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 …