852: Rare – Burking the Italian Boy; or, Commerce in Cadavers

Burking, fortunately, is a crime that has disappeared, leaving only the word itself to testify to its horror.

Writing in the April 2, 1881 issue of his weekly magazine, All the Year Round, Charles Dickens reminded his readers of its meaning:

For several years [in the late 1820s] there prevailed what would now be called a “burking scare.” The detection of the Burke and Hare murders*, which were committed merely for the value of the bodies for dissection, and the Italian boy’s murder, frightened people for a while literally out of their wits. Burke added, like Mr. Boycott, a new verb to the English language. In fact, people went about at night in terror of being burked…. Surgeons were accustomed to buy “subjects,” as they were called, from body-snatchers and others, of whom no questions were asked so long as the corpse brought for sale was cold and stiff. But the murderers of the Italian boy were in so great a hurry to grasp their reward, that they offered the body of their victim for sale while it was yet warm.” (p.15)

*William Burke and William Hare were Scottish serial killers who in 1827 and 1828 murdered seventeen people and sold their corpses to the Edinburgh Medical College.


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The above illustration depicts Carlo Ferarai, a street urchin who traveled about London displaying trained white mice and a turtle in exchange for coins. On November 4, 1831, he was lured into a boarding house with the promise of a job and murdered by three London burkers, John Bishop, Thomas Williams, and James May.


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The perpetrators were quickly apprehended on suspicions raised by the hasty sale of the fresh body and the discovery that Carlo’s white mice were found in the possession of John Bishop’s children. The next month the men were tried at the Old Bailey, and Bishop and Williams were condemned.


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References to the circumstantial evidence provided by the white mice quickly entered legal literature (William Wills, An Essay on the Rationale of Circumstantial Evidence [1838]), and the case itself became a staple of popular culture. The major incentive for burking was removed the following year with the passage of Anatomy Act 1832 (2 & 3 Will. IV c. 75), which allowed the legal transfer of cadavers for medical education and research.

The case of the Italian boy is extensively documented in a new digital collection just released by the Library. Titled “Dying Speeches and Bloody Murders: Crime Broadsides Collected by the Harvard Law School Library,” the collection contains images of more than five hundred broadsides published between 1707 to 1891 and includes accounts of executions for such crimes as arson, assault, counterfeiting, horse stealing, murder, rape, robbery, and treason.

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