'The Italian Boy': early journalism by Charles Dickens


This chapbook describes a brutal crime that occurred in London in 1831, a 'copy-cat' murder following upon those of the infamous Burke and Hare in Edinburgh. The two London ruffians involved – Bishop and Williams – were bodysnatchers turned murderers (body snatchers stole corpses from fresh graves to sell for medical analysis). Bishop and Williams were convicted at the Old Bailey of killing a poor itinerant Italian boy, Carlo Farrari, and selling his corpse to an anatomy school. Blood on the body led to suspicions at the Medical School at King's College in the Strand, and they were caught.

The chapbook was published by John Fairburn of Ludgate Broadway, near London's Old Bailey, and is unique because it was annotated later in the 19th century by the book collector Dexter, whose collection is held by the British Library. Dexter noted down information from F W Pailthorpe, an artist who had known George Cruikshank, the illustrator of Charles Dickens's early works Sketches by Boz and Oliver Twist. The annotation states that Dickens had been the Old Bailey reporter for Fairburn in the Italian Boy case. Dickens certainly worked as a court and parliamentary reporter as a young man, and was well-known as a fast and accurate shorthand note-taker, so it is quite possible that Pailthorpe's information is accurate, especially as Cruikshank's family had worked for Fairburn for years. Young Dickens knew the Old Bailey well, and is known also to have worked at another court situated around the corner from John Fairburn's shop, Doctors' Commons. At the time of the trial, Parliament was not sitting, so he would have needed other work.

Text contributed by Ruth Richardson, independent scholar

Full title:
Burking the Italian boy! Fairburn's edition of the trial of John Bishop, Thomas Williams, and James May, for the wilful murder of the Italian boy (Carlo Ferrari). Tried at the Old Bailey, Friday, 2d December, 1831.
1831, London
Chapbook / Illustration / Image
Charles Dickens
Usage terms
Public Domain
Held by
British Library

Full catalogue details

Related articles


Article by:
Ruth Richardson
Popular culture, Reading and print culture

Chapbooks were small, affordable forms of literature for children and adults that were sold on the streets, and covered a range of subjects from fairy tales and ghost stories to news of politics, crime or disaster. Dr Ruth Richardson explains what this literature looked like, its subject matter and the ways in which it was produced.

Crime in Oliver Twist

Article by:
Philip Horne
The novel 1832–1880, Crime and crime fiction, London

Dickens's Oliver Twist depicts the excitement as well as the danger surrounding the criminal underworld. Here Professor Philip Horne examines how Dickens’s portrayal of crime was influenced by public executions, contemporary criminal slang and other sensational literary works.

Related collection items

Related people

Related works

Oliver Twist

Created by: Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens’s (1812-1870) second novel, originally published in serial parts 1837-39, and as a three ...