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Source: Bell's Weekly Messenger, No. 1862, Sunday, December 11, 1831

The Burkites.


At one o'clock on Monday morning the scaffold was erected, and as it was expected that the number of persons assembled would be immense, seven strong barriers, were placed in different parts of the Old Bailey. As early as two o'clock a large number of persons were in waiting, and continued there until the time of execution. At six there was such a vast concourse that it was with the greatest difficulty any person could get near the entrance to the prison. In consequence of the expectation that some violence was intended to the unfortunate culprits, two hundred special constables were sworn in, for the sole purpose of protecting the drop. As the time approached nearer, the whole of the Old Bailey, and every place which could command a view of the scaffold, was one dense mass of human beings : the tops of the houses were studded with persons, and five guineas were given for a seat at one of the windows which commanded a full view of the scaffold.

The wife and daughter of the culprits Bishop and Williams, on being discharged from the New Prison on Saturday, went directly to Newgate and took leave of them, at the same time earnestly exhorting them to make some atonement for their crimes by telling all they knew. Bishop persisted in his statement that the boy sworn to in the evidence as the Italian boy, was not he, but a drover's boy, and Williams persisted in the same statement. On Sunday night they retired to rest about twelve o'clock, and Williams slept without any intermission until half-past five, when he awoke, saying, "Now for it;" he then shook himself, scratched his head violently, and sat down. Bishop would not answer any questions put to him during the night, and requested his attendants not to bother him, as he had been bothered enough the day before.

About seven o'clock the Sheriffs arrived at the prison. At eight all was in readiness, and Bishop was taken into the press-room. He walked with a firm step, but appeared to undergo great mental suffering. While he was being pinioned, he did not utter a word. Williams was then brought in, and while undergoing the same ceremony, he exclaimed, "I hope God will be merciful unto me; I deserve to die; I have committed many crimes, but I am innocent of the murder of the Italian boy." The Sheriff then came to him, and told him that the last moment was approaching, and if he had anything further to say, he had better say it at once. Williams replied, that all he had stated was true, and he had nothing further to say. The procession then set forward, and as they were passing through the corridor leading to the felons' door, the clergyman who attended Bishop asked him if he had anything further to say, and Bishop replied, that the boy sworn to as the Italian boy was not he, but a boy from Lincolnshire. He acknowledged that he deserved death, and stated that May was quite innocent of any participation in the crime. Just as they were on the first step of the scaffold, the same question was asked of both of them, and they repeated the same answer. It would be impossible to describe the scene which ensued, when the culprits were visible to the crowd on the scaffold. A rush was made at the barrier, but it was effectually resisted by the strength of the barricade, and upwards of 300 special constables, who were placed in front of the drop. A deafening yell was then raised, and groans and hisses resounded from the immense multitude during the whole time that the hangman was making the necessary preparations, until he left the top of the scaffold for the purpose of withdrawing the fatal bolt. The murderers were not exposed to this dreadful situation for more than a minute, when the drop fell, and their sufferings soon ended in this life. Immediately after, a cheer was given by the mob.

When the respite was received for May on Sunday afternoon, the Rev. Dr. Cotton immediately went to the cell, and commenced reading over to him all the letters and applications that had been made on his behalf to the Secretary of State. May said that he was aware that it was all of no use, and that he had made up his mind to die. The Rev. Gentleman then announced the reprieve to him : immediately May raised his hands over his head, and stood for a moment in that position; he then fell down upon his back. The pulsation at his heart and wrist entirely ceased for half an hour, and it was thought that he was dead. A medical gentleman was immediately sent for, and after restoratives had been applied, in about an hour he recovered. It is understood that he will be transported for life as an accessory after the fact.


The following are copies from the original confessions of the prisoners Bishop and Williams:—

" Newgate, Dec. 4, 1831.

I, John Bishop, do hereby declare and confess that the boy supposed to be the Italian boy was a Lincolnshire boy. I and Williams took him to my house about half-past ten o'clock on the Thursday night, the third of November, from the Bell, in Smithfield. He walked home with us. Williams promised to give him some work. Williams went with him from the Bell to the Old Bailey watering-house, whilst I went to the Fortune of War. Williams came from the Old Bailey watering-house to the Fortune of War for me, leaving the boy standing at the corner of the court by the watering-house in the Old Bailey. I went directly with Williams to the boy, and we all three then walked to Nova Scotia Gardens, taking a pint of stout at a public-house near Hollowell-lane, Shoreditch, on our way, of which we gave the boy a part ; we only stayed just to drink it, and walked on to my house, where we arrived at about eleven o'clock. My wife and children and Mrs. Williams were not gone to bed; so we put him in the privy, and told him to wait there for us.

Williams went in and told them to go to bed, and I stayed in the garden. Williams came out directly, and we both walked out of the garden a little way to give time for the family getting to bed; we returned in about ten minutes or a quarter of an hour, and listened outside at the window to ascertain whether the family were gone to bed. All was quiet, and we then went to the boy in the privy, and took him into the house; we lighted a candle and gave the boy some bread and cheese, and, after he had eaten, we gave him a cupful of rum, with about half a small phial of laudanum in it. The boy drank the contents of the cup in two draughts, and afterwards a little beer. In about ten minutes he fell asleep on the chair on which he sat, and I removed him from the chair to the floor, and laid him on his side. We then went out and left him there. We had a quartern of gin and a pint of beer at the Feathers, near Shoreditch Church, and then went home again, having been away from the boy about twenty minutes. We found him asleep as we had left him. We took him directly, asleep and insensible, into the garden, and tied a cord to his feet to enable us to pull him up by, and I then took him in my arms, and let him slide from them headlong into the well in the garden, whilst Williams held the cord to prevent the body going altogether too low in the well. He was nearly wholly in the water of the well, his feet just above the surface. Williams fastened the other end of the cord around the paling, to prevent the body getting beyond our reach. The boy struggled a little with his arms and