The London Burkers: Body Snatchers of the 1830s

The London Burkers were a group of body snatchers or resurrection men who operated in London in the 1830s and came to prominence in 1831. They operated as a gang stealing and selling dead bodies to St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, St. Thomas’ Hospital, and King’s College School of Anatomy in order to allow anatomists, surgeons, and medical students to dissect bodies and learn about human anatomy. The London Burkers included four men: John Bishop, Thomas Williams,* Michael Shields, and James May, also known as Jack Stirabout or Black Eyed Jack.

London Burkers - John Bishop

John Bishop. Author’s collection.

Some of the bodies sold by Bishop and Williams were not stolen corpses but rather people they had murdered. The two men operated similar to two other murderers out of Edinburgh named William Burke and William Hare, who ended up in Madame Tussaud‘s Chamber of Horrors because of their horrible crimes. Like them, Bishop and Williams lured victims to their dwelling, drugged, and killed them.

The site of the horrific murders by Bishop and Williams was in the East end, north east of St. Leonard’s Church in Shoreditch in an area known as Nova Scotia Gardens. The area had previously been a clay field where clay was extracted to make bricks. However, once the clay was exhausted, it was converted into a “leystall” waste area that held human excrement. Cottages had been built on the lower grounds of the clay pits, but they were not very desirable because they were prone to flooding. Yet, despite their undesirability, Williams and Bishop rented No. 2 and No. 3 respectively from Sarah Trueby.

Nova Scotia Gardens showing the cottages of Bishop and Williams. Author’s collection.

Williams and Bishop’s murders were discovered after they delivered the corpse of a 14-year-old boy from Lincolnshire (later determined to be Charles or Carlo Ferrari) to King’s College. The men had previously tried to sell it at Guy’s Hospital, but negotiations broke down when they wanted too much and the men then took the body to King’s College where they made a deal.

Richard Partridge, a demonstrator of anatomy, later inspected the corpse and thought any claims that the boy had died a natural death could not be accurate because of the “swollen state of the face, the blood-shot eyes, the freshness of the body, and the rigidity of the limbs, … there was likewise a cut on the left temple: he looked also at the lips which were much swollen.”[1] Partridge thought foul play must be involved and he therefore notified the professor of anatomy, Herbert Mayo, who in turn contacted police at the Covent Garden station.

The police found the case suspicious and thus Bishop, Williams, and May were arrested on 8 November. A coroners’ jury was held with charges brought against “John Bishop, 33 labourer; James May, 30, butcher; [and] Thomas Williams, 26, bricklayer; … for the wilful murder of Charles Ferrari.”[2] Then on 19 November Joseph Sadler Thomas, the Metropolitan Police Officer Superintendent, searched the No. 2 and No. 3 cottages at Nova Scotia Gardens and found various pieces of discarded clothing in a well and in a privy, which seem to indicate that multiple murders had been committed by the men.

London Burkers - Bishop, Williams, and May

Three of the London Burkers from left to right John Bishop, Thomas Williams, James May. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The three London Burkers were then taken before Chief Justice Tindal, Justice Joseph Littledale, and Baron Vaughan between 2 and 3 December. On the first day of the trial the Sligo Journal reported:

“Great curiosity appeared to prevail among the Gentlemen of the long robe as the bar was completely crowded by nine o’clock. The galleries, however, were not so well filled … owning to the high price demanded for seats. What the exact sum was we could not learn, but it was said that numerous offers of one guinea were refused for single seats last night.”[3]

During the trial the accused men were cited as being malicious and evil. It was said they were possessed by the devil and it was also claimed that they disposed of people after “feloniously and maliciously” assaulting them. How these assaults happened were indicated by what came out during the trial related to 14-year-old Ferrari:

“It will be recollected that the contents of the stomach of the poor Italian boy smelt strongly of rum, and on Saturday last it was ascertained that two men had, on the Thursday night, bought half a gallon of rum at a public house not far from Nova Scotia-gardens. The publican went on Saturday afternoon to Newgate, to see Bishop and Williams, and he immediately recognized them as the men who purchased the rum from him.”[4]

