The Shoreditch Body-Snatchers and The Murder of Carlo Ferrari
So, I’m currently mired in the subject of Death in Georgian London. As you can imagine, it’s everywhere and has so many different qualities, all of them tinged with sadness. But amongst all this, there are very few as sad as the case of Carlo Ferrari, a fourteen year old Italian boy, who ‘got his living showing white mice’ as a little sideshow on the streets.
Medical science demanded a steady flow of bodies on which to research anatomy and practice surgical procedures. This demand was met largely through those of the pauper population who lay ‘unclaimed’ after death. But not always: fresh corpses were exhumed from burial grounds and sometimes more sinister methods came into play. Heard of Burke and Hare and their murders in Edinburgh in the late 1820s? Thanks to them ‘burking’ became an urban myth, with the idea that body-snatchers killed prime victims such as women pregnant with twins or people with unusual physical characteristics. ’Burking’, by the way, doesn’t mean offing someone to sell their corpse, it’s to murder by suffocation, the technique Burke used to keep the bodies undamaged. In London there’s nothing but circumstantial evidence that anatomist-surgeons chose corpses to order, but there is one case where body-snatchers did murder speculatively.
‘On November 5th, 1831, two men, named Bishop and May, called at the dissecting-room at King’s College, and asked Hill, the porter, if he “wanted anything.” On being interrogated as to what they had to dispose of, May replied, “A boy of fourteen.” For this body they asked 12 guineas, but ultimately agreed to bring it in for 9 guineas. They went off, and returned in the afternoon with another man named Williams, alias Head, and a porter named Shields, the latter of whom carried the body in a hamper. The appearance of the subject excited Hill’s suspicion of foul play, and he at once communicated with Mr. Partridge, the Demonstrator of Anatomy. A further examination of the body by Mr. Partridge confirmed the porter’s suspicions. To delay the men, so that the police might be communicated with, Mr. Partridge produced a £50 note, and said that he could not pay until he had changed it. Soon after, the police officers appeared upon the scene, and the men were given into custody.’
The gang were found guilty and sentenced to death. Their evidence revealed ’that they had enticed the boy to their dwelling in Nova Scotia Gardens; there they drugged him with opium, and then let his body into a well, where they kept it until he was suffocated. To the last the prisoners declared that the deceased was not the Italian boy, but a lad from Lincolnshire. They seem to have had great difficulty in disposing of the body, as Bishop, in his confession, said that, before taking it to Guy’s, they had tried Mr. Tuson and Mr. Carpue, both in vain. Bishop and Williams confessed, also, to the murder of a woman named Fanny Pigburn, and a boy, whose name was supposed to be Cunningham. Both of these bodies they sold for dissection.’
Quite why they imagined insisting on a different identity for Carlo is a mystery. It seemed that he was a known figure on the streets and perhaps they feared public backlash against their crime. They had removed Carlo’s teeth to sell ‘to Mr. Mills, a dentist, for twelve shillings’ and they hadn’t treated his body well in transit, all of which was reported in the papers and pamphlets to a huge public outcry. One paper reported a record circulation of 50,000 on the day of the confessions - massive by the standards of the time.
Carlo’s case is the only proven incidence of ‘murder to order’/speculative murder for London’s corpse trade and highlights the vulnerability of street children. It also shows the very fine line the anatomist-surgeons trod in their work. Researching death in all its myriad forms hasn’t been my favourite part of writing this book but of all the more macabre stories, from the Lambeth Articulator who wired up a baby’s skeleton as ‘a doll’ for his own child to play with to the beggar woman who froze to death on her knees in the Fleet Market, for some reason it is Carlo Ferrari, a fourteen year old Italian boy who got his living showing white mice who just won’t leave me alone.