No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Monday, January 23, 2006

#6: The Italian Boy -- Sarah Wise

"In 1831, detection was a phenomenon as new and experimental as railway travel, gallstone-removal, the omnibus, phrenology, Catholics in Parliament or the concept of votes for all." (p. 67)

This is the best kind of history book: one that starts with a single incident (here, an inquest in the upstairs room of a Covent Garden pub -- the Unicorn -- in November 1831) and fleshes it out, devoting whole chapters to context and back-story, before revealing how things turned out.

The inquest concerned the death of an 'Italian boy' -- an adolescent whom no one was able to identify with any certainty, but who was generally agreed to be one of the young Italian immigrants who roamed London, begging and exhibiting pet animals. The Italian Boy had been delivered to the dissecting room at King's College by a gang of body-snatchers -- a trade that was still not entirely illegal -- but suspicions had been roused by the evident freshness of the corpse, which seemed never to have been buried. Three men were arrested and charged with the boy's murder.

The Italian Boy is their story, and the story of the Italian Boy: and by extension the story of what it was like to be extremely poor in pre-Victorian London. There are chapters on grave-robbing, on the state of medical science, on housing, on the meat trade, on the second-hand clothes trade, on Newgate ... And throughout, the attempts of Police Superintendent Joseph Thomas to investigate the crime: a method without precedent, a police procedural ten years before Edgar Allan Poe kick-started the detective genre with The Murders in the Rue Morgue. "In the 1830s," writes Wise, "guilt was still established by eyewitness accounts, being caught in the act, having a bad reputation, or simply looking and sounding like a criminal."

This isn't a period of history that I know much about, and I suspect that some of the context would be hackneyed and commonplace to those more familiar with 19th century London. It was well-pitched for the casual reader, though I did find annoying Wise's insistence on identifying the exact location of some demolished building (not just the site of the murders, but pubs and offices and shops): "Dorset Street was a short road running east-west just north of Rockingham Street. Today the Rockingham Estate covers the site ... the workhouse building, dating from 1778, remains as the outpatients' department of the Middlesex Hospital ... Slaughter's stood on the south-west corner of the junction of St Martin's Lane and Cranbourn St -- today a coffee / sandwich chain [Pret a Manger] has the site."

The geographical nitpicking is one thing: it would be much less annoying if more effort had been made to reproduce the maps and illustrations legibly. I assume they were clear in the original hardcover edition, but they're blurry and unreadable in this paperback, printed on cheaper paper: and many of the maps are uncaptioned. And while I'm criticising the book, as opposed to its contents: it's all very well to mark up a chunk of text, derived from various newspaper reports, by font / style according to its source -- but, dear editor, do make sure that each edition of the book contains those fonts.

Back to the, well, Meat of the book. In some respects the popular response to the lurid reports of poor boys and old ladies murdered for their bodies is quite recognisable: the house where the murders were allegedly committed, in Bethnal Green, was more or less torn apart by souvenir hunters (despite the police charging an admission price of 5/- to keep numbers down), and there were sheaves of sentimental ballads:

I vowed that you should have my hand
But Fate gave no denial
You'll find it there at Doctor Bell's
In spirits and a phial.

Strangely, I didn't feel that much sympathy for the victims: lured with promises of strong drink and a place to sleep, dosed up with laudanum, drowned in the well and sold off for research. It seems a very pragmatic sort of murder: not personal, but purposeful.

Wise brings the murderers -- sardonic, clever John Bishop, brash Thomas Williams, gullible James May -- to life: their fate is as good as a novel. And after all, from Bishop's confession (though Wise casts some doubts on its credibility) it seems that they didn't murder the Italian Boy. Though they were far from innocent.

Bishop and Williams were given to the anatomists after death: to the anatomists, and to the phrenologists. (By some astonishing coincidence, the bumps on their skulls confirmed everything that the newspapers had published about them.) Less than six months later, Warburton's Anatomy Bill was passed in the Commons, and two months later in the House of Lords: it made available to anatomists the unclaimed corpses of workhouse dead, and thus reduced the market for illicitly-traded corpses.

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