On Sunday December 4th 1831, three written ‘confessions’ by Bishop and Williams were given over to the Newgate sheriff. Bishop began by claiming that the murdered boy was not an Italian at all, but the child of a Lincolnshire drover. This is odd in itself. No mention of this Lincolnshire child had been made before, and the only reference in the whole case is that a Lincolnshire couple had lost a child and they had been shown Ferrier’s body, on the off chance that it may have been that of their missing son. It was not – neither the colour of the hair nor that of the eyes of the body presented to them was the same as those of their lost child. Ferrier’s body had also been positively identified by a number of people who had known him in life, and several other witnesses had described seeing the boy in a cap with a cage of mice (so don’t believe what you read on Wikipedia - the entry for ‘London Burkers’ is full of mistakes, as is the one on Burke and Hare, but I’m not going to be the one who puts it right).
Bishop admitted taking the boy (who was, let’s not forget, about sixteen year old), from the Bell pub in Smithfield, with Williams, at about half-past ten on the night of November 3rd 1831. They had gone to No 3, Nova Scotia Gardens, and Bishop had told him to wait in the privy until his wife and children had gone to bed. Ferrier had then been taken indoors and given bread and cheese, and a cup of rum containing laudanum, which he drank in two gulps, together with a little beer. He fell asleep almost immediately, Bishop took him from the chair and laid him on his side on the floor, then he and Williams had gone to the Feathers pub, where they drank gin and beer, and returned twenty minutes later. Bishop took the sleeping boy and carried him outside, where Williams tied his legs and feet, and together they lowered him into the well.
|Drowning in the well|
He kicked and struggled, and there were bubbles, so Bishop and Williams tied the rope to a paling and left him, walking to Shoreditch and back for about three quarters of an hour. They stripped the body, burying the clothes in the garden, took it into the washhouse and covered it up with a bag, then went for coffee before returning, doubling the corpse up and putting it into a box, cording the top to prevent any prying. They went back for another coffee before returning to No 3 and going to bed. At about ten the following morning they rose, had breakfast with their families before going to the Fortune of War, where they drank rum and ate some more until May came in. Bishop was wearing a new smock frock and May liked it so much, he wanted one too, so Bishop took him to Field Lane, where May bought one, and then on to West Street, to buy some breeches. May, already drunk, argued with the woman about the price but Bishop sent out for more rum and they drank, calmed down and cleared the air.
|Fortune of War pub (demolished 1910)|
Bishop and May went back to the Fortune of War and rejoined Williams and after more drink, Bishop and Williams went to Mr Tuson’s in Windmill Street, to whom they offered a ‘subject’, but Tuson told them he had bought one the day previous, so they went on to Mr Carpue’s in Dean Street, who agreed to buy a ‘fresh one’ for eight guineas. They returned to May in the Fortune of War, and Bishop asked his advice about the selling of ‘subjects’, May telling him he could get a better price elsewhere. Bishop replied that anything he could get above nine guineas would be his to keep, and so more drink followed. They went out and hired a yellow chariot and went back to Bishop’s house, where May examined the body and advised them to remove the teeth, which could be sold separately, so Williams went for a chisel and a bradawl, which May used to break out the teeth.
When this had been done, they put the body back in its box and carried it out to the yellow chariot, loaded it up and took it to Guy’s Hospital. Mr Davis there said he had already bought two ‘subjects’ from May the day before and did not need another. Bishop asked Mr Davis if he could leave the box at Guy’s until the following morning, which was agreed to, so Bishop and May went back to the chariot and Williams, paid the coachman and went for a drink. They went back to the Fortune of War, had a drink and then went up to Golden Lane for a drink. You can say what you like about Georgian body snatchers but you cannot accuse them of hanging back with the old elbow lifting.
|Broadsheet - An Italian Boy|
On the morning of November 5th, Bishop and Williams nipped down to the Fortune of War for a pint, and hired James Shields, the porter, who Bishop asked to go to St Bart’s Hospital to bring an empty hamper but he refused so Bishop went himself and came back, when he found time for a swift one before going to Guy’s, meeting May there and where they again offered the ‘subject’ to Mr Davis, who again refused it. They wet their whistles in a nearby pub and went on to King’s College, and we have heard what happened from then on. He added that as far as he knew, May was of the opinion that the body had been taken from a grave and had no idea that Bishop and Williams had ‘burked’ the boy.
In concluding this confession, Bishop returned to his obsessive effort to distance himself from the murder of Carlo Ferrier; he didn’t know an Italian boy and certainly hadn’t killed one and when it came to white mice, his children had once kept a couple but the cat had got them. He had made a nice, flat cage for them (absolutely not a revolving one of the sort that, say, an Italian street beggar might display his mice in), but he thought the cat had killed them because he had seen the cat kill them. He rambles on about the mice that his kids didn’t have, nor had they had any for over six months.
