The Italian Boy: Murder and Grave-robbery in 1830s London
Towards the end of 1831, the authorities unearthed a series of crimes at Number 3, Nova Scotia Gardens in East London that appeared to echo the notorious Burke and Hare killings in Edinburgh three years earlier. After a long investigation, it became known that a group of body snatchers - two men in particular, John Bishop and Thomas Williams, called the 'London Burkers' - were supplying the anatomy schools with fresh 'examples' for dissection.
The case became known as 'The Italian Boy' and caused a furore which led directly to the passing of controversial legislation which marked the beginning of the end of body snatching in Britain. The case revealed something else as well: some extremely unpleasant aspects of life in London, a city that had increased in size by one-third to over one-and-a-half million inhabitants between 1801 and 1831, and which was continuing to expand at a phenomenal and unprecedented rate. In The Italian Boy, Sarah Wise not only investigates the case of the London Burkers but also, by making use of an incredibly rich archival store, the lives of ordinary lower-class Londoners.
She shows how the case challenged their notions of community and criminality, and how it made many feel that at the heart of their great city lay unknown, unknowable mysteries. Here is a window on the lives of the poor - a window which is opaque in places, shattered in others - but which provides an unprecedented view of low-life London in the 1830s.
From the Hardcover edition.