‘Soon demand outstripped supply, and the Burkers went a step further and murdered people to supply their customers.’

Medical pupils in Victorian times had very few prospects to dissect bodies in their studies. The Victorian London Burkers were a gang of body snatchers who worked in London in the 1830s. They stole and peddled dead bodies to hospitals in London. To allow anatomists, surgeons, and medical students to dissect bodies and learn about human anatomy.

During this period, people didn’t donate their bodies to medical science. So, hospitals and colleges could only use the bodies of executed criminals. Because London was getting to be more law-abiding, fewer criminals were being executed. Students needed hundreds of corpses for their study each year, but less than a hundred bodies were provided annually.

The Burkers started by digging up moist bodies from cemeteries, selling them to colleges and hospitals. But this got dangerous. The families of people who had been recently buried mounted vigils at the gravesides, to put off the body snatchers.

Soon demand outstripped supply, and the Burkers went a step further and murdered people to supply their customers. This also allowed the body snatchers to create their own supply of bodies, rather than waiting for people to die.

Burke and Hare, who worked in Edinburgh, were the most well-known body snatchers. The London Burkers were a group from Shoreditch, including John Bishop, Thomas Williams, Michael Shields, and James May. They were to become the London Burkers, after Burke and Hare.

The murder of a young boy gained them infamy. In 1831, they attempted to sell a corpse that was a little too moist. After they tried to sell the boy’s body, later nicknamed ‘The Italian Boy’ to King’s College School of Anatomy, the College realised he’d been murdered. In the end, Bishop admitted to drug him with laudanum and abducting boy, who was fourteen years old.

Joseph Sadler Thomas, a Metropolitan Police superintendent, had searched the cottages at Nova Scotia Gardens, Shoreditch, and found clothing items in a well in one garden and one of the toilets, suggesting multiple murders.

The two main London Burkers were found guilty of murder in 1831 and sentenced to death. Bishop and Williams’s confession after their trial cleared the other gang members and saved them from execution at least, as they had not been involved in the murders themselves.

In the end, Bishop confessed to stealing and selling over five hundred bodies over twelve years. They appeared at the Old Bailey and found guilty.

They hung Bishop and Williams at Newgate on 5 December 1831 for the murder, before thirty thousand onlookers.

Extraordinary the police opened up the premises at Nova Scotia Gardens in Shoreditch for viewing, charging five bob a time. They then allowed the public to take away the furnishings of the house as souvenirs!

Police cautiously identified the corpse as Carlo Ferrari, an Italian lad from Piedmont. After the trial, Bishop denied this, stating the body was a Lincolnshire farmer, on his way to Smithfield.

The killings led to the Anatomy Act 1832, which finally delivered a legitimate supply of bodies for medical research schools.


Paul Asling takes us on a captivating journey around London, to discover some dark tales that have shaped the city’s compelling and turbulent past.  Priced at £1.99 –

London Crime Thriller Books by Paul:

I share a special love for London, both new and old. If you like London crime books, you will love these gritty thrillers.


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