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Notes from Underground

1.

On a dank foggy morning in London in December 1831 two men are brought out to be dispatched on the scaffold erected outside Newgate Prison. A crowd of between 30,000 and 40,000 people press forward, risking their own lives, to watch the gruesome culmination of what had become a notorious criminal case. When the bodies are cut down they are handed over ceremoniously to the Royal College of Surgeons for dissection. This is a horribly appropriate denouement. The crime for which the men had been convicted was the murder of a vagrant street boy, discovered when they attempted to sell his dead body to the anatomists for medical research.

In the early nineteenth century, a time at which a whole year’s earnings for a London East End silk weaver amounted at most to sixteen guineas, a recently dead body, salable to the medical schools for between eight to twenty guineas, was worth having. The trade in “stiff ‘uns,” as the cognoscenti called them, was generally satisfied by covert purloinings from graveyards, pauper houses, and even private dwellings by highly skilled specialist “resurrection men.” But the high value and uncertain supply of ready-made dead bodies encouraged the temptation to create them. The murder of the so-called “Italian Boy” illuminated a London underworld of desperado techniques and subterranean plottings, the ruthlessness arising from rock-bottom poverty and appalling social pressures. The case, as it unraveled in its poignant, macabre detail, troubled the conscience of all levels of society. The Italian boy became a cause célèbre.

There was already a public awareness of these ghoulish practices. Only three years earlier William Burke and William Hare had stood trial in Edinburgh and been convicted of the murder of at least sixteen people, whose bodies had been sold for medical dissection. The word “burking” had entered the language, evoking the long line of teenage boys and girls, prostitutes, beggars, and peddlers abducted from the streets. Popular woodcut images of burking added the refinement of adhesive bandages clasped over the victim’s mouths and noses to stop them breathing, whereas Burke and Hare had simply gripped the nose and clamped the jaw shut. Already burking was acquiring its own myth.

But for Londoners, if not for the citizens of Edinburgh, Burke and Hare’s atrocities were relatively far removed. As Sarah Wise makes clear in her profoundly entertaining narrative, it was with the identification of the body hawked around for sale in November 1831, offered first at Guy’s Hospital and then at King’s College medical schools, as that of a London street boy, an Italian beggar aged about fourteen, that burking was suddenly brought so close to home, transformed into a lurid local drama centered on the floating riffraff of London’s familiar streets. The limpid-eyed young vagrant was said to have been sighted not long before his death, standing in Oxford Street, near Hanover Square, exhibiting white mice in a cage hung around his neck. Another witness recognized him as the Italian beggar boy who tried to make a living from showing off a tortoise. The clergyman at the Italian Chapel in Oxenden Street off the Haymarket maintained that the boy had been a member of his congregation. It is striking that not one of the early witnesses called into the watch house to identify the body could provide him with a name.

Eventually it was settled that he was Carlo Ferrari, a recent émigré from Piedmont. His body had looked “suspiciously fresh” when the procurers delivered it to the King’s College dissecting room. It was passed off as a corpse, resurrected from a graveyard, a few smears of clay having been applied to thighs and torso, but neither the dissecting room porter nor Richard Partridge, “demonstrator” inanatomy, who received the body, recommended as “a good ‘un” at a price of nine guineas, was convinced. The three resurrectionists and their porter were kept waiting while Partridge hurried off to fetch the police from Covent Garden. The men were then arrested, John Bishop, their leader, protesting “I’m a bloody body snatcher,” the implication being that he snatched but did not murder. However, the surgeon examining the body soon concluded that the boy’s death had been caused by a blow on the neck, probably given with a stick or some blunt instrument.

What kind of people became resurrection men, let alone criminals who killed to provide “things” to their specialist markets? Even the dead boy’s teeth had been removed to be sold separately to a dentist for twelve shillings, a small piece of jawbone remaining attached to the lower set. One of the achievements of Sarah Wise’s book is her patient retrieval of the biographical detail of the suspected murderers John Bishop, Thomas Williams, and James May. In popular mythologies they are an evil trio. Wise skillfully separates them, differentiates them, and shows how they were drawn into their peculiar twilight trade.

Bishop was the hardened professional, son of a respectable, hardworking Highgate carter. Both his parents died young and he was discovered to be living in sin with his stepmother after the charitable people of Highgate had subscribed to a fund for the widow’s relief. To their indignation, he and his stepmother subsequently married. At the time of his arrest for the boy’s murder John Bishop had been a resurrection man for twelve years, boastful of having sold between five hundred and a thousand bodies to the London surgeons. He had been lucky to have served only short jail sentences, including two months in Clerkenwell for possession of an illegally disinterred corpse.

