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4.6 out of 5 stars
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4.6 out of 5 stars
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on 1 June 2004
Sarah Wise has written a well reseached account of the arrest and trial of a gang of London body snatchers who took to providing their own fresh bodies by murdering them. The story of their activities is interspersed with sections on a whole range of subjects relating in particular to the urban poor from which both the killers and their victims came. There is also an insight into the geography of London in the early 1830's and although many of the locations have their modern equivilent the character of them is frequently very different. I would recommend the book to anyone interested in pre-Victorian London, crime and punishment or the New Police.
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VINE VOICEon 13 June 2008
This is my second reading of Sara Wise's excellent book. For several years, it has been a standard stocking filler present for my friends. Curiously, I am strongly adverse to the endless, voyeuristic, procession of books, movies and TV drama where gory murders are cleverly committed and habitually solved (in about 200 pages or 49 minutes plus commercial breaks). It is thematically tedious and depressing in equal measure. The Italian Boy is very much more than a good "who dunnit" although it reads like one. The cliché is correct, fact - well told - is stranger than fiction and much more interesting.

The book is rooted in the slums of 1830s London, where body snatchers decided it was worth murdering to meet the needs of medical science. Wise systematically inserts the factual details. Some 500 students required three bodies to dissect during their 16-month training. Not enough criminals were being hanged and donors were inadequate. Stealing freshly buried bodies was risky; even then, not enough to meet supply. At a guinea a corpse, the business was very lucrative. It occurred to some that many wretched people would not be missed. This is a very well structured book, not merely as a commentary on the poor in London but as a detailed insight into police methods, forensic science and the legal process. You sense what Newgate prison was like. Then there is the evolution of medical training, these surgeons did not have clean ethical hands. We are reminded of what is possibly better forgotten. This was a brutal world, arguably better to have been a slave picking cotton than an unskilled labourer in what was then the largest and richest city in the world. This book is not a lecture; it is an easily followed insight showing why much of Victorian London was a hellish place.

While reading the book I bought the relevant Victorian Ordinance survey maps of London. It complemented the text; these maps are absorbing and as evocative as any Gustave Dore print. Many of the places, bricks and mortar, still stand. This book is a primer for further reading. Where Dickens presented colourful characters, Wise has the gagging odours of the Smithfield meat market coming to life. In passing the book also provides a good economic insight; the commercial life of London is well entrenched in the account.

What Wise has achieved is to produce an exceptionally good story based on detailed historical research. You could not have made it up, it would have read as a tawdry Victorian melodrama. It stands as a serious commentary on Victorian London. So many academics (and their publishers) - who seem to define the quality of their work by the size of their footnotes - should realise intellectual credibility is not risked by writing such competent narrative history.
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on 13 June 2004
A well-written history of Regency London low-life.Centering on the gruesome history of the grave-robbers supplying London's medical schools- some of whom found it more convenient to hasten the demise of the subject and not bother with that tiresome disinterment- the author in turn examines aspects of Regency London- drink, the legal system, architecture and public works, cruelty to animals- it's all there in a fascinating history of the London streets that we walk today.
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on 13 April 2007
What makes this book marvelous is not just the excellent research about the subject matter - which, lets face it, is not one that many people are instinctively drawn to - but the fascinating asides and background detail that gives a truely fascinating insight into the lives of the inner city poor in 1830's London. It is always difficult for one to relate the value of money but juxtaposing taxi fares, price of meat, pints of gin (2d)wages of skilled artisans like carpenters and silk weavers with dead bodies (8-12 guineas although with peaks of around 20 guineas)one gets a picture of why these people did what they did.

The background detail of the new police and their rivalry with the Bow Street Runners; the limited aspirations for the police i.e. not expected to investigate crime or to mix with criminals in order to glean information was all new to me at least.

Similarly, the limitations of jurisprudence were surprising: how limited was the ability of defense lawyers to defend their clients they couldn't speak to the jury; there was no pre-trial disclosure of prosecution evidence; the accused could not take the stand - it was therefore perhaps not surprising that an average high court trial lasted 8 1/2 minutes probably with a very high rates of guilty verdicts - one wonders why the world was taught to look up to British justice, just how bad was it elsewhere? It seems strange that such a distasteful crime as grave robbing was only a misdemeanor whilst relatively low value thefts could be sanction by transportation for life or hanging - Sarah Wise explains that the general premise was based upon ownership (and its loss) - therefore begging the question of who owns a dead body and who has incurred a loss?