Bishop seems to have got it into his head that if he could show that he hadn’t killed Carlo, he might yet get off, which is odd because he freely admitted other murders. What he didn’t seem to realise was that Mr Corder, the vestry-clerk at the Old Bailey, had entered two counts against the accused – one on the murder of Carlo Ferrier and another on the murder of an unknown boy, so even if Bishop’s plan had worked, the count against the unknown boy was there, ready and waiting for him. John Bishop was not, one has to say, the sharpest knife in the drawer.
|Trial report - Proceedings of the Old Bailey|
Bishop then wrote a second confession, in which he describes how he and Williams discovered Frances Pigburn, a widow, sitting on a doorstep at about midnight on October 9th as they were coming home from the pub. She had a child, of maybe four or five, with her and said that they had nowhere to stay as the landlord had turned her out. Bishop and Williams took her back to No 3, where they lit a fire, and got stuck in to the ale with rum chasers, until the woman and child fell asleep on a pile of dirty linen. At six in the morning, Bishop woke them up and showed them out, telling Frances to meet him at the London Apprentice ale-house later (presumably he didn’t like the idea of Mrs Bishop coming downstairs and finding a hung-over woman and her brat asleep on her laundry pile. There is a good reason why cockney rhyming slang for ‘wife’ is ‘trouble and strife’). They met her, sans child, at one o’clock, had a swift glass of two, and arranged to meet her again that night, (the child was not seen again. Its mother said that she had left it with a person with whom she had left some of her belongings before her landlord had taken the rest.
Bishop and Williams went off and bought rum and laudanum in different places, and at ten that night, they were back in the London Apprentice, where they had three pints apiece. They set off back to Nova Scotia Gardens but it came on raining heavily so they sheltered in a doorway for half an hour, before getting back but went into the then empty No 2, where they gave her the rum and laudanum mixture. She drank the lot in two or three draughts and after ten minutes she fell asleep, so Bishop and Williams … went to the pub. A couple of sneck-lifters later, they went back, took the cloak off Frances, tied her feet together and dropped her head-first into the well, where she struggled and thrashed about for a while and blew a few bubbles, so Bishop and Williams went for a stroll. After half-an-hour they came back, pulled the corpse out of the well, cut off her clothes and shoved them down the privy, took the body into the wash-house and boxed it up, cording the lid to prevent anyone casually looking into the box.
They went off to Eagle Street at about four or five in the morning, where they woke James Shields from his sleep … and went to the pub. After a couple of rounds of gin, they went back to Nova Scotia gardens and collected the box. Williams told his wife to get up, get dressed and fetch an empty hat box, which he tied up like the big box. Shields and Mrs Williams then walked down the street together, with Bishop and Williams following on the other side of the street, until they got to St Thomas’s Hospital, where Bishop asked if anyone ‘wanted anything’. The porter said they did, but not until tomorrow so, leaving Willams and his wife, and Shields in the pub (where else?), he went off to Grainger’s Anatomy school, where he sold the body for eight guineas. He went back to the pub, got a round in, paid Shields ten shillings for carrying the box and then went to the Flowerpot, Bishopsgate, where they cut the dust and then went home.
|The Trial, Sentence and Confession pamphlet|
A couple of weeks later, coming home from a night’s boozing, they found a boy, ten or eleven years of age, who gave his name as Cunningham, sleeping rough under the pig-boards at the Smithfield pig market, so they took him home and gave him warm, sweetened beer and the tried and tested rum and laudanum mixture. Whilst this was doing its work, Bishop and Williams went off to oil their necks before going back and dangling the boy down the well. On the next day, they hired a porter to carry the box to St Bart’s, where they sold the ‘specimen’ for eight guineas. May was not involved in either of these last two murders, Bishop wrote. He knew May was a grave robber, and he was a grave robber himself, and had been for five or six years, but these were the only murders he had committed. May thought that he had dug up these bodies. They might be grave robbers but it’s not like they are monsters or anything weird, right?
He was about the give details of a fourth murder, that of a ‘black man’ when he was interrupted by Rev Dr Cotton, the Ordinary, and could not be induced to continue later. The third confession was by Williams, who was present in the same room and who had agreed with Bishop’s version of things as he heard them, although he said, in effect, he had never killed anyone before, never been a grave robber before, hadn’t met May before and that May was innocent of any murders. You get the feeling from reading Williams’s words that if you had shown him his own face in a mirror, he would have denied knowing the man he saw there.
|The Horrid Murder pamphlet|
On the strength of these confessions, James May’s death sentence was respited ‘during his Majesty’s most gracious pleasure’, and as a result the sentence was commuted to transportation to Australia for life. When the news was read to him, May collapsed onto the floor, fitting and convulsing, his body shaking and writhing, his eyes fixed and his face deathly white. It was thought he might die, but eventually he roused, still shaking and unable to speak properly, until at length he revived enough to say he was a changed man and would live a penitent life from then on. Williams spent much of his remaining time on earth talking to his gaolers – he couldn’t sleep much, for some reason – and told them how, when he was first married, his wife warned him about the ‘snatchers’. He had had no idea about his father-in-law’s profession prior to his wedding (let’s be honest, it might have put him off somewhat, so it’s no surprise that nobody bothered to mention it earlier), but when he lost his job, Bishop broached the subject and he was initiated into the family business. He didn’t like the difficulties and dangers of the work, so one day he had a word in Bishop’s ear and proposed a new business model, a ‘… recollection of what Burke had done at Edinburgh,’ a development which had ultimately concluded in their current predicament.
Tomorrow - the sentence