Wednesday, 7 November 2012

The Merciless Murders of the Burker Bishop

                                Burke and Hare were not body snatchers, nor were they resurrection men. They were anatomical murderers. They brought fresh meat to the table. The real resurrectionists opened up graves and stole the bodies, and although they tried to find the recently departed, the meat they provided was not quite so fresh. To give you some idea about the premium of freshness, Robert Knox paid twelve guineas for a body in winter but the price dropped to eight guineas in summer when things were, shall we say, a little gamier. 

Resurrection Men

These boys had their own tricks of the trade too – wooden spades, for example, to cut down on the noise, and they tended to work in gangs, providing them with more keen eyes to keep a lookout, more willing hands to make the digging easier, and more big lads if the watchmen or the grieving relatives showed up and took exception to their nocturnal excavations. One such gang operated in London in the 1820s and 30s, and according to one member they disinterred between 500 and 1,000 bodies over a twelve-year period. John Bishop, Thomas Williams, and James May worked from a base in Shoreditch, selling bodies to the London teaching hospitals (notably St Bartholomew’s, St Thomas’s and King’s College), and on the morning of Saturday November 5th 1831, the gang presented themselves at the gate of King’s College asking if they ‘needed anything’, which was the tacit code that they had a body for sale. They had a ‘subject’ available, for which they were asking twelve guineas. 

A Dissection in Progress

The porter, William Hill, brought Mr Richard Partridge, the anatomy demonstrator, who told the pair that the College didn’t need a ‘subject’ at present but after a little negotiating he offered them nine guineas for it anyway. Williams and James Shields, a hired porter, carried a hamper containing the body into another room, but the porter smelled a rat, thinking the body looked too fresh and certainly not from a grave, so he re-called Mr Partridge. Partridge began to examine the body and found there were wounds to the head and breast and that all the teeth had been removed and so, with admirable presence of mind, he called in thirty of his students (one of whom he quietly dispatched to the Covent Garden station-house) and kept the men talking, asking, for example, how they had come by the ‘subject’. It had, they replied, come from a ward at Guy’s Hospital. Partridge kept the questions coming and stalled further by saying that he was waiting for change for a £50 note to come back, until Constable Broderick, PC 47 of F Division, finally arrived. 

Bishop, Williams and May

Shields and Williams cut up rough and threatened to throw the officer into the boiling water vat in the corner of the dissecting room but Partridge’s conveniently assembled student contingent had other thoughts on the matter and when police reinforcements arrived, all four men were taken into custody. A runner was sent to Guy’s, where he was told Bishop had tried to sell the body there but had been told that the ‘subject’ was not wanted, so he had asked if he could leave it there until that afternoon, when he returned and took it away. All four suspects were taken to Covent Garden police station (May - also known as ‘Jack Stirabout’ - had to be dragged there on all fours, with his frock coat pulled up over his head), they were all the worse for drink; when Inspector Rogers asked Bishop who he was, Bishop replied, “I am a bloody body snatcher.” 

The House & Garden of Bishop & Williams

They gave their address as 3 Nova Scotia Gardens, Bethnal Green, and PC Joseph Higgins was sent there, where he found such tools as body snatchers might employ in their grisly trade. On the following day, Partridge, with other Professors of Anatomy made a fuller examination of the body and came to the conclusion that the cause of death was foul play – a blow to the back of the neck and then the head had been twisted until the neck had broken. The stomach was full of an unidentifiable food and the faint smell of rum was detected. A coroner’s jury delivered the verdict on Tuesday November 8th, was that the body had died by, “Wilful murder against some person or persons unknown,” although Bishop, Williams and May were mentioned as being likely to be involved, and they were remanded in custody by Mr Minshull, the sitting magistrate at Bow Street police station, who ordered the institution of a criminal investigation.

