LONDON, ENGLAND — On December 5, 1831, tens of thousands packed the area around Newgate Prison to watch the hanging of John Bishop and Thomas Head Williams.
The condemned prisoners had led the much-despised “London Burkers,” a gang that obtained cadavers to sell for medical research by any means necessary. Those means, of course, often meant grave robbing, but, with increasing frequency, murder served the same purpose just as effectively.
Such was the case with Bishop and Williams, whose trip to the gallows occurred after they murdered Carlo Ferrier, a 14-year-old street urchin who’d come to be popularly known as “The Italian Boy.” After killing the child, Bishop and Williams tried to trade his remains for cash because, indeed, that’s just what the Burkers did.
In fact, the gang’s very name was homage to the infamous William Burke, a Scottish killer and corpse-peddler who, partnered with William Hare, had terrorized Edinburgh just a few years earlier with the first well-known case of body-snatching for profit.
By the time Bishop and Williams joined forces in East London, “burking” had entered the lexicon to describe this despicable practice. Thus were the London Burkers born.
At the time, a dynamic leap forward in medical science coupled with a falling away of taboos about dissecting humans created a massive demand for bodies. Colleges, hospitals, and other research outposts eagerly paid for corporeal donations. As competition between such facilities heated up, questions about how any given cadaver had been obtained cooled way down.
This new market created an underground trade of “resurrection men,” aka grave robbers. When cemeteries and families of the deceased increased security around the recently departed, “burking” became the resurrection men’s go-to modus operandi.
London Burkers founder John Bishop had inherited a successful family carting business, but soon enough drank away the profits. Bishop then came up with a novel means of repurposing the company’s transportation tools and trade routes: He could use the assets to illegally move and sell dead bodies.
In short order, Bishop teamed with drinking pals Thomas Williams, a young man from a respectable home who nevertheless took to the street; Michael Shields, a local porter; and James May, an off-the-rails butcher who known locally as “Black Eyed Jack.”
Typically, then, the London Burkers targeted drunks in pubs who they’d invite to continue drinking back at Bishop’s cottage in the neighborhood of Nova Scotia Garden. Once there, the victim would be drugged and then suffocated or bludgeoned.
The operation didn’t always run smoothly. Bishop and May forcibly dragged off the struggling and screaming Carlo Ferrier in front of witnesses on November 8, 1831. After doping and choking “The Italian Boy,” Bishop and Williams attempted to sell his body to the recently opened King’s College. New surgeon Richard Partridge was alarmed by the fresh condition of the dead boy, and he alerted the famous Dr. Herbert Mayo, head of the college’s anatomy department. Dr. Mayo promptly summoned the police and the London Burkers’ gig was up.
While behind bars, Bishop and Williams took full responsibility and signed confessions in exchange for exonerating the other gang members. Bishop estimated his cadaver haul, both from homicides and cemetery raiding, to be somewhere between 50 and 100.
London’s citizens bayed for the Burkers’ blood. Body-snatching had become a public plague, and the outrage exploded accordingly.
In an odd move, local law enforcement purchased Williams’ home and charged the curious five shillings to look inside. The plan turned unprofitable when a mob simply stormed the dwelling and tore it apart, carrying off bricks and other debris as souvenirs.
When Bishop and Williams finally met the hangman on December 5, a crowd of 30,000 gathered to jeer them off. That assemblage equaled the numbers who turned out for the execution of their idol William Burke. The end results also proved identical. The ghouls died and, immediately afterward, anatomists dissected their suddenly and violently unoccupied earthly vessels.
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Main image: 19th century engraving of the London Burkers, from left — John Bishop, Thomas Williams, James May [Wikipedia]