Burkers and Body Snatchers

By Thomas Frost

How recollections will crowd upon the mind when a train of thought is set in motion by the association of ideas! When, many years ago, I visited Dr. Kahn’s anatomical museum, then located in Tichborne Street, I there saw a human skeleton which was affirmed by the lecturer, Dr. Sexton, to be that of John Bishop, who was hanged in 1831, for the murder of an Italian boy named Carlo Ferrari, at a house in Nova Scotia Gardens, one of the slums then existing in the north-eastern quarter of London. Though nearly forty years had elapsed since the commission of the crime, and I was only ten years of age when I heard the horrible story which the sight of that ghastly relic of mortality recalled to my mind, all the incidents connected with it immediately passed before my mental vision like a hideous phantasmagoria. The vividness with which they came back to me may be accounted for by the deep impression which they made upon my mind at the time of their occurrence. Those whose memories will carry them back sixty years will readily understand this.

At the time when the public mind was harrowed by the narration in the newspapers of the horrible circumstances connected with the murder, and for some time previously, a fearful excitement had been created in all parts of the country by stories of murders committed and graves robbed of their ghastly tenants for the purpose of supplying with “subjects” the dissecting tables of the London and Edinburgh schools of anatomy. In the latter city two miscreants named Burke and Hare had been convicted of murder for this purpose, and one of them hanged for their crimes; but the scare had not abated. Stories were told with appalling frequency of corpses missing from lonely graveyards and of narrow escapes from murder in little frequented places. Chloroform had not then been discovered, but the Scotch professors of the art of murder had introduced the practice, popularly named after one of them, of disabling their victims by means of a pitch plaster suddenly clapped on the mouth. Every person who was missing was thought to have been “burked,” and the watching of graves to prevent the removal of newly-buried corpses became an established practice. As the dark nights of the late autumn came on, the fears of the timid and nervous were doubled, and persons who lived in lonely places, or in the ill-lighted parts of towns, became afraid to leave their houses after nightfall. I remember hearing such fears expressed by several persons at Croydon, with whom my parents were acquainted, and also of neighbours combining to assist in watching the graves of deceased members of each others’ families.

A few years ago, I was one day exchanging reminiscences of a long bygone generation with a brother journalist, when, on this gruesome subject being mentioned, he placed in my hands a report of the trial of the murderers of Carlo Ferrari, which appeared to have been detached from a volume of criminal trials. No feature of the horrible record impressed me so much as the cool, business-like manner in which the wretches concerned in the crime hawked the corpse of their victim from one school of anatomy to another, and the equally cool and business-like manner in which the matter was dealt with by those with whom their nefarious occupation brought them in contact. The procuring of corpses for anatomical purposes was, in fact, a regular trade, and the biographer of Sir Astley Cooper states that “the Resurrection-men were occasionally employed on expeditions into the country to obtain possession of the bodies of those who had been subjected to some important operation, and of which a post mortem examination was of the greatest interest to science. Scarcely any distance from London was considered an insuperable difficulty in the attaining of this object, and as certainly as the Resurrectionist undertook the task, so certain was he of completing it. This was usually an expensive undertaking, but still it did not restrain the most zealous in their profession from occasionally engaging these men in this employment.” The price of a subject ranged from seven to twelve guineas, but when the “body-snatchers” were specially employed to procure some particular corpse, the incidental expenses were often as much more.

As an illustration of the times in which such horrors were possible, the story of the murder of Carlo Ferrari may, at this distance of time from the event, be worth telling. In the autumn of 1831, there lived in one of a row of small houses, known as Nova Scotia Gardens, in the poverty-stricken district of Bethnal Green, a man named John Bishop, with his wife and three children. He had formerly been a carrier at Highgate, but had long been suspected of “body-snatching,” as the practice of robbing graves was termed, and had no visible means of honest living. He had the look of a man whose original rustic stolidity had been supercharged with cockney cunning. The house adjoining Bishop’s was occupied by a man named Woodcock, who had succeeded in the tenancy a glass-blower named Thomas Williams, described as a little, simple-looking man, of mild and inoffensive demeanour. About two o’clock on the morning of the 4th of November, Woodcock was awakened by a noise, as of a scuffle, in Bishop’s house, and afterwards heard two men leave it and return in a few minutes, when he recognised the voices as those of Bishop and Williams. At noon the same day these two men were in a neighbouring public-house, accompanied by two other men, one of whom was known as James May, who had formerly been a butcher, but for the last few years had been suspected of following the same ghastly and revolting occupation as Bishop. In the afternoon three men alighted from a cab at Nova Scotia Gardens, two of them being recognised as Bishop and Williams, and afterwards returned to the vehicle, when the former and the third man were carrying something in a sack, which they placed in the cab. The three men then entered, and it was driven off.