Fortune of War Public House

On November 18th, witnesses appeared before the magistrate and testified that Bishop, Williams and May had been seen together at the Fortune of War public house in Smithfield (a notorious haunt of known body snatchers) on Friday November 4th, and Bishop had taken from his pocket a handkerchief, in which were seen human teeth, some with parts of the gums still attached, and into which he poured water, to wash the teeth. On the next day, the 5th, Shields had been hired by the other three and they had gone away, bearing a hamper. Superintendent Joseph Sadler Thomas had tracked the teeth down to a dentist, Mr Mills, who testified that Bishop had brought twelve teeth to him on the morning of November 5th, asking a guinea for them (human teeth, especially sets, were in demand for the manufacture of dentures), but Mills was unhappy with the condition of the teeth, one of which was chipped and others had gums and jawbone still attached, so Bishop settled on a price of twelve shillings. He also told Mills that the teeth had come from “… a lad about fourteen or fifteen years of age.” 

Hnadbill about Bishop & Williams - the Burkers

PC Higgins had returned to Bishop’s house and made another search, finding more tools and a chisel. He then went to May’s lodgings in New Kent Road, where he found screws and a bloodstained bradawl, together with a pair of breeches with blood on them. Mr Mills, the dentist, was re-called and he said that tools like these were sometimes used by grave robbers to remove teeth from bodies. The police had handbills printed offering a reward for information and had posted them around Shoreditch; Bishop had seen one of the bills on a notice board in the police station, and had been heard to mutter to May, “It was the blood that sold us.” Another witness, an eleven-year-old girl called Martha King, gave evidence that she had seen a little boy with a cage of white mice sitting near to Nova Scotia Gardens on the Thursday afternoon. The examination was concluded and the prisoners remanded further. 

The Front of Bishop's House

The following day, November 19th, Superintendent Thomas took PC Higgins and PC James Wadey back to Nova Scotia Gardens and began to probe the garden of Bishop’s house with an iron rod. The rod met resistance and the policemen began to dig, finding a blue jacket, a pair of black trousers and a small shirt, and a yard to one side, under ashes and cinders and about a foot down, they also found a blue short coat, a pair of grey trousers with braces and a comb in the pocket, a shirt that had been torn down the front and a man’s drab-striped waistcoat that had been taken in down the back to make it fit a boy – it had bloodstains on the collar and shoulders. In a room in Bishop’s house, Thomas also found a brown, hairy cap. When news of the discoveries got out, a mob formed in Nova Scotia Gardens, threatening to tear the houses down in an act of vengeance, but the strong police presence prevented this, and in a very strange compromise, the curious were admitted to the house in return for a small fee, and many thousands took advantage of the arrangement. 

Spectators visit Nova Scotia Gardens

Superintendent Thomas returned the next day and extended his search to the adjoining house, (No 2), which had once belonged to Williams and his wife, sifting through the garden soil but finding nothing. He had the cesspit drained, again finding nothing, but hidden in the privy a bundle was found. It was feared at first that this was the body of a child, but after it had been opened and cleaned, it was discovered to be women’s clothing - old, worn and bloodstained, and cut down the front as if they had been torn to strip them from a body. 

This new evidence was presented to the Bow Street magistrate on Friday November 25th 1831, together with more statements from respondents to police handbills, including those of three ladies; Mrs Lowe, her daughter Mrs Mayo and their friend Mrs Hitchwell. The curiosity of these ladies had been aroused by the description of the clothing found in the privy, and they had gone to Bow Street, where they had been shown the items and had instantly recognised them as belonging to Mrs Frances Pigburn, the forty-year-old sister of Mrs Lowe. Indeed, Mrs Hitchwell had even made some of them with her own hand, and had identical items herself, which she produced. Mrs Pigburn had gone out alone on October 15th and had intended to stay at a Mr Campion’s house but there had been no room available there, so she had left and gone on to look for another berth. She had not been seen alive since. 

Newgate Prison

A further warrant was issued for the detention of Bishop, Williams and May on the suspicion of murdering Mrs Pigburn. Bishop, Williams and May then made further statements, with Bishop saying he had disinterred the body from a grave, May rambling on about conflicting details and Williams, basically, saying that all he had done was a bit of heavy lifting for his mates. The examination was then concluded, with the decision that Bishop, Williams and May should be taken to Newgate prison to await trial, and that Shields was only a hired porter who was innocent of the crimes being investigated, and as such he was released. 

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