The prosecutors stated that they would prove that the accused London Burkers had possession of Ferrari’s body less than twenty-four hours after the boy was last “seen alive near Bishop’s house, … that Bishop and May treated the body as their joint property … [and] that a body had been taken away in a coach from Bishop’s house … the murder having taken place during the previous … night.”[5] Moreover, the prosecution promised that they would demonstrate that Ferrari died by violence “from blows inflicted by some weapon on the back of the neck, which injurying the spine and brain, produced sudden death. This view of the cause of the boy’s death was confirmed by the unusual circumstance that the stomach contained a full meal, half digested, and the heart was entirely empty.”[6]

There was other evidence to indicate that the London Burkers were involved with the boy’s murder. A suit of clothing found by Thomas during his search of the Nova Scotia Gardens cottage was determined to belong to Ferrari and said to be likely what he was wearing when he was murdered. There was also the fact that May “had sold the teeth of the boy to a dentist, and in doing so he declared that he took the teeth of a boy whose body had not been buried.”[7] In addition, Ferrari was regularly seen carrying a squirrel cage containing two white mice and Bishop’s children were later seen in possession of two white mice. Of this the Leeds Intelligencer reported:

“A very little boy, named Edward Ward, about six years of age, was examined with respect to the very remarkable fact of the mice being in possession of Bishop’s children. The child … gave his testimony very clearly … ‘I went to Bishop’s house, Nova Scotia Gardens … on that day, and I saw three children. I went with them from the front room to the back, and played with them. They showed me two white mice in a cage, and we played with them. The cage went round and round. I never saw the children with white mice before. … When I got home after playing, I found my brother John, and I told him what I had seen.’”[8]

Bishop’s defense was that he came into possession of the body after the boy’s death, and he also denied that either Williams or May knew how he got it. Williams claimed his only involvement was that he shared in the profit with Bishop and that he knew nothing about how the corpse came into Bishop’s possession. May’s defense was based on what he had earlier declared at the inquest that he knew nothing of the corpse until he met Bishop and assisted with the delivery of the body. May also had a female witness who provided an alibi for him stating that she was with him late into the evening on the night that Ferrari was alleged to have been murdered.

Bishop’s character was discussed at length during the trial and what was revealed was not good. He was accused of hiring himself out as a false witness by offering phony alibis to two horse thieves who were ultimately convicted and executed. It also came to light that he had stolen several bodies in the possession of his own relatives, which he then sold for dissection. According to the Belfast News-Letter:

“On one occasion, knowing that there was a corpse in a house in Old-street, where lodgings were let, he [Bishop] took a lodging in the house and contrived to steal the body the same night. He practised a similar stratagem at Hoxton, and at several other places.”[9]

About eight o’clock in the evening on 3 December the Lord Chief Justice summed up the case against the three London Burkers and the jury retired. A half hour later the jury returned and because of the interest in the case, the windows of the courtroom were opened to allow the public to hear the jury declare the men guilty and the Recorder to pronounce the death sentence. In addition, according to the Hampshire Advertiser curious multitudes were interested in visiting the scene of the crimes:

“The three houses, those of the murderers and the witness Woodcock, are closed up, and access is had to the garden of Bishop’s house from one of the adjacent cottages. They are not in possession of the police at present, the landlady having placed a person in charge them; a penny admission was paid by each throughout the day by those who took on themselves the control of the exhibitions. … Some police men of the H division were on the premises, and seemed to drive what might be termed ‘a comfortable trade’ by acting as ‘ciceroni’ to the visitors, whose small donations must, in aggregate, have formed something considerable. Bishop’s house was taken possession of by a miserable showman, who, with a stick in his hand, pointed out the conveniences of the humble dwelling … At his feet were the remnants of an old stock bed, which he said was that on which Bishop and his wife slept; and this he said any person might take a portion of who pleased, declaring that it was far superior relic connected with the dreadful scenes than the timber of the dwelling. …. A decently-dressed female, apparently the wife of a tradesman … taking up some of the water from the well in which the victims were smothered, tasted of it! … A lollypop-seller, almost opposite the place, hit upon a curious expedient for selling her wares; she had figures of men, in some sugary stuff, with a piece of twine round the neck, which the little boys eagerly purchased, for the satisfaction of ‘hanging the Burkers,’ whom, no doubt, they afterwards devoured with all due satisfaction.”[10]

That evening after the guilty verdict as Williams sat in his cell he was attacked by a guilty conscience, burst into tears, and said he wanted to “unburden” himself. In the morning Bishop also expressed a desire to confess and on 4 December 1831 he wrote out a confession stating that he and Williams alone had killed the boy, which was corroborated by Williams. Moreover, the confession of the men exonerated the two other London Burkers, who had often helped with the delivery of the corpses.