Thomas Williams was a liar, a drifter, and a drunkard, Bishop’s protégé and neighbor. Born in Shropshire, he had recently moved into the adjoining cottage-hovel in Nova Scotia Gardens, on the border of Shoreditch and Bethnal Green, after serving a prison sentence for theft. Whereas Bishop was in his mid-thirties, Williams—a man of many aliases—was still in his late twenties, looking younger. Soon becoming smitten with Rhoda, Bishop’s seventeen-year-old half-sister-cum-stepdaughter, he married her and moved next door to the already crowded Bishop household. Such domestic proximities encouraged not just incest but also conspiratorial criminality. Williams became Bishop’s apprentice in supplying “subjects” for the medical schools.

The third of the accused men was another casualty of London’s overpopulated spaces and informal improprieties. The relatively well-educated, highly strung Jack May was the illegitimate son of a New Inn barrister and the laundress of the inns of court. Though a post as lawyer’s clerk had been secured for him, May soon defected to the local thieves and resurrectionists, purchasing a horse and cart to assist with the transport of corpses. He took lodgings overlooking the burial ground of St. Clement Dane’s Church, an overflowing graveyard for the local workhouse, keeping his eyes open for likely new arrivals. May had had a succession of convictions for grave robbery. His defense, in the case of the Italian boy, was that he had merely been an adjunct to the sale, having offered to raise the price and share the profit. The closed-off world of body snatchers had its own code of pooled expertise and mutual helpfulness and exuded a certain caustic humor, the grim wit of the grave.

In the years leading up to the Italian boy scandal the close relationship between the resurrectionists and the medical schools had been coming under scrutiny. In 1828 a Parliamentary Select Committee on Anatomy assembled “to consider and instruct Parliament on the problems experienced by surgeons in obtaining corpses to dissect.” Evidence was taken from a number of professional resurrectionists, described later in Charles Dickens’s journal All the Year Round as

sallow, cadaverous, gaunt men, dressed in greasy moleskin or rusty black, and wearing wisps of dirty white handkerchiefs round their wizen necks. They had the air of wicked sextons, or thievish gravediggers; there was a suspicion of degraded clergymen about them, mingled with a dash of Whitechapel costermonger. Their ghoulish faces were rendered horrible by smirks of self-satisfied cunning, and their eyes squinted with sidelong suspicion, fear and distrust.

Although the known facts of a trade that subsisted on secrecy are slight, Sarah Wise works her way far beyond such lurid stereotypes in her precise delineation of an occupational grouping “at once close-knit and highly volatile,” operating from its own tight network of safe meeting places. Body snatching produced a formidable drinking culture. The most popular tavern, the Fortune of War, originally the Naked Boy, was conveniently close to St. Bartholomew’s Hospital and medical school. So relaxed in atmosphere was the Fortune of War that, in its heyday, resurrectionists were able to use the tavern as a depot, leaving their stolen corpses on or under the pub’s benches while they went off to organize a sale.

In 1831 there may have been as many as seven London gangs of resurrectionists at work. But as Wise reminds us, figures were always fluid in that panic-stricken world of quarrels, rifts, and false identities. Of perhaps two hundred habitual London resurrectionists most were part-timers, also involved in more conventional thieving, opportunists always ready to move on. Only ten or so men could be described as real specialists. The ruthlessly ingenious John Bishop, up to all the tricks including impersonation of the grieving relative of a pauper dying in the workhouse in order to claim the body at the finish, can certainly be categorized as one of these.

Officially, resurrection was regarded fairly leniently. In the eyes of the law it was a misdemeanor rather than a felony. The misdemeanor was that of “unlawful disinterment,” punishable by a fine or up to six months in jail. In contrast, the resurrectionists’ trade was seen as a thing of horror by most members of the public. Its suspected practitioners were reviled and ostracized by their neighbors, shunned by those who came across them in shops, pubs, or the streets of East London they frequented. At the time of the Italian boy hearings public fear and loathing of the resurrectionists escalated, turning the small, already paranoid community ever more in upon itself.

