A thrilling history of England's great metropolis at a point of great change, told through the story of a young vagrant murdered by "resurrection men"
Before his murder in 1831, the "Italian boy" was one of thousands of orphans on the streets of London, moving among the livestock, hawkers, and con men, begging for pennies. When his body was sold to a London medical college, the suppliers were arrested for murder. Their high-profile trial would unveil London's furtive trade in human corpses carried out by body-snatchers--or "resurrection men"--who killed to satisfy the first rule of the cadaver market: the fresher the body, the higher the price.
Historian Sarah Wise reconstructs not only the boy's murder but the chaos and squalor of London that swallowed the fourteen-year-old vagrant long before his corpse appeared on the slab. In 1831, the city's poor were desperate and the wealthy were petrified, the population swelling so fast that old class borders could not possibly hold. All the while, early humanitarians were pushing legislation to protect the disenfranchised, the courts were establishing norms of punishment and execution, and doctors were pioneering the science of human anatomy.
Vivid and intricate, The Italian Boy restores to history the lives of the very poorest Londoners and offers an unparalleled account of the sights, sounds, and smells of a city at the brink of a major transformation.
|Publisher:||Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.|
|File size:||8 MB|
About the Author
A historian of Victorian England, Sarah Wise has written for The Guardian, The Observer, The Independent on Sunday, and several magazines. She is the author of The Italian Boy: A Tale of Murder and Body Snatching in 1830s London and The Blackest Streets: The Life and Death of a Victorian Slum. She lives in London.
Read an Excerpt
From The Italian Boy:
Urban poverty, so often a disgusting and harrowing sight to the respectable, could also be a source of wonder and intrigue. A beggar with a certain look, or air, or "act," could feed on city dwellers' craving for novelty and display. To London's grimmest streets, to a population with little access to books or periodicals, and no access to parks, zoos, galleries, or museums—Italian boys brought music, intriguing objects, and strange animals, plus, in many cases, their own beauty. The economies of the Italian states had been devastated by the Napoleonic Wars and throughout the 1820s there was large-scale migration, with many Italian artisans moving to northern European cities to pursue their trades. While later in the century Italian street children would be known for playing musical instruments and dancing, until the mid-1830s their principal source of income was exhibiting small animals as well as wax and plaster figures. The objects and creatures were rented out to the boys each morning by padroni who ran the trade. All in all, Italy was providing London with a better class of vagrant. The pathos an Italian boy evoked could earn his master six or seven shillings a day. Dead—and apparently murdered to supply the surgeons—his appeal only seemed to increase.