Burking the Italian Boy | Nova Scotia Gardens (Shoreditch)

Before being pulled down in 1910, the Fortune of War was a notorious public house located on the junction of Giltspur Street and Cock Lane in Smithfield. Here the London Burkers met, a criminal gang led by John Bishop and Thomas Williams, which included such characters as Michael Shields, a Covent Garden porter, and James May, an unemployed butcher, also known as Black EyedJack. As bodysnatchers (or ‘resurrection men’), they had modelled their gruesome activities on the practices of the notorious Edinburgh duo of Burke & Hare. The Burkers unearthed recently buried bodies which they sold to anatomists at London’s major hospitals. The newly created verb ‘burking’ implied an even more sinister practice. It meant ‘killing a person for his/her marketable cadaver’.

In July 1830, Bishop & Williams rented a slum house at no. 3 Nova Scotia Gardens, a former brick field filled in with human waste. On 5 November 1831, the fresh corpse of a fifteen year old boy was delivered to King’s College School of Anatomy in the Strand. Members of staff there were suspicious and summoned the police. During a methodical search of the Nova Scotia premises, items were recovered that suggested multiple crimes. B & W confessed having abducted and murdered the youngster. They also admitted to stealing between 500 and 1,000 bodies over a period of twelve years. Both men were convicted at the Old Bailey and hanged at Newgate on 5 December before a crowd of 30,000. Their bodies were removed for dissection the same night. The public display of their remains attracted large crowds of curious viewers. The criminals had attracted all attention, but who was the victim?

Carlo Ferrari was a teenage migrant from Piedmont who was living near Smithfield meat and livestock market. The physical state of the area was abysmal. The market was choked with animal remains and excrement.Young Carlo scraped a living by exhibiting caged white mice and pet rats to Smithfield passersby. Working in such a rough area, he and other young men exposed themselves to a particular danger. Smithfield’s proximity to St Bartholemew’s hospital [Barts] meant it was ideally situated for the traffic in human corpses. It was here that the B & W gang operated. Ferrari was slaughtered by these resurrectionists and his body sold for cash. Londoners were outraged and their anger was whipped up by the popular press. Throughout the court hearings, sentimental sketches of the ‘Italian Boy’ appeared in the newspapers in combination with horror stories about the practice of bodysnatching (the case was attended by young Charles Dickens as a note-taker for the publisher John Fairburn who issued a chapbook entitled Burking the Italian Boy). Multiple portraits of the poor Italian victim were in circulation.

It was fake news. From the trial documents it appears that the murdered young man was a Lincolnshire drover who worked at the cattle pens just off Smithfield’s Chick Lane (one of London’s most infamous streets). Bishop confessed that the victim had been taken from the Bell public house in Smithfield to their dwellings where he was drugged with rum and laudanum. B & W then went for a drinking session at the Feathers, near Shoreditch church. On their return they calmy killed the young man. 

Why did this made-up story stir London’s feverish imagination? For a sensationalist journalist, the butchering of an endearing Piedmontese boy (as he was portrayed) made for a more captivating story than the cold-blooded murder of a youngster from the Lincolnshire flat lands. But there were deeper reasons for the tale to make a social impact. The affair seemed to catch the mood of the age. There were concerns about crime, degradation, and filth in the metropolis. More particularly, there was an intense disgust with and anxiety about the presence of bodysnatchers. The immediate effect of the public outcry was the passing of the Anatomy Act of 1832, providing a regulated and legitimate supply of corpses for medical schools. Calls for urban regeneration would eventually lead to the clearing of the Nova Scotia slums and the creation of Columbia Market (which included the building of a new livestock market).

There was a burning issue of immigration as well. As early as 1820 an editorial in The Times highlighted what was called the Italian ‘slave trade’, a system whereby a London-based padrone imported children from destitute Italian parents. Living in overcrowded lodgings, the kids were given a street organ and send out to beg and perform on the streets of the capital. In a practice known as ‘La tratta dei fanciuculli’, the boss took all the earnings of his organ grinders. Such was the demand for instruments that a barrel-organ manufacturer such as Giuseppe Chiappa could make a good living at Saffron Hill, Clerkenwell (part of an area known as ‘Little Italy’).

Parma-born Luigi Rabbiotti was recorded in the 1841 census as a married man, living in Laystall Street, just off Leather Lane. Leading a seemingly respectable life, he was naturalised in 1867. Yet, the back of the same house was shared by twenty-five organ boys. Later he was associated was an address in Eyre Hill Street, Clerkenwell, were some fifty organ grinders were held. In 1845, fifteen-year old Giuseppe Leonardi died in the street of lung disease, thought to have been brought on by abuse. Rabbiotti was charged with manslaughter, but acquitted. The system persisted in spite of public sympathy for the victim. In May 1864 brewer and liberal MP Michael Thomas Bass put forward a bill on ‘Street Music in the Metropolis’. The resulting Act introduced fines to discourage the spread of organ grinders. The measure received support from artists and authors, including Charles Dickens who regularly complained about noise pollution in the capital. The condition of child-musicians was ignored. As late as 1876 Thomas Barnardo called for the rescue of ’White Slaves’ from Italy. It was not until 1889 that a charter was passed to stop child exploitation.

During the 1830s a number of Italian political exiles settled in London. Giuseppe Mazzini arrived in January 1837 after being expelled from Geneva. With funds provided by British friends (including Charles Dickens), he opened a free school where two hundred deprived children received a rudimentary education. Established on 10 November 1841, it was London’s first Italian school. Dickens seemed to embody a more general ambivalence towards migrants at the time, expressing empathy for the fate of young immigrants from Italy, but mixing it with irration about their noisy and continuous presence. Support for Mazzini’s ideal of unification may well have been seen as a way of solving the fragmented country’s socio-economic problems and hence: reducing Italian chain migration to London and other major cities. British attitudes towards immigrants were (and are) seldom straight forward.