On November 5th, 1831, two men, named Bishop and May, called at the dissecting-room at King’s College, and asked Hill, the porter, if he “wanted anything.” On being interrogated as to what they had to dispose of, May replied, “A boy of fourteen.” For this body they asked 12 guineas, but ultimately agreed to bring it in for 9 guineas. They went off, and returned in the afternoon with another man named Williams, alias Head, and a porter named Shields, the latter of whom carried the body in a hamper. The appearance of the subject excited Hill’s suspicion of foul play, and he at once communicated with Mr. Partridge, the Demonstrator of Anatomy. A further examination of the body by Mr. Partridge confirmed the porter’s suspicions. To delay the men, so that the police might be communicated with, Mr. Partridge produced a £50 note, and said that he could not pay until he had changed it. Soon after, the police officers appeared upon the scene, and the men were given into custody. At the coroner’s inquest a verdict of “Wilful murder against some person or persons unknown” was brought in, the jury adding that there was strong suspicion against Bishop and Williams. The prisoners were not allowed to go free, but were kept in custody. Bishop, Williams, and May were tried at the Old Bailey, December, 1831. The evidence given against them showed that they had tried to sell the body at Guy’s Hospital; being refused there, they tried Mr. Grainger, at his Anatomical Theatre, but with no success. Then they tried King’s, where their crime was detected. The body was proved to be that of an Italian boy, named Carlo Ferrari, who obtained his living by showing white mice. The boy’s teeth had been extracted, and it was proved that they had been sold by one of the prisoners to Mr. Mills, a dentist, for twelve shillings. The jury found all three prisoners guilty, and they were sentenced to death.
From the subsequent confessions of Bishop and Williams, it was shown that they had enticed the boy to their dwelling in Nova Scotia Gardens; there they drugged him with opium, and then let his body into a well, where they kept it until he was suffocated. To the last the prisoners declared that the deceased was not the Italian boy, but a lad from Lincolnshire. They seem to have had great difficulty in disposing of the body, as Bishop, in his confession, said that, before taking it to Guy’s, they had tried Mr. Tuson and Mr. Carpue, both in vain. Bishop and Williams confessed, also, to the murder of a woman named Fanny Pigburn, and a boy, whose name was supposed to be Cunningham. Both of these bodies they sold for dissection. May was respited, and was sentenced to transportation for life. On hearing of his respite, May went into a fit, and for some time his life was despaired of; he, however, partially recovered, but his feeble state of health was aggravated by the annoyance he received from the other convicts on board the hulks. He died on board the Grampus in 1832.
May can hardly be described as even a minor poet, if the following verse, written whilst in prison, may be taken as a fair sample of his compositions:
“James May is doomed to die,
And is condemned most innocently;
The God above, He knows the same,
And will send a mitigation for his pain.”
At the execution of Bishop and Williams, there was a scene of the most tremendous excitement. By some mistake, three chains hung from the gallows; one was taken away as soon as the error was noticed, and this was recognized by the crowd as a sign that May had been reprieved.
The Weekly Dispatch sold upwards of 50,000 copies of the number which contained the confessions of the murderers. Many persons were injured in the crowd, and the Dispatch states that those who were hurt were attended to “by Mr. Birkett, the dresser to Mr. Vincent, who had been in attendance [at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital] to receive any accident that might be brought in.”
Bishop was the son of a carrier between London and Highgate, and on the death of his father he succeeded to the business. This he soon sold, and became an informer. He got mixed up with some of the resurrection-men, and then regularly took to the occupation. Williams, alias Head, was Bishop’s brother-in-law, and was a well-known member of the resurrection-gang.
In the Weekly Dispatch for December 11th, 1831, the following curious information respecting Williams appeared:
“The King v. Thomas Head, alias Williams, the Murderer.—The Court was occupied during a great part of the morning in hearing the evidence in the case of Head, alias Williams (who was hung with Bishop) for carrying on an illicit trade in the manufacture of glass. It appeared that the deceased was a Cribb Man, or regular porter, to private glass blowers. There were found on the premises at No. 2, Nova Scotia Gardens (the scene of the late murders), a regular furnace, and all the necessary apparatus for the manufacture of glass, which trade it appears was carried on to a very considerable extent on the premises. Alexander M’Knight, an officer of Excise, deposed that on the 6th of August last, he went to No. 2, Nova Scotia Gardens, and made a seizure of 68 cwt. of manufactured glass, 24 cwt. of cullet, and 16 cwt. of iron, articles used in the manufacture of glass. In about half-an-hour afterwards he saw Williams come out of Bishop’s yard; Williams spoke to witness, and called him by an opprobrious name for having made the seizure. Judgment ‘abated,’ the goods to be returned to the Excise Office to be condemned.”
May had been brought up as a butcher, but this trade he gave up, and became possessed of a horse and cart with which he was supposed to ply for hire. The real business of the vehicle, however, seems to have been to convey bodies from place to place for the Resurrectionists. Shields, the porter to the gang, had been watchman and grave-digger at the Roman Catholic Chapel in Moorfields, so that he was most useful to the other Resurrectionists in giving information, and in granting facilities for the removal of bodies. No evidence was offered against him in connection with the murder of the Italian boy. Soon after the trial he attempted to get work as a porter in Covent Garden Market, but on his being recognized by those working there, a shout of “Burker!” was raised, and Shields narrowly escaped with his life, and took refuge in the Police Office.
JOHN HEAD, alias THOMAS WILLIAMS. JOHN BISHOP.
Executed December 5, 1831. From Drawings by W. H. Clift, made directly after the execution.
This one incident as regards Shields gives an idea of the public feeling towards the resurrection-men, and that feeling was quite as bitter towards the anatomists. It was therefore absolutely necessary that some determined steps should be taken as regards legislation.