THE ITALIAN BOY: A Tale of Murder and Body Snatching in 1830s London

By Sarah Wise

Metropolitan. 375 pp. $26.

William Hill had seen dead bodies come and seen them go. As the dissecting-room porter for King's College, London, he knew that medical instructors needed corpses to teach anatomy, and he knew there were men called "resurrectionists" who were only too glad to supply the corpses. And he knew better than to ask questions. But there was something about this body, the one that four resurrectionists brought his way on Nov. 5, 1831. The body of a boy, somewhere between age 14 and 16, fair hair and gray eyes, unmarked except for a gash on his forehead. An excellent specimen in every way . . . but maybe just a little too fresh.

And so William Hill alerted his superior, and the superior called for the police, and the resurrectionists in question, instead of getting their usual fee, got hauled straight to jail -- and right into the pages of criminal history, from which they have now been resurrected by historian Sarah Wise. Wise's immaculately researched and artfully constructed narrative shows, as well as anyone can show, how a band of body snatchers went from taking dead bodies to making them and how one of their alleged victims -- never conclusively identified, very likely from Lincolnshire -- won enduring notoriety as "the Italian boy," a symbol of pastoral innocence savaged by the city.

It might have happened at any time of history, but to hear Wise tell it, it was somehow likelier to happen in pre-Victorian England, a Hobbesian universe of want and pestilence, where paupers were literally shoved from parish to parish, "driven to and fro like a weaver's shuttle," and where jobs were so scarce that trafficking in the dead could look like a sound career strategy. "Resurrection," writes Wise, "was a revolting but potentially highly lucrative trade, with earnings way beyond those of even the most highly skilled worker. . . . A disinterred body could bring in between eight and twenty guineas, depending on its freshness and on how many Things were being hawked around London's four hospital medical schools and seventeen private anatomy schools in any given week."

Strictly speaking, it was illegal to snatch corpses from graves or to grab them before they were interred, but thanks to the active collusion of the London medical establishment, the trade persisted and became over time "a specialist's field, where only the best-informed, most fearless, physically strong, discreet, and level-headed men were able to farm the city dead on a full-time basis." The overly squeamish, in short, needn't apply, and John Bishop and Thomas Williams, defendants in the Italian Boy case, were anything but squeamish. When police searched their apartments, they found a woman's shawl at the bottom of a well and a bloodstained petticoat in the privy -- the first signs that these resurrectionists had moved beyond "the processing of disinterred corpses" into "systematic slaughter."

To these sordid doings Wise brings a cool and unembarrassed eye. She refrains from moralizing or pressing her points too hard, and she is admirably forthright about the problems she faces, among them contradictory testimony and a porous historical record (much of it salvaged from contemporary newspaper accounts). A reader soon realizes that the Italian Boy trial provides just enough material to fill a Smithsonian magazine article. This means that Wise, like a harassed docent, must strap us in for lengthy (never boring) digressions on London life: phrenology, Tory politics, wife-selling, slaughterhouses, urban scams, the travails of the newly established Metropolitan Police. Some topics frankly seem more germane than others, but they all go some way toward mapping the fault lines through which Bishop's and Williams's victims disappeared. For the "best" victims, then as now, are the ones society is least apt to notice.

Wise tells their story so well that it doesn't matter, finally, that her book lacks the ghoulish allure of the Burke-Hare case, another tale of body snatching gone awry that horrified Edinburgh in the late 1820s. (The word "burking" was already common currency by the time Bishop and Williams stood in the dock.) "The Italian Boy" carves out its own niche of darkness, and, like any good mystery, leaves more mysteries trailing in its wake.

Robert Mortimer was the elderly tailor who was supposed to testify for the prosecution but never showed up at the trial. When two sheriff's officers went to retrieve him, "Mortimer welcomed the men into his cottage, apologized for having forgotten the day of the trial, and asked them to excuse him while he shaved. He picked up his razor and, in front of the officers, drew the blade across his throat."