The chapter about Smithfields and the animal meat market was equally (and curiously) fascinating - one rarely considers how the food industry worked in those days especially with the dramatic rise in urbanisation that was going on - walking cows from the highlands of Scotland to the London markets - the treatment of animals which were slowly becoming protected whilst humans had perhaps less legal protection.

The demise of grave robbing and 'Burking' as an attractive career choice for criminals came not from raising the penalty nor by criminalising the doctors who created the demand pull (they were gentlemean after all) but by freeing up the supply side - the unclaimed bodies of the workhouse poor were made available (despite fears that the doctors might still try to encourage the flow when they needed more bodies) and the rise of pestulence and plague that meant that there were many more bodies available.

This is a very stimulating book that I would heartedly recommend
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on 14 May 2015
This is an in depth study of the murder and subsequent selling of the body of a young man, whose identity was questionable. Two other murders for gain by selling the bodies to medical schools are described, called "burking" after the notorious Scottish Burke and Hare. There are chapters which are asides, deal with aspects of early Victorian society. What might otherwise be dry reading is brought into life by the author and I found it hard to put this book down. The harshness, filth and danger of urban life two hundred years ago makes one realise just how fortunate we are not to have been born in those times; I wonder if they thought the same about their forebears?
Compelling reading and thoroughly recommended.
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VINE VOICEon 20 August 2006
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 case would be remembered because a boy's dead 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 (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.

Andrea Bowhill
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on 2 February 2006
What an excellent book. Thoughly researched with an indepth look at the social history of the time. I recommend this book to anyone who is interested not only in resurrectionists but how ordinary people coped with life at a turbulent time in history.
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VINE VOICEon 29 March 2005
I was gripped by this page turner of a book about murder and grave robbery in London. If you are interested in reading about crime and murder you will love this book.
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on 4 July 2011
No only about body snatching - when buried bodies became scarce- Grave robbers created them . Goes into a lot of detail about conditions of the period . Filthy slums and back courts etc . Very interesting how people managed to survive under those conditions . For anyone who loves the dark areas of Victorian London . a must read .
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 8 September 2009
With uncommon skill and painstaking research, Sarah Wise has unearthed the mystery surrounding a child murdered in London in 1832. At the time it became a cause celebre involving the highest of those engaged in the profession of surgery, and the lowest of the low - those who supplied anatomy specimens (known as Things to providers, and Subjects to receivers. Nothing is stinted in unravelling this terrific story, which holds the reader enthralled to the last page.

It was shortly after the notorious Burke and Hare trial in Edinburgh that a dead adolescent boy was offered at one of the many anatomy schools in London. A servant remarked to the surgeon who was to receive this body that it was remarkably fresh and did not look as if it had been buried. The surgeon told his servant to promise money shortly and meanwhile sent for the police. Three men were apprehended, John Bishop, Thomas Head (alias Thomas Williams) and James May. Bishop and May were known suppliers of dead bodies - of Head, less was known.

Witnesses duly came forward who said they had seen the boy around the vicinity of Novia Scotia Gardens (not as nice as it sounds, this was a very run down area, but hardly unusual in the London of the time), where Bishop and Head were living and the men, along with May, were arraigned in a trial for murder.

The strange details of the case and the fascinating circumstances and background of several additional murders are given. This case gripped the attention of the general populace to the point where no one connected with it was safe on the streets and there were even more shocking scenes at the execution of the two men pronounced guilty.

This book is thoroughly fascinating - unbelievable poverty existed in the 1830s, and a population starved of entertainment largely made its own at occasions such as trials, often causing minor riots. Sarah Wise fleshes out the personalities of miscreants, their relatives, children and all of the major actors, prosecution and defence and the policemen involved, with everything that can be known, right down to the ironic truth at the heart of this amazing piece of history. This is a magnificently gripping read.
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