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The Italian Boy: A Tale of Murder and Body Snatching in 1830s London Hardcover – June 1, 2004

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

British historian Wise's well-written first book explores the grisly underbelly of pre-Victorian London by examining the trial of three "body snatchers," John Bishop, James May and Thomas Williams, who were arrested in 1831 while attempting to sell the suspiciously fresh cadaver of a teenage boy to a medical college. Drawing on astonishingly detailed research, Wise places the crime in context by describing how a shadowy "resurrection" trade in exhumed bodies had grown up to meet the rising demand of the new science of anatomy. She explains how various Londoners, including several Italians, testified that a hat found at Bishop's home matched that of a recently vanished Italian boy peddler. Soon the new London police force was sleuthing its way to the bottom of a case that caused widespread alarm and a media circus in a city notorious for its numbers of missing persons. Wise energetically explicates every twist of the evidence with fascinating detours into the wider social context of newly vulnerable urban family life, punitive poor laws and fragmented philanthropy. Biographies of the trio of body snatchers demystify the Victorian criminal. Wise's deft prose contributes vastly to our understanding of pre-Victorian London's everyday street life, districts, trades, policing, prisons and press. Meanwhile, she skillfully manages the narrative, keeping her story gripping without sensationalizing it. Generously illustrated, this is a macabre yet historically serious work, invaluable to anyone interested in the truth of London's gory past.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From School Library Journal

Adult/High School–Making good use of scant information, Wise chronicles one of the most celebrated crimes of the 19th century, perpetrated by the dreaded "Resurrection Men." These were grave robbers engaged in the lucrative practice of providing London's medical schools with cadavers for dissection. As demand exceeded supply, some turned to homicide, especially since the freshest bodies brought the highest reward. By the end of the book, readers have gained knowledge of the controversial creation of Robert Peal's "bobbies," the primitive origins of crime-scene investigation, and the conduct of British jury trials of the period. The author describes the exponential growth of the city in the first third of the 19th century, the precarious economic situation of the lower population strata, and the poverty and filth that so appalled later Victorians and led them to take corrective action. She explains why Italian boys–and many other children–called the streets of London home and why the poor were perpetual crime victims. This engrossing and suspenseful blending of sociology, history, and true crime will appeal to both researchers and casual readers.–Dori DeSpain, Fairfax County Public Library, VA

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Metropolitan Books; First Edition edition (June 1, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805075372
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805075373
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.4 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #879,482 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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More About the Author

Extra stories, pictures and further exploration of the subjects of each of my three books are available to read at

You can follow me on twitter @MissSarahWise

My Psychology Today blog on 19th-century mental health is here

You can hear me speak about each of my books by going to the following site, and clicking the links

