King's College London
Exhibitions & Conferences
Dickens, Scrooge and the Victorian poor

The Italian Boy’s murder discovered, 1831

Wood engraving depicting a street scene in a poor part of London called Seven DialsStreet life in a poor area of London, Seven DialsDuring the winter of 1836-7, Dickens's first commissioned book Pickwick Papers was on its way to completion.

Planning for his next venture - his first independent novel - Dickens chose a workhouse theme with an illegitimate orphan child - what was then referred to as a 'parish bastard', the lowest of the low - as protagonist.

It was a profoundly courageous and unusual step for a young novelist to take, especially as Dickens was now famous for his witty Sketches of London life, and the comedic conviviality of Pickwick.

Scholars have pondered Dickens's own private view recorded later in life, that as a boy he had been seriously neglected and at risk himself:

'... I have lounged about the streets, insufficiently and unsatisfactorily fed. I know that, but for the mercy of God, I might easily have been, for any care that was taken of me, a little robber or a little vagabond.'

Reproduction of Cruikshank's watercolour depicting the scene in which Oliver Twist is shot in the arm during an attempted burglary'The burglary' watercolour by George CruikshankIt's very likely that Dickens was describing the period he was working at the blacking factory, a time when it would seem that he had felt deserted, practically orphaned himself. The scholar Michael Allen has recently convincingly shown that young Dickens probably spent a year or more as a factory boy - September 1823 to September (or possibly later) 1824 - with no end in sight until that time was over. For a child of eleven or twelve such a length of time might well have felt interminable, especially if accompanied with trauma, fear, and isolation.

In the character of Oliver, Dickens created a child without parents, victimised and extremely vulnerable. There is a moment in chapter 19, when it is clear that Oliver is seen to be of use to Fagin and Bill Sikes in their plans for a burglary - his small body is valuable in gaining access to a house through a small aperture - but, that if anything were to go wrong, his life was in the balance:

' "If there's anything queer about him when we once get into the work; in for a penny in for a pound. You won't see him alive again, Fagin. Think of that, before you send him. Mark my words!" said the robber.'

Wood engraving depicting a beggar and passers-by on Soho SquareA beggar on Soho SquareIn 1831, only five years before Dickens began Oliver Twist, just such a child had been murdered in London by a pair of wretches into whose hands he had fallen by mischance. His killers, Bishop and Williams, usually made their money by selling to the medical schools corpses snatched from graves. Theirs was a copycat crime following the more famous serial murders committed by Burke and Hare, discovered in Edinburgh in 1828. The case became notorious as the murder of the Italian Boy, and the killers became infamous as the 'London Burkers'. The case spawned a new wave of terror known as 'burkophobia', in which rumours of multiple murders spread, as they had after the discovery of Burke and Hare. Before their execution, the men were said to have confessed to over 60 murders.

Murder for dissection, and the vulnerability of the street child, seem to have played on Dickens's mind. Burking stands out as a noticeable anachronism in Pickwick Papers, for example, associated there with the barbarism of cannibalism (see chapter 30). We know too, that he was a visitor at a charitable school established for Italian boys in Clerkenwell in the 1840s.

Extract from handwritten letterExtract from letter written by Herbert MayoBishop and Williams were caught when they tried to sell the Italian Boy's body to the Medical School at King's. Several important original manuscripts relating to the case are still held in the Archives. These documents concern the discovery of the murder, the display of Bishop's corpse after execution (in the medical school anatomy theatre where he and Williams had expected the boy's corpse to be destroyed); arrangements for forensic and anatomical lectures to be given over the murderer's body, and the subsequent donation of casts of both murderers' heads to King's College Anatomy Museum. It is likely that other casts from the same moulds found their way to Newgate Prison, because Dickens describes having seen them there in 1836, when he was researching one of his sketches, writing Pickwick, and perhaps planning for Oliver Twist.

Most importantly, a handwritten letter (extract on the right) survives at King's from Herbert Mayo, Professor of Anatomy at the College, to accompany the official report written within a week of the discovery of the murder. The report was written by himself and his anatomical demonstrator Richard Partridge. In the letter, Mayo expresses the view that other such murders were likely to have occurred in London, the cash offered by anatomists serving as an incentive to kill. Mayo's letter reads:

'Two incidents trifling in themselves concur to strengthen in my mind the suspicion resulting from the facts detailed in the report that the boy was intentionally destroyed. The first is that no less than six boys have recently disappeared, as we learn through those, who have visited the [police] station house to identify the body.

'The second is, that ten days ago, an offer was made by a resurrection man of bringing to us the body of a boy, which was described as remarkably fresh: this offer was refused at the time, as it happened that a body was not then required in the dissecting room: this body was not brought to King's College. It is perhaps too horrible to suppose that there are villains in London, who kill people to order; but the preceding circumstances point frightfully to this conclusion. For my own part I entertain little doubt that from time to time murder is perpetrated in London for the value of the body of the victim.'

It was Mayo's demonstrator of anatomy at King's, Richard Partridge, who had discerned that the Italian Boy had not died a natural death. He had the good sense to persuade the murderers to return for their money. Partridge had the police waiting.

In this exhibition

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