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Friday, 30 November 2012

Book Review: The Italian Boy

The year is 1831 and a fuss is being kicked up in the cold hallways outside the King's College anatomy theatre. Three men stand over a large basket, thinking they are about to make a sale of their fresh 'Subject' when the police superintendent storms in and informs them they are being arrested on suspicion of murder. Superintendent Thomas asks who's property was the 'Thing' (as bodies were known) which seemed to suspiciously fresh that the surgeons had alerted the authorities. 'The Subject is the property of that gentleman,' says James May pointing at his partner John Bishop. 'I only came with him to get the money.' Thomas then asks Bishop how he came by the body. Bishop snaps in reply, 'I'm a bloody bodysnatcher.'

It sounds like fiction, but Sarah Wise's in-depth research allows her to tell the story of London's infamous most infamous grave robbers in their own words drawing on the testimonies, court documents and contemporary journalism surrounding the trial for murder known as the 'Italian Boy' case. While most of us find the profession of 'body snatching' synonymous with Edinburgh's Burke and Hare, the capital had it's own version only 3 years later. 'Burking' as it came to be known, was the act of committing murder to supply the insatiable market for fresh corpses created by London's numerous private schools of anatomy and teaching hospitals. Although we may not remember James May, John Bishop and Thomas Head (alias Williams), Wise's The Italian Boy brings the reader into the hysteria which surrounded the trial and harsh light thrown on the enormously profitable trade in 'resurrected' human bodies. We meet the resurrection men in the favourite haunt in the Fortune of War pub and follow them into the slums of Bethnal Green to the house of murder later known as 'Burkers Hole' and eventually to the corridors of London's prestigious medical institutions. Along the way, Wise explores the close relationship between the century's most eminent surgeons and the gangs of successful body snatchers who emptied the city's cemeteries.

Wise's book uses the Italian Boy trial as a lens to further consider not only the history of body snatching, but the emergence of a new police force (the Metropolitan Police), the effects of legislation relating to vagrancy, animal cruelty at Smithfield Market, and even the long lost sights and sounds of London's itinerant street vendors and performers. Although ostensibly about the murder of Carlo Ferrier by May, Bishop and Williams, by half way through the book we seem to have forgotten the trial all together. But it hardly matters, Wise's prose is so readable you don't really mind getting lost in the back-alleys of 1830s London. The reader is brought back with a start to the crux of the issue in the chapter entitled 'I, John Bishop...' which consists almost entirely of the killer's confessions recorded the night before they are hung for murder. Chilling and calculated, it is no wonder that the scandal caused by this trial very quickly brought about the Anatomy Act of 1832 which very quickly brought about the end of the resurrection trade.

Although The Italian Boy is a book about body snatching, I would recommend it to anyone interested in the history of the London in pre-Victorian times. I definitely feel like I know more about the trial of the London Burkers, but Wise also admirably covers the beginning of forensic science and detective work, the prison system, London's rapid urban expansion and human trafficking from the Continent. I sometimes find a broad approach to history writing can be quite distracting, but in this case I think it really works. What is most unique about Wise's book is her use of first person accounts to the text so engaging and relatable. You finish feeling as if you have met the three 'snatchers' on the bench, the prosecutors, the witnesses, and even the crowd outside cheering for a verdict. I only would have wished to get to know the surgeons a little better, but this is perhaps appropriate as the medical profession (shockingly) managed to steer well clear of the bench. It is unfortunate that the Italian Boy case has been lost to history, it is a fascinating snapshot of the development of our medical and legal systems. One thing is for certain, it makes for gripping reading.

Now who wants to go on a body snatchers tour of London with me? Meet you outside the Fortune of War pub or maybe let's find where Nova Scotia Gardens once stood...

The Italian Boy: Murder and Grave-Robbery in 1830s London by Sarah Wise, Pimlico (2005)

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