The Italian Boy: A Tale of Murder and Body Snatching in 1830s London

The Italian Boy: A Tale of Murder and Body Snatching in 1830s London

by Sarah Wise

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A thrilling history of England's great metropolis at a point of great change, told through the story of a young vagrant murdered by "resurrection men"

Before his murder in 1831, the "Italian boy" was one of thousands of orphans on the streets of London, moving among the livestock, hawkers, and con men, begging for pennies. When his body was sold to a London medical college, the suppliers were arrested for murder. Their high-profile trial would unveil London's furtive trade in human corpses carried out by body-snatchers--or "resurrection men"--who killed to satisfy the first rule of the cadaver market: the fresher the body, the higher the price.

Historian Sarah Wise reconstructs not only the boy's murder but the chaos and squalor of London that swallowed the fourteen-year-old vagrant long before his corpse appeared on the slab. In 1831, the city's poor were desperate and the wealthy were petrified, the population swelling so fast that old class borders could not possibly hold. All the while, early humanitarians were pushing legislation to protect the disenfranchised, the courts were establishing norms of punishment and execution, and doctors were pioneering the science of human anatomy.

Vivid and intricate, The Italian Boy restores to history the lives of the very poorest Londoners and offers an unparalleled account of the sights, sounds, and smells of a city at the brink of a major transformation.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781466867802
Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 04/08/2014
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 619,821
File size: 8 MB

About the Author

A historian of Victorian England, Sarah Wise has written for The Guardian, The Observer, The Independent on Sunday, and several magazines. The Italian Boy is her first book. She lives in London.

A historian of Victorian England, Sarah Wise has written for The Guardian, The Observer, The Independent on Sunday, and several magazines. She is the author of The Italian Boy: A Tale of Murder and Body Snatching in 1830s London and The Blackest Streets: The Life and Death of a Victorian Slum. She lives in London.

Read an Excerpt

From The Italian Boy:

Urban poverty, so often a disgusting and harrowing sight to the respectable, could also be a source of wonder and intrigue. A beggar with a certain look, or air, or "act," could feed on city dwellers' craving for novelty and display. To London's grimmest streets, to a population with little access to books or periodicals, and no access to parks, zoos, galleries, or museums—Italian boys brought music, intriguing objects, and strange animals, plus, in many cases, their own beauty. The economies of the Italian states had been devastated by the Napoleonic Wars and throughout the 1820s there was large-scale migration, with many Italian artisans moving to northern European cities to pursue their trades. While later in the century Italian street children would be known for playing musical instruments and dancing, until the mid-1830s their principal source of income was exhibiting small animals as well as wax and plaster figures. The objects and creatures were rented out to the boys each morning by padroni who ran the trade. All in all, Italy was providing London with a better class of vagrant. The pathos an Italian boy evoked could earn his master six or seven shillings a day. Dead—and apparently murdered to supply the surgeons—his appeal only seemed to increase.

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The Italian Boy: A Tale of Murder and Body Snatching in 1830s London 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Kasthu on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The Italian Boy is the story of a little-known 19th century murder. The story begins in 1832 with the delivery of the body of an "Italian boy" to one of London's many private medical schools. In the 19th century, medical schools acquired subjects to practice on from London's many pauper's graves; the body of the body was fresher than one might expect, and lacked burial marks. What followed was an investigation into the murder of an Italian boy, never fully identified by contemporaries. The search for the boy's murderers led to the infamous trial of his suppliers--John Bishop, James May, and Thomas Williams. The murders echoed those of Burke and Hare, two famous resurrectionists after whom the term "burking" was coined. I liked this book, sort of. Although the author goes off on tangents (she talks in general about poverty in the early 19th century, Italian politics, and the Smithfield meat market, which seemed to me to be "filler" for the book, almost like a newspaper article extended to a 300-page book), she presents to her reader a compelling murder story with a bit of a mystery--who was the Italian boy that Bishp, May and Williams supplied to Kings College? On the other hand, I felt as though the author failed to draw any conclusions about the murder, murderers, or to connect various pieces of the puzzle. The book is accompanied by nice engraving reproductions.
bcquinnsmom on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Awesome book! Here's my caveat: this is NOT just a true crime story ... the story is centered in the history of early Victorian London, so if you're not a history reader, stay away! However, if you, like myself, are fascinated with all things Victorian, you will absolutely LOVE this book. You get a really good insight into the city of London, the people of London, the socioeconomic side of things, and the system of courts and punishments of the time. The photographs and the drawings are exquisite, and the story of what happened at No. 2 Nova Scotia Gardens will keep you reading. brief peek:It wasn't uncommon for colleges of Anatomy to buy dead bodies; what was uncommon in this case is that when the body of a young boy was delivered, it was still warm even though the body's purveyor swore he got it out of a grave. Set in 1831, The Italian Boy examines the details of this one case from the time the body was delivered through the fate of those who sold it. An amazing history, it not only tells this story, but gives a very keen look into the London of the time. Grave robbing wasn't an abnormal thing in those days; according to law, criminals' bodies could be dug up and used for autopsy purposes. However, the country had just been rocked by the sensational story of Burke & Hare, two criminals who murdered people to sell their bodies for profit (see the story here ), and so the details of the crime involving The Italian Boy were highly sensational at the time. A wonderful history of the time that should not be missed. I recommend this book most definitely!
Guest More than 1 year ago
The Italian Boy engages the reader not because of it's sordid tale but despite it. Wise is a skilled writer and confidently takes the reader through the streets, pubs, homes and offices and medical schools of London in 1831. A better guide could not be found unless Dickens were to join her. A superb read for anyone. The story is scholarly, well developed and carefully crafted. I look forward to her next publication.
Guest More than 1 year ago
If crime and the history of crime are your passion, then read this book. You will be totally absorbed and want to time travel back to observe the goings on in these sordid times.