Sarah Wise depicts London in a state of evolution, straddling the primeval and the modern. She sees herself as writing “on one of recent history’s fault lines,” the decade between the Regency and the Victorian eras. The case of the Italian boy came at the beginning of William IV’s brief, turbulent reign, in the course of which there were insistent calls for change and reform in almost every aspect of British life. Parliament, the institutions, the laws, the infrastructure: all were creaking. London’s population had increased by a third between 1801 and 1831, an expansion putting intolerable pressures on the daily lives of its citizens. Responses to the murder of the Italian boy, lost child of the city, ran from the rawly primitive to the ultrarational. From whatever viewpoint his death seemed emblematic of the problems of the age.

Examining the body of the fair-haired, gray-eyed boy, the surgeon to the parish of St. Paul’s, Covent Garden, established that his height was four feet six inches. During that period the poorest fourteen-year-olds in London were, on average, four to six inches shorter than sons of the gentry. Very poor boys were less visible, more prone to disappearance in the thronging streets and ill-lit alleyways. Lost children were a commonplace. When the description of the murdered boy was advertised, eight sets of parents came to view the body in the watch house, hoping to identify it as their missing son.

In the name of industrial progress traditional family cohesion had weakened. Fathers left home to find employment far afield as opportunities arose, often never to return. Abandoned wives feature prominently in the data for the early-nineteenth-century urban poor, together with the many widows of the Napoleonic Wars. The virtual cessation of the system of live-in apprenticeships was a further reason for the mass of rootless children roaming around London, a floating population fighting for survival, like the boys in Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist. They lived on their wits, sleeping in doorways, under market stalls, in the shrubs of Hyde Park. Some formed vagabond gangs. The expansion of the city had created its own anarchy.

Especially vulnerable in this harsh city of vagrants were immigrant children, pathetic little figures like the twelve-year-old from Parma who walked the streets of London holding up a wax doll in a wooden box. Carlo the Italian boy was one of an influx of Italians who arrived in London at this period, escaping from the economic and political problems of their homeland. Many of the children were drafted into street entertainment, feeding the insatiable appetite of Londoners for the exotic and the sensational. Londoners were sentimental about these small Italians, familiarly known as “image boys” or “image vendors,” holding up their wax or plaster figurines or tiny animals, rented out to the boys for the day by their padrones, the middlemen who ran the trade. Carlo, with his cage of mice, charmed his way into the affection of those who heard his story even as they acknowledged the shame of his betrayal by his country of adoption. When James Bishop, in a pre-execution confession, maintained that the murdered boy was not a Piedmontese but a Lincolnshire drover, the Carlo-besotted public would have none of it. A stage version of The Italian Boy opened at the Shakespeare theater in Shoreditch within weeks of the Old Bailey trial.

Wise’s London is a city of flux, of displaced people eking out a living, at desperation point. Through her sensitive, meticulous reading of the newspaper reports of the Italian boy case and the scrappy legal records she is able to delineate with wonderful exactness the daily lives and attitudes of an early-nineteenth-century English underclass. These are not just the poor, they are people on the very verge of destitution, and she shows them, at this point in history, as resistant to official attempts to categorize and label them, to clear them off the streets.

2.

The Vagrancy Act, which had become law in 1824, allowing the arrest and possible imprisonment of those found loitering or sleeping rough, was applied with a new vigor in the aftermath of the Captain Swing riots, eruptions of violence terrorizing southern England in the summer and autumn of 1831. The fear of an English revolution was still fueled by nightmare memories of Paris in 1789. The London Society for the Suppression of Mendicity (unpopularly known by its victims as “the Dicity”) was one of many philanthropic societies set up, with contributions from the wealthy, to solve the urgent urban problem of the vagrant poor. The Poor Laws—a confusing mixture of regulations creakily enforced at a time when one in ten British citizens was partially or wholly dependent on poor relief—directed the return of indigent Londoners to their parishes of origin.

This resulted, according to a contemporary estimate, in around 13,000 people every year being forcibly removed from London and “passed back” in wagonloads to further destitution in the country. In spite of all such attempts to regularize its population, London in 1831 remained a city of the wanderers, fostering a criminal subculture that had its own reasons for preferring anonymity.

That short period of Wise’s post-Regency and pre-Victorian “fault line” was a time of painful civic evolution, with the London police and legal systems in a chaotic state. The arbitrary law of the “Bloody Code” with its cruel punishments for petty crimes had been abandoned, but the more measured, well-organized, paternalistic systems of the Victorian period, governed by a professional civil service and a legal elite, were yet to be established. Two years before the case of the Italian boy was tried, Robert Peel’s Metropolitan Police Act had attempted a radical reform of what was diagnosed as a clumsy, corrupt system for the policing of the capital, and London’s first New Police Officers, with their easily identifiable blue uniforms and batons, were sworn in. But with the muddled thinking endemic to this period, the discredited system, reliant on the unofficial Bow Street Runners, a corps of paid police informers, was kept on, and the two methods of policing ran discordantly together until the Runners were finally disbanded in 1839.

