Flogging A Dead Thing

The Fortune of War, circa 1900. Note the Golden Boy.

Every trade has its pub. And The Fortune of War, Giltspur Street, Smithfield, was a speakeasy for the bodysnatching fraternity. At one time, it was said that the pub accommodated its clientele to the extent that the landlord allowed customers to leave corpses under the benches – with tags attached – whilst they went to try to strike a deal with the surgeons at St. Barts, just around the corner (the porters at Barts left empty hampers outside the hospital, a tacit invitation for them to be taken and filled with fresh ‘specimens’ by those in the ‘resurrection’ business’). And if Barts didn’t want what you were offering, there were plenty of other places you could try.

Saturday 5th November 1831. A ferry carrying two men arrived at the riverside entrance of Robert Smirke’s handsome new King’s College (so new that a mason was still working on site) to enquire whether the resident surgeons might be interested in a body – or, as they said in the trade, a ‘Thing’. The two men, one of whom was drunk, were trying to sell a ‘Big Small’, and wanted ten guineas for it. (A dead child was a ‘Small’; a ‘Big Small’ was a dead adolescent. Ten guineas would be worth something in excess of £1,000 today.) They had been trying to sell the Thing since the previous day and had traipsed all over London in search of a good price (as well as hospitals, there were private academies where anatomy was taught), fortified by frequent visits to the pubs en route. The surgeon said he might be interested – but would only offer nine guineas. The men went away and returned later with two accomplices and a hamper containing the body of a boy of about 14, which they tipped onto the floor. ‘It’ s a good ‘un’, said one of the men trying to make the sale. The dissecting room porter and the college anatomist were suspicious of the freshness of the corpse and called in the Covent Garden police.

At the start of the 19th century the science of anatomy advanced and the ‘bloody code’ of the 18th century receded, resulting in fewer executions and, thus, fewer bodies available for study. Surgeons had to make a queasy compact with those who were prepared to furnish subjects by illegal means, and prices were high. But although the trade aroused public revulsion, it was seen as a relatively trivial crime, as a human body was not considered to be anyone’s actual property. The commonest method of obtaining a body was simply to dig up a newly-dug grave, but other ruses included posing as a relative of the recently deceased to claim their remains, or stealing them from homes where they were awaiting burial. But some in the trade resorted to murder, and the notoriety of Edinburgh’s Burke and Hare in 1828 exposed the medical profession’s indifference to the sources of their research material. In London in 1831 the murder of ‘The Italian Boy’ threw the furtive relationship between body- snatcher and man of science into sharp relief, and shone a searchlight into London’s darkest corners.

John Bishop, the ringleader of the gang collared at King’s College (and who claimed to have sold over five hundred Things), later confessed that the ‘Italian Boy’ was actually a drover from Lincolnshire that he had picked up on market day in Smithfield and enticed back to his family home in Nova Scotia Gardens, Bethnal Green: a swampy, semi-rural slum. There, Bishop and his son-in-law accomplice Thomas Williams stupefied the boy with rum and laudanum, then drowned him in a well at the back of the house. Bishop admitted to using this method on another child and a woman. (In his confession Bishop exonerated his grave-robbing colleague James May of knowledge of the murders. The party who carried the body to King’s was a Covent Garden porter and sometime corpse-hauler who was not charged in connection with the killings.) It is at least possible that the real number of Bishop and Williams’s victims was far greater but no-one was in a position to prove it. Many women and children went missing in the capital but institutions kept very few records of their transactions with bodysnatchers, and human remains were totally consumed by dissection. As no-one reported a Lincolnshire drover missing, the corpse was formally identified as Carlo Ferrari: the lost ‘Italian boy’, trafficked from northern Italy by a ‘master’ who sent him out to exhibit animals for pennies on London’s streets.

Sarah Wise’s magnificent book on the case depicts London in that nameless age in the reign of William IV, the same city that terrified the young Dickens and formed the setting for his greatest novels.* An unlit, unpaved, undrained, festering town that has more in common with Hogarth’s London than the city of the high Victorian era. A stinking metropolis of rookeries and public executions, of cattle driven to slaughter through busy streets, overflowing cesspools, vagrant children and numberless poor. In this context the body-snatchers sound like almost any other street trader, hawking their wares around the teaching hospitals and schools of anatomy before the produce went off. What is really striking is the social aspect of the trade in the dead; as Ms Wise comments, convivial drinking was central to the enterprise, and a pub like The Fortune of War was a safe space for those in the trade to share tips and compare notes on the going rate for a Thing. On Friday, the day before the trip to King’s and during one of the gang’s many trips to the pub, James May stood at the Fortune’s bar rinsing blood and flesh from a set of teeth he produced from his handkerchief. The teeth belonged to the dead boy, and he nonchalantly discussed their potential value with the barman: May was confident that he could get two pounds for them. (He managed to sell them to a dentist before his arrest; the dentist later displayed them in his window as ‘the teeth of the murdered Italian Boy’.) The Fortune of War was only a few yards up the hill from Newgate Gaol, and it was outside the Debtor’s Door of that prison that Bishop and Williams were hanged before a large crowd on 5 December, 1831, just four weeks after their arrest. Their bodies were promptly handed over for dissection. James May was sentenced to transportation to Australia, but died on board a prison ship before the voyage began. The Fortune of War was demolished in 1910.

* Sarah Wise suggests that Dickens might actually have been present at the Old Bailey for the climax of the trial of the Bishop gang: an anonymous published account of the reading of the verdict bears a striking resemblance to Fagin’s court appearance in Oliver Twist.

Newgate’s Debtor’s Door, photographed shortly before the prison was demolished in 1904.

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