London Burkers - Thomas Williams

Thomas Williams. Author’s collection.

Bishop also stated that he and Williams had accompanied Ferrari from Bell Inn in Smithfield to Nova Scotia Gardens where they told the 14-year-old to wait in the privy until Williams’ family was in bed. Once everyone had gone to bed and all was quiet, the men went to the privy and gave Ferrari some bread, cheese, and a cupful of rum that had been laced with laudanum. He drank the rum, fell asleep, and then according to Bishop in his written confession:

“We took him directly – asleep and insensible – into the garden, and tied a cord to his feet, to enable us to pull him up by it, and I then took him in my arms, and let him slide from … headlong into the well in the garden, whilst Williams held the cord to prevent the body going altogether too low into the well. He was nearly wholly in the water of the well – his feet just above the surface. Williams fastened the other end of the cord round the paling, to prevent the body getting beyond our reach. The boy struggled a little with his arms and legs in the water, and the water bubbled for a minute. We waited till these symptoms were past, and then went indoors … about three quarters of an hour we returned and took him out of the well, by pulling him by the cord attached to his feet; we undressed him in the paved yard, rolled his clothes up, and buried them where they were found.”[11]

Then 14-year-old victim, Charles Ferrari. Author’s collection.

That wasn’t the only victim of the two London Burkers. Another victim of Bishop and Williams was Fanny Pigburn, an unmarried woman. She had a child about ten years old who had been placed in the Shoreditch workhouse after her disappearance. The Manchester Times gave a rather lengthy description about the evidence found that supported the idea that Bishop and Williams had killed her:

“Mr. Thomas … discovered the clothes of a female, which appeared to have been cut or torn violently from the body of the wearer. Mr. Thomas instantly took measures for distributing an accurate description of these articles … until he procured the most positive evidence that they belonged to a woman named Fanny Pigburn, who has been missing for the last five weeks. On Friday evening Ann Hitchcock, residing at No. 10, Holywell-lane, Shoreditch, went to the station house in Covent-garden, accompanied by a girl named Mayhew, the niece of the missing woman. They without a moment’s hesitation, identified the clothes, and stated that Fanny Pigburn was about thirty-five years of age, and supported herself by washing. About five weeks back she returned to her home in Charles-street, Curtain-road, having been employed during the day washing at the house of another person. After remaining within for a short time she put on her cloak, and said that she had to go out on some little business, which could not detain her long. She went out, and was never afterwards seen. … Among the articles found is a blue cloth packet of a very peculiar make, and having a small secret pocket within it. The two women, Hitchcock and Mayhew not only recognised this, but one of them produced the fellow pocket, and added that the two pockets were made by a Mrs. Bell for her own use. Upon Mrs. Bell’s death one was given to Fanny Pigburn, and the other came into the possession of the woman by whom it has been now produced. The pockets correspond in the most minute particular  ̶ they are exactly of the same size, the cloth is of the same quality, and they are evidently cut from the same piece. … About the time this poor woman was missed, the shrieks of a female in distress were one night heard by several persons living in the neighbourhood of Nova Scotia-gardens and some of them coming out of their houses to ascertain the cause, but as the cry was not repeated, and as it was not distinctly ascertained from whence it proceeded, no further notice was taken of the circumstance. The well in which the shawl was found is about twelve feet deep and the water is very near to the surface. The supposition is that the poor women, being without a home at the time, was inveigled to this spot under the promise of a night’s lodging, and had been forced head foremost in to the well, and the shawl, being loose on her shoulders, had fallen off and sunk – that after being suffocated she was taken out, and her clothes cut and torn from her body, put together in a bundle and secreted in the place where they were found.”[12]

When Bishop wrote out his confession, he also admitted that he and Williams killed Pigburn. Bishop wrote that he had Williams had taken Pigburn to Nova Scotia Gardens, given her rum laced with laudanum, and once asleep had tied a cord to her feet, carried her to the well, and thrust her into it headlong. Like Ferrari, they also left her in the well for a time, returned, cut off her clothes, and then doubled up her body putting it into a box. They then found Shields and had him carry the box to St. Thomas’s Hospital and to ensure that no one would suspect any foul play Williams’ wife walked along side Shields carrying another box as Williams and Bishop followed on the opposite side of the street.