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

16 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on July 4, 2004
Format: Hardcover
They were known as "grabs", "lifters", "exhumators", and especially as "resurrection men." The number of euphemisms for their trade indicates a distaste for it; they were bodysnatchers, and in nineteenth century London, they had a good, if not respectable, trade. Sarah Wise, in _The Italian Boy: A Tale of Murder and Body Snatching in 1830s London_ (Metropolitan Books), has revived (so to speak) a story that has not been retold since the newspapers and broadsheets made it a sensation in its time. Far more famous is the case of the "Edinburgh Horrors" wherein William Burke and William Hare had not only snatched bodies but had manufactured them by murdering the victims first. Their crimes have entered literature and the movies, and "to burke" is even a term for the act. Three years later in 1831, similar crimes in London came to light and horrified and fascinated Londoners. Wise's book will do the same for the modern reader.
For medical students and anatomists in England, there was only one legal supply of cadavers for dissection, the gallows; getting cut up for show was another particular indignity that could be extended to the condemned. This might have been enough in years gone by, but in 1831 only 52 people were executed. A freshly exhumed corpse would fetch around ten guineas, at a time when a well-paid workingman might bring home eighty guineas a year, so the trade could be lucrative. Carlo Ferrari was a pretty fourteen-year-old street urchin who walked the city with his cage of white mice (and maybe a turtle) until he ran into the villains of this tale. The resurrectionists involved lured him to a home in a semi-rural part of the city, drugged him and drowned him, and then set off to peddle his body.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By S. Calhoun on June 23, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Before the passage of the 1830's Anatomy Act that allowed medical schools legal usage of bodies of the unclaimed poor, grave robbing was a common occurrence in London and the surrounding countryside. Resurrection men were known to raid newly dug graves and sell the bodies to medical schools for dissection purposes. If a resurrection man was good at his trade he often made more money pedaling the bodies of the dead than the average laborer. Due to the medical establishment's demand for fresh bodies usually outpaced the supply it wasn't uncommon for individuals to be murdered for their bodies.
THE ITALIAN BOY thoroughly examines the notorious crimes of three London resurrection men who were charged with the murder of a young Italian street performer in November 1831. Sarah Wise performs a good job in bringing to life this period of London's history that was full of social and political transformations. Although many of the passages pertaining to the trail were dry, there are enough tidbits of social history to make reading this book more than worthwhile. The descriptions of the police investigations and the infancy of forensic knowledge were interesting, along with everyday descriptions of 1830's London.
The lure of reading books about the underbelly of life in 19th century London is always difficult for me to resist; if you also enjoy this subject matter then this book will give you a satisfying fix to cure your cravings. 4.5 stars. Recommended.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Andrea Bowhill on August 19, 2006
Format: Hardcover
The Italian boy was one of a thousand of orphans living on the London streets in 1831, amongst the poor in company of con artist, beggars and prostitutes. The Italian boy's body was sold to a London medical college and the suppliers of the body were caught and arrested for murder. When this high profile court case took place it was unravelled there was a London trade in human corpses. These men hid behind the complete chaos of a growing city. Choosing their prey amongst low lives whose bodies would never be missed. These Murderous thieves two in particular John Bishop and Thomas Williams were known to the City of London as the Body Snatchers (The London Burkers) a third was arrested soon after James May, they killed to satisfy their market demand. All three was charged with the murder of Carlo Ferrari. Words spoken in court at the Old Bailey, "The fresher the body the higher the price". Demand was coming from Doctors looking to make a break through in science of the human anatomy fresh dissection was needed.

Sarah Wise the author has weaved a story with historical events using the Investigation into the case of the London Burkers following the trail itself of 1831. Reconstructing the story in her own words looking at the lives of lower-class Londoners, with a vivid description of London with all its sight's and smells bringing life to a city and the characters who were corpse trafficking. Ms Wise follows through the trail, which ended with the controversial legislation (The Anatomy Bill, passed in 1832) which marked the beginning of the end to body-snatching in Britain. Sarah Wise is an historian of Victorian England. This book had me gripped in its pages with fantastic history, descriptions can be gruesome but all woven into a great piece of storytelling.

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Boyd Hone on February 3, 2013
Format: Paperback
So many women have written so many great books on history (Fraser's The Gunpowder Plot, Scurr's Robespierre, Eisler's Byron, Collingridge's Cook, Salmond's Bligh, Alexander's Bounty, Ann Wroe's Perkin, Weir's The Princes in the Tower) that I'm beginning to wonder if there's a special historian gene that only women possess. Which brings me to Sarah Wise's THE ITALIAN BOY. A book with such a title makes me dream of Renaissance Italy, of boys in skin-tight leotards that leave nothing to the imagination. Alas, instead of the Italy of Lorenzo Il Magnifico we find ourselves in Wise's reconstruction of the London of the 1830s, of streets smelling of piss and feces. The boy in question is one of many murdered by what were called Resurrection men, scum who sold the bodies of the dead to anatomy schools, schools with a total of 800 students who each needed 3 corpses to dissect, 2 for learning anatomy, 1 for practicing surgical skills. At the time a workingman earned a pound a month while bodies brought in from 18 to 20 pounds according to their freshness. Resurrection men dug with wooden shovels so as not to make noise. I admire Sarah Wise. It took spunk to write this book: a difficult subject, one not at all certain to win a large audience. The reason why lads have forever suffered the barbarity of their elders, as did the Italian boy, is certainly beyond comprehension, when each boy everywhere should be free to wear leotards, if he so wishes, and dance the night away, as in my imagination boys did in the times of Il Magnifico.
My own books can be found on Amazon under Michael Hone.
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