About seven o’clock the same evening, Bishop and May presented themselves at Guy’s Hospital, carrying something in a sack, and asked the porter if a “subject” was wanted. Receiving a negative reply, they asked him to allow “it” to remain there until the next morning, to which he consented. Half-an-hour later, the two traffickers in human flesh called at Grainger’s anatomical theatre, in Webb Street, Southwark, and told the curator they had “a very fresh male subject, about fourteen years of age.” The offer being declined, they went away, and later on they were, accompanied by Williams, in a public-house, where May was seen by a waiter to pour water on a handkerchief containing human teeth, and then rub the teeth together, remarking that they were worth two pounds to him.

Next morning, May called upon a dentist named Mills, on Newington Causeway, and sold a dozen teeth to him for a guinea, observing that they were the teeth of a boy fourteen years of age. On examining them, Mills found that morsels of the gums and splinters of the jaw were adhering to them, as if much force had been used to wrench them out. Two hours later, Bishop and May called again at the anatomical theatre in Southwark, and repeated their offer of the preceding evening, which was again declined. Shortly afterwards, they went to Guy’s Hospital, accompanied by Williams and a man named Shields, to remove the “subject” left there the evening before, and it was given to them in the sack, as they had left it, and placed in a large hamper, which Shields had brought for the purpose. There was a hole in the sack, through which the porter saw a small foot protruding, apparently that of a boy or a woman.

About midnight, the bell of King’s College was rung, and the porter, on going to the gate, found there Bishop and May, whom he had seen there before, it seems, and on similar business. May asked him if anything was wanted, and receiving an indifferent answer, added that they had a male “subject,” a boy about fourteen years of age. The porter inquired the price, and was told they wanted twelve guineas for it. He then said he would ask Mr. Partridge, the demonstrator in anatomy, and they followed him to a room adjoining the dissecting room. Nine guineas were offered, which May, with an oath, refused, and went outside. Bishop then said to the porter, “Never mind May, he is drunk; it shall come in for nine in half-an-hour.” They then went away, returning at the stipulated time, accompanied by Williams and Shields, the latter carrying on his head the hamper containing the corpse brought from Guy’s Hospital. It was taken into a room, where it was opened, and the corpse turned out of the sack by May. The porter, observing a cut on the left temple, and that the left arm was bent and the fingers clenched, conceived suspicions of foul play, and communicated them at once to Mr. Partridge. That gentleman thereupon examined the corpse, and mentioned its condition to the secretary, who immediately gave information to the police.

In order to detain the men until the arrival of the police, the demonstrator showed them a £50 note, observing that he must get it changed for gold before he could pay them. Several constables were soon on the spot, and the four men were arrested, and taken to the station-house in Vine Street, Covent Garden. On being charged on suspicion with having unlawful possession of a corpse, May said he had nothing to do with it, and had merely accompanied Bishop. A similar statement was made by Williams, and Bishop said he was only removing the corpse from St. Thomas’s Hospital to King’s College. Shields, who was known as a porter, said he was employed to carry the hamper, which he did in the exercise of his vocation. They were all then removed to the cells.

