The London Burkers, Bodysnatching

Shoreditch may be most well known for its mention in the Oranges and Lemons nursery rhyme, but the area has also had some grisly moments over the years, like most of the East End of London. In the 1830s, it gained some infamy as the home of the London Burkers, a group of body snatchers who tried to make a less than honest living by creating corpses to sell.



Body Snatching in Shoreditch – The London Burkers

The London Burkers may not be as famous as Whitechapel’s Jack the Ripper, but they built up a far bigger body count than Jack did!

Anatomy in Victorian Times

During Victorian times, medical students had few opportunities to dissect bodies as part of their studies. During this period, people did not donate their bodies to medical science and teaching hospitals and colleges could only use the corpses of criminals for this purpose. The problem was that London was getting to be more law-abiding and fewer criminals were being executed for their crimes. Students needed hundreds of corpses for their courses each year, but less than a hundred bodies were available.

This led to a new business initiative, body snatching. Criminals began by digging up recently buried corpses and selling them on to hospitals and colleges but, when demand continued to outstrip that supply, some went a step further and started to kill people so that they could sell their bodies. The most famous body snatchers in the country were Burke and Hare who worked in Edinburgh in Scotland. A group of men in Shoreditch started their own bodysnatching business in the East End. They were known as the London Burkers, after Burke and Hare.

Drugging and Killing Victims

The London Burkers started their crimes by digging up fresh corpses from graveyards and then selling the bodies to colleges and hospitals. However, this started to get a bit dangerous. The families of people who had been recently buried started to mount vigils at their gravesides to deter body snatchers. The gang then decided that the best way to get valuable bodies was to make them, as they could avoid attack from angry relatives. This also allowed them to create their own supply of bodies rather than having to rely on people dying to order.

So, the London Burkers started convincing people to visit them in their home In Nova Scotia Garden, near St Leonard’s church in Shoreditch. They would often meet people in pubs, start talking to them and then invite them home under some pretext or other. When a hapless victim got there, they would be drugged with laudanum, beer and/or rum and then murdered.

The London Burkers were composed of four main men, John Bishop, Thomas Williams, Michael Shields and James May. They worked as body snatchers, or resurrection men, for over 10 years. When John Bishop was arrested, he admitted to selling up to 1,000 bodies all in all, although it is not clear how many of those were murdered by the gang or how many were taken from their graves. The main protagonists in the gang were Bishop and Williams; it is thought that Shields and Mya simply worked as accomplices and may not have been involved in any murders.

Caught With a Fresh Corpse

It seems that local hospitals and colleges didn’t always ask too many questions about where bodies came from, as the London Burkers sold corpses on a regular basis to famous institutions including to St Bart’s, St Thomas’ and King’s College. However, it was a suspicious anatomist at King’s College who finally caught out the London Burkers. They were having trouble selling the body of a 14 year old boy, known as the “Italian Boy”, as it was fairly obvious that the body had never been buried.

The suspicious anatomist alerted his boss who then called the police and the London Burkers were arrested. The police searched their homes in Shoreditch and found a suspicious number of pieces of clothing hidden in the well and in the gardens. 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 members of the gang and saved them from execution at least, as they had not been involved in the murders themselves.

You cannot see any of the original buildings at Nova Scotia Garden today, as they were removed by the public. The police opened the gardens to visitors and charged a 5 shilling entrance fee. Morbid curiosity led many to simply take souvenir pieces of the cottages away with them!

Thirty thousand people came to Newgate Prison to see Bishop and Williams hanged in December 1831. Ironically, their bodies, as executed criminals, were then used in anatomy classes at the Theatre of Anatomy in The Haymarket.

East London History - East End Facts

Malcolm Oakley - East London History - A Guide to London's East End.

I grew up on the fringes of London's true East End and have been fascinated by the ever changing history and landscape of the area.

Visitors and tourists to London may only ever explore the City centre but for those that care to travel further east, a rich and rewarding travel adventure awaits. So much of London's history owes a debt to the East End. Colourful characters, famous architecture, hidden treasures of changing life over the years.

Author by Malcolm Oakley.

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2 comments on “The London Burkers, Bodysnatching
  1. Melanie Chappel says:

    Hi Malcolm,
    My 5x Great Grandfather was born and raised in Shoreditch (1809). He would have been considered part of the ‘Swell Mob’ and was nicked for stealing fabric from a linen draper on Old Street in 1835. He was transported to Australia (where I was born and still live) and the rest is history.
    Cheers
    Mel Chappel

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