the child that caught the attention of the anatomy demonstrator Richard Partridge. While the men were delayed, the police were called and, after a short struggle, all three were detained.

One chilly morning in November 1831, a trio of well-known "resurrection men" turned up at Kings College with the corpse of a 14-year-old boy. The boy's teeth had been knocked out - they were a lucrative sideline in those dentally-challenged days - and there was a wound on his forehead. But it was the "unusually fresh" condition of the child that caught the attention of the anatomy demonstrator Richard Partridge. While the men were delayed, the police were called and, after a short struggle, all three were detained.

Sarah Wise came across this story while researching an article about the Boundary Street estate in Bethnal Green, built on the site of one of London's most notorious slums. In these reeking grounds lived John Bishop, one of the men arrested. Did the murder take place here? Bishop divided his time between these sweltering hovels and the public house where the grave-robbers met facing the abattoirs of Smithfield, an equally cruel and malodorous environment.

The antics of the Scots grave-robbers Burke and Hare have passed into popular legend, but the story of their London equivalents has somehow been lost. These grisly individuals would meet at the Fortune of War to drink rum and porter, make new alliances and, when they had a body to sell, hire a heavy to help haul the corpse from one anatomy school to another. The West End, around Soho and the Middlesex Hospital, was home to a surprising number.

It was then not a crime to sell bodies: since they belonged to no one, the law could not act. A body in good condition - preferably male and youngish - could earn up to 12 guineas.

The robbers' trial was sensational, and led to reform of the law. The Home Secretary himself - Lord Melbourne - took a personal interest. It proved a major case for the new police force, now seen to work with reasonable effectiveness, and highlighted the role of the police inspector, then puzzling to the general public. It was only 10 years later, in 1841, that Edgar Allan Poe invented the detective genre. Cases like these - with their early attempts at forensics and deduction - gripped the public imagination.

I have read many books on Soho and London history, and this has already become a firm favourite. Wise has brilliantly reconstructed the social histories of the period, including the lot of Italian immigrants, as well as the grisly details of hypocritical anatomy schools. The Italian Boy is a lip-smacking, gruesome joy from beginning to end.

Suddenly, the darkest fears of the 12-year-old Dickens - in 1824, only seven years earlier, a poor boy in precisely the same area - seem explained and revealed. The Italian was just one of many children routinely abducted from London streets. On his journey home from the blacking factory to Camden, the Italian boy could so easily have been the Chatham boy: Charles Dickens.

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