The two cultures coincide in the edgy personality of London Police Superintendent Joseph Sadler Thomas, who made the original arrest of the suspects in the case of the Italian boy, and conducted the consequent investigations with extraordinary zeal. Thomas was, as Wise comments, “in many ways, the model of the new type of policeman,” rooting out the apathy he found in the London force and securing the conviction of the “London burkers” with an ingenuity and professional persistence that brought him considerable public fame. But a streak of self-indulgence still linked him to the old world of the hunch and random tip-off. Although the New Police were a nondetective body, Thomas was a prima donna of detection, operating as a sleuth in the grand manner to be popularized by such novelists as Wilkie Collins and Edgar Allan Poe. Emotional, unpredictable Superintendent Thomas, who returned some runaway children to their parents when he came across them sleeping in Covent Garden market, emerges as the most fascinating person in Wise’s book.

English law may have been on the verge of reformation, but the processes of justice were still arbitrary. The physical surroundings were ramshackle and fetid. In Oliver Twist Dickens describes the Bow Street magistrates office where the case of the Italian boy had its first hearing: “The room smelt close and unwholesome…[there was] a thick greasy scum on every inanimate object.” Conditions for the trial at the Old Bailey were little better: aromatic herbs were strewn around the courtyard in an attempt to freshen air polluted by the notorious “Newgate stink” arising from the prison adjacent to the courtroom.

The surroundings were primitive and so were the proceedings, the chaos of conflicting evidence, the doubtful testimony of witnesses who were paid for their attendance. There was so far little sign of modern investigative methods of observation, deduction, analysis, and scientific forensics in criminal investigation. As Wise points out, “in the 1830s, guilt was still established by eyewitness accounts, being caught in the act, having a bad reputation, or simply looking and sounding the part of a criminal.” The outcome of a trial was chancy. Bishop, who had relied on his luck holding in escaping a conviction, was sentenced to death and so was Williams. May’s death sentence was rescinded after an appeal to Lord Melbourne, the home secretary, a decision that left May speechless, writhing and jerking, in a state of nervous shock.

At the hearings and the trial the number of London surgeons present was conspicuous. The medical men were nervous in the face of the searchlight being shone upon the chain of corruption involved in the supply of necessary “subjects” for dissection. A complex conspiracy between the resurrectionists and surgeons, who provided their bail fees and defense costs and supported their families if they went to prison, was now being revealed. Out in the open came the intercollege rivalries and feuds between the London teaching hospitals and private schools of medicine, all reliant on the fruits of the labors of the body snatchers. Even new institutions, like King’s College, had a room dedicated to receiving stolen corpses. Behind much-vaunted medical and scientific progress lay a horrid moral ambiguity.

As the trial progressed suspicions burgeoned that this was a tale not of one corpse but of many. Fanny Pigburn, a middle-aged washerwoman from Shoreditch, was named as a further victim of Bishop and Williams, though the charges were dropped for lack of evidence. A “large small” victim, a black vagrant, a small verminous child, and other assorted bodies had become subjects of speculation, together with the notion that the burkers had cooked or boiled their victims. In this London winter of wild imaginings arose the possibility that the soup at Shadwell workhouse contained human remains. In response to the public furor, the Anatomy Act was passed in the summer of 1832, making legally available to surgeons the bodies of workhouse paupers unclaimed by their family or friends. However, little changed as demand continued to exceed supply.

After the trial was over, the Duke of Sussex, younger brother of the King, and a keen amateur of scientific matters, who had watched the sentencing through his telescope, joined the judges and the lord mayor of London for a self-congratulatory dinner. The duke told them that trials such as these made him proud of England, “which had the most perfect, intelligent and humane system.” On the contrary, the story of the Italian boy, told with exceptional skill, humor, and sympathy by Sarah Wise, reveals just how inadequate the nation’s administration actually was. The trial left disconcerting mysteries, a sense of still-to-be-discovered iniquities and horrors, much as the reconstruction of the city over the next decade exposed an unimagined network of passages and catacombs, booty rooms and manholes, Smithfield cattle-killing chambers, an entire world of hidden cruelty and violence under the city streets.





















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