While my villain Jasper Finn is fictional, the Italian Boy case is quite real. In England in the early nineteenth century, the Murder Act of 1752 prohibited surgeons from anatomizing bodies that were not of convicted criminals. Unfortunately, the amount of crimes that one could be executed for was diminishing, for the preferred sentencing was often transportation, time on one of the giant prison ships moored in the ocean (referred to as “hulks”), or confinement in a prison like Newgate. If a surgeon wanted to succeed in his field, he needed a fresh supply of bodies for medical research. Unprincipled doctors would often enlist bands of resurrection men. The Select Committee that looked into anatomization in 1828 estimated that around 500 bodies were supplied by resurrection men every year to surgeons.
By the time the grave robbers in the Italian Boy case were found, London had already become aware of a new kind of resurrection man: one who killed his victims and sold their corpses, instead of waiting for fresh bodies to turn up in the cemeteries. In 1828 in Edinburgh, Scotland, two serial killers had been convicted in the deaths of sixteen victims, all sold to a surgeon. Their names were William Burke and William Hare.
Yet it is not the Burke and Hare case that truly changed the laws in England, but instead that of the Italian Boy. On November 6, 1831, surgeon George Beaman of the St. Paul’s parish in Covent Garden began to examine an unusual corpse. The fourteen year old boy’s body had come to him from the usual source—a few grave robbers—but the corpse had signs of trauma. The freshness of the corpse shocked Beaman, and there were no signs that the body had ever been buried.
Beaman and his associates Richard Partridge and Herbert Mayo tricked the resurrection men into waiting while they called the Metropolitan Police. The Met arrested John Bishop, James May, Thomas Williams, and the carter Michael Shields. After much investigation, the corpse was finally identified as that of an Italian street peddler, who roamed the streets with his little white mice asking for money. Perhaps it was the youthfulness of the victim, or perhaps it was the Londoners’ fascination with the culture of the Italian street performers, but the case took hold of the town’s attention fast.
John Bishop and Tom Williams lived in Nova Scotia Gardens in Bethnal Green (the same rookery where I have placed Friggard’s Pawn). Williams had married Bishop’s daughter, and little was known about his past. Eventually, Superintendent Joseph Sadler Thomas of the F-Division of the Metropolitan Police would realize that Williams was actually Thomas Head, a petty thief who had graduated to grave robbing. John Bishop was an accomplished resurrection man, and it is estimated he stole about 500-1,000 corpses before finally meeting his maker at a hangman’s noose.
James May had known Bishop for approximately four years. On that fateful day, when going to drink with Bishop, he met Williams for the first time. After much drinking at the Fortune of War public house—a noted hang-out for resurrection men that in the early part of its tenure is rumored to have allowed men to stash their wares in the pub’s benches—the men began to discuss the resurrection trade. Money hadn’t been as good as they wanted it to be, and the drunken men decided to take matters into their own hands. Fresh corpses paid better, and so they’d murder to get one.
The London Burkers, as they came to be called, were an odd set. May turned state’s evidence and so he avoided execution. The carter Michael Shields was released after it was determined he had no prior knowledge of the murder the Burkers had committed. In the beginning of the investigation, Bishop displayed an egotism and pride that I have used as a model for my villain Finn. When asked what he did for a living by Thomas, Bishop is reported to have said, “I’m a bloody body snatcher.”
But that megalomania couldn’t save Bishop. He and Williams met their fate in December of 1831, and their bodies were given to surgeons for anatomization. In the end, I suppose, they had come full circle with their chosen profession.
After the case of the London Burkers, a reexamination of the Murder Act became imperative. In July of 1832, the Anatomy Act was passed, which legitimized corpses from the workhouses and unclaimed bodies to be dissected. By the end of the decade, the profession had almost entirely disappeared. I have placed A Dangerous Invitation in the winter months after Bishop and Williams’s execution, before the passing of the Anatomy Act.
Kate and Daniel’s visits to Jacob’s Island most likely could not have happened, due to the cholera outbreaks on the island at this time. But for the purposes of the Rookery Rogues, I have chosen to place those cholera spreads at a later date.
For further information about resurrection men and the Italian Boy case, I highly recommend reading Sarah Wise’s book The Italian Boy: A Tale of Murder and Body Snatching in 1830s London.