The evidence given at the coroner’s inquest by Partridge and two other surgeons left no doubt that the unfortunate lad, respecting whose identity there was no evidence, had been killed by a violent blow on the back of the neck, which had affected the spinal cord. The four accused men were present in custody during the inquiry, and Bishop, after reading a bill relating to the murder, which was displayed on the wall of the room, was heard by a constable to say, in a subdued tone, to May, “It was the blood that sold us.” Volunteering to give evidence, he said he got the corpse from a grave, but declined to name the place whence he had got it, alleging that the information would get into trouble two watchmen, who had large families. May also made a voluntary statement, to the effect that he got two “subjects” from the country, which he took first to Grainger’s theatre of anatomy, and afterwards to Guy’s Hospital, subsequently meeting Bishop, who promised him all he could get for a “subject” above nine guineas if he would sell it for him. The inquest was adjourned, and the police proceeded with their investigation.

The houses of Bishop and May had been promptly visited and searched by the police, who found at the former’s a sack, a large hamper, and a brad-awl, the last showing recent bloodstains. At May’s house in Dorset Street, New Kent Road, they found a pair of breeches, stained with blood at the back. On a second visit to Bishop’s house the garden was dug over, and a jacket, trousers, and a shirt found in one spot, and in another a coat, trousers, a vest with blood on the collar and one shoulder, and a shirt with the front torn. When the brad-awl was produced at Bow Street police-court, May said, “That is the instrument I punched the teeth out with.” Shields was eventually discharged from custody, but the other three prisoners were committed for trial on the capital charge.

The identity of the victim remained a mystery until the 19th of November, a fortnight after the murder, when the corpse was recognised by a foreigner named Brun as that of a boy named Carlo Ferrari, whom he had brought from Italy two years before, but had not seen since July, 1830. The boy picked up the means of living by exhibiting a tortoise and a pair of white mice in the streets. He had been seen by several persons in or near Nova Scotia Gardens on the 3rd of November, but he had not been seen since, nor had he returned on that day to his miserable lodgings in Charles Street, Drury Lane. The clothes found in Bishop’s garden corresponded with the description given of those worn by him when he was last seen, and a little boy who played with Bishop’s children stated that they had, on the following day, shown him two white mice in a cage similar to the one carried by Ferrari.

The incidents of the crime, as revealed from day to day, and the mystery in which the identity of the victim was for some time veiled, created so much excitement in the public mind, that when the prisoners were placed in the dock at the Old Bailey, early in December, the court was crowded, and a guinea each was paid for seats in the gallery, the occupants of which, all fashionably dressed, as might be expected of those who could afford to pay that price for the gratification of their love of the sensational, had taken their seats the day before. Though the evidence was but a recapitulation of the story told before in the police-court and the inquest-room, it was listened to with the utmost avidity. The witnesses for the defence were few, and their evidence valueless, except in the case of May, for whom an alibi was established in respect of the time between the afternoon of the day preceding the murder and noon on the following day. The prisoners were sentenced to death, but in May’s case the sentence was commuted into transportation for life. A sea-faring relative of mine, who was second officer of the vessel in which May was sent out to Sydney, described him as an athletic, wiry-looking man, with features expressive of sternness, and a determined will, quite a different-looking man, therefore, to his two companions in crime, who were duly hanged at Newgate.

The crime of these men, and the deeds of Burke and Hare, created such a scare, and exposed so vividly the temptation to murder afforded by the prices paid by surgeons for “subjects,” that the attention of parliament was directed to the matter, and a Select Committee of the House of Commons was appointed to inquire and report as to the facilities which might be given for obtaining bodies for anatomical purposes in a legitimate manner.

Sir Astley Cooper, who was one of the eminent surgeons who gave evidence before this committee, was asked whether the state of the law prevented teachers of anatomy from obtaining the body of any person, which, in consequence of some peculiarity of structure, they might be desirous of procuring. He replied:—“The law does not prevent our obtaining the body of an individual if we think proper; for there is no person, let his situation in life be what it may, whom, if I were disposed to dissect, I could not obtain.... The law only enhances the price, and does not prevent the exhumation. Nobody is secured by the law; it only adds to the price of the subject.” The result of this inquiry was the passing of the Anatomy Act, by which the bodies of persons dying in hospitals and workhouses, if unclaimed by the relatives, may be placed at the disposal of the schools of anatomy.