Journalist/historian Wise debuts with a highly atmospheric account of corpse-trafficking and -killing in early-19th-century London.
Purloining cadavers for the medical colleges of London, the body-snatchers, grave-robbers, and resurrection men soon learned that the freshest bodies commanded the highest price; it was almost inevitable, then, that some of these disturbers of the dead would undertake to actively create their retail items. Such was the case with the 14-year-old boy whose 1831 death prompts Wise’s stately, richly descriptive narrative. While she takes care to lay out all the particulars of the crime at hand, the author is also interested in its context and ramifications. She explores the history of London’s poor, the evolution of vagrancy acts and charitable societies, the dire economic situation created by low wages, high unemployment, and corrupt parochial authorities—all of which fueled the growing threat of an insurrectionary working class. The Italian boys who began to appear on London’s streets were “victims of organized child-trafficking [sold into] a sort of beggar’s apprenticeship.” Helped along by numerous reproductions of paintings, prints, and photographs, Wise evokes tumultuous 1830s London: overrun by swarms of rural immigrants, overwhelmed by hideous overcrowding, unsettled by the dismantling of an apprentice system that traditionally gave workers some security, fouled by inadequate sanitation that allowed disease to spread from street to tavern to home. The tiny, odd domiciles in the slum of slums known as Nova Scotia Gardens were workshops for the urban desperate. The horrific Smithfield animal market gave birth to the first anticruelty laws, and the cultural sea change that equated humanitarianism with respectability spelled the doom of the resurrection men, writes Wise. Their association with the killers also brought down a preening class of surgeons who thought themselves exempt from the moral question of just where those stiffs came from.
A fine historical and social reconstruction of a vile crime. (Illustrations throughout)