The Italian Boy by Sarah Wise

In her debut book, The Italian Boy: A Tale of Murder and Body Snatching in 1830s London (Metropolitan Books, 2004), Sarah Wise unravels a riveting story of the “Italian Boy,” a young orphan, later revealed to be Carlo Ferrari, murdered by “resurrection men” in order that his body might be sold to one of London’s many medical schools. 

Stealing recently deceased bodies from fresh graves had long been the practise employed by these men in order to supply the unsatiable demand for cadavers coming from London’s medical men in an era when only the bodies of executed criminals were made available for dissection, but by 1831 these unscrupulous men were turning instead to much fresher options, the living. Indeed, as Wise recounts over the course of the work, the “Italian Boy” was just one of many figures on the fringes of society who found themselves the target of Bishop and Williams, bodysnatchers who murdered for the sole purpose of selling the body for a hefty price. It was not until a skilled medical man deducted that the Italian Boy had likely not died of natural causes, and his body too recently deceased to have been given a proper burial, that Bishop and Williams were caught.  

Three of London’s Bodysnatchers – John Bishop, Thomas Williams, and James May – Wikipedia 

The work begins with the shocking crime of the “Italian Boy’s” murder and the subsequent arrest of the perpetrators, but much of the book is taken up by the subsequent investigation and trial which followed, revealing a much darker world of crime and horror that shocks contemporary and modern sensibilities alike. This murder was not just a one-time occurrence by a desperate group of resurrection men but is revealed to have been a common occurrence in the city, with Bishop and Williams confessing to dozens of other murders, much to the horror of London society. The final chapters of the work draw the case to a close and detail the significance that this case had in the passing of legislation to stop bodysnatching and graverobbing, and ultimately stopping the resurrection men’s trade in bodies by creating easier, legal means for medical schools to acquire corpses 

In tracing the trial that stemmed from this murder and the underworld that it revealed, Wise illuminates a dark history of London in which social and moral corruption reign supreme. In many ways this crime touches on a host of issues that were coming to the fore in the 1830s including the lack of proper sanitation in the city, the growth of medical understanding, and the social consequences of a city whose population was growing at an ever-alarming rate resulting in overcrowding, poverty, and lawlessness in rundown ancient neighbourhoods. Thus, in addition to being a work of true crime, The Italian Boy can also be viewed as a work of social history do to the many wider issues that Wise has contextualized in order that the reader may better understand the significance of the crimes.   

Graverobbing from a churchyard in the early nineteenth century

Just as fascinating as the case of the “Italian Boy” and the trial of his murderers which Wise recounts in intense detail, is the author’s vivid descriptions of life in London in the 1830s at the cusp of the Victorian age. Within just a few decades both the physical and moral landscape of the city would be drastically changed through sweeping reforms that sought to alleviate some of the city’s worst social issues. Indeed, Wise presents an unflinching view of London’s most squalid neighbourhoods and the way of life of their inhabitants, dispelling any chance to idealize this time and place. 

Carol Ferrari – The Italian Boy – Wikipedia 

Although not to be read by the squeamish or the faint of heart, The Italian Boy is a fascinating work of true crime that sheds lights on a world of crime which is often glossed over in the history books. However, in this work Wise presents it in all its macabre detail, allowing the reader an unsanitized of both the murder and the dark period of London’s history in which it was committed. 

Please add The Italian Boy to your Goodreads shelf.

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Connor E. R. DeMerchant is an historian from Kingston, New Brunswick, Canada. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and History from the University of New Brunswick – Saint John and a Master’s in History from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. In the fall of 2021, he began a PhD in history at the University of New Brunswick – Fredericton in the field of Caribbean history. Connor enjoys researching all aspects of Britain and its global empire, including the Caribbean, with his PhD research focusing on poor white communities in St. Vincent and Barbados. When not being an academic, Connor enjoys doing genealogy, collecting vintage photos, rug-hooking, and thrifting.

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