Bishop and Williams also confessed to a third murder. This time it was a boy named Cunningham who was ten or eleven and reportedly lived in Kent Street. According to Bishop’s confession:

“It was a fortnight after the murder of [Pigburn] … I and Williams found him sleeping, … under the pig-boards in the pig-market in Smithfield. Williams awoke him, and asked him to come along with him … and the boy walked with Williams and me to my house in Nova-Scotia-gardens. We took him into my house, and gave him some warm beer, sweetened with sugar, with rum and laudanum in it … and then he fell asleep in a little chair belonging to one of my children. We laid him on the floor … carried the boy to the well, and threw him into it, in the same way as we had served the other and the woman. He died instantly … We then took the body from the well, took off the clothes in the garden, and buried them there. The body we carried into the wash house, and put it into the same box, and left it there till the next evening, when we got a porter to carry it with us to St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, where I sold it to Mr. Smith for eight guineas.”[13]

Despite it being determined that May, a tall good-looking man, had no knowledge of Ferrari’s murder, it was discovered that he was a criminal too. Apparently, he had attempted and failed to murder two men with laudanum. The men fortunately escaped but May was sentenced to life and transported to Van Diemen’s Land on 1 December 1831. During the transport he committed insubordination and therefore was sent for two years to Port Arthur, which is where he died in 1834.

For their grisly crimes, London Burkers Bishop and Williams were hanged at Newgate on 5 December 1831 and later their bodies dissected. Their executions happened before a crowd that reportedly ranged from thirty to a hundred thousand. The Mayo Constitution reported on the execution providing these details:

“It would be impossible to describe the scene which ensued when the culprits were visible to the crowd on the scaffold. A rush made at the barrier, and upwards of 300 special constables, who were placed in front of the drop. Groans and hisses resounded from the immense multitude during the whole time that the hangman was making the necessary preparations. They were not exposed to this dreadful situation for more than a minute, when the drop fell, and their suffering appeared to cease instantly. Immediately after a cheer was given by the mob.”[14]

The year 1831 was also the same year that murderer Elizabeth Ross was cited as another “London Burker” and hanged shortly after Bishop and Williams in January of 1832 for killing Catherine Walsh of Whitechapel. The murders by Ross, Williams, and Bishop, along with the murders committed by Burke and Hare, led to the passage of the Anatomy Act 1832 that provided for an adequate and legitimate supply of corpses to be donated and used for dissection in direct response to the public’s revulsion at the illegal trade in corpses by those such as the London Burkers.

As to Nova Scotia Gardens, by 1840, the area had degenerated into a notorious slum and for that reason Angela Burdett-Coutts purchased the land as she had in 1837 became one of the wealthiest women in England after inheriting her grandfather’s fortune of around £1.8 million. She was a philanthropist and believed in aiding the poor, helping with such worthy causes as the Ragged Schools. Therefore, after the leases on the cottages and property expired, she then established in 1869 a covered food market with 400 stalls called the Columbia Market. However, the market closed in 1886 and today it functions as the Columbia Road flower market selling stock left over from Saturdays.

Angela Burdett-Coutts. Courtesy of Wellcome Images.

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*Williams real name was Head. He was said to be a carpenter and then a glass blower before combing a resurrection man.

References:

  • [1] Sligo Journal, “Trial of the Burkers,” December 9, 1831, p. 2.
  • [2] Leeds Intelligencer, “Trial of the London Burkers,” December 8, 1831, p. 2.
  • [3] Sligo Journal, p. 2.
  • [4] Manchester Times, “The London Burkers,” December 3, 1831, p. 807.
  • [5] Leeds Intelligencer, p. 2.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] Belfast News-Letter, “Confession of the Burkers,” December 9, 1831, p. 2.
  • [10] Hampshire Advertiser, “Nova Scotia Gardens,” 10 December 18431, p. 4.
  • [11] Leeds Intelligencer, p. 2.
  • [12] Manchester Times, p. 807.
  • [13] Leeds Intelligencer, p. 2.
  • [14] Mayo Constitution, “Execution of the Burkers,” December 12, 1831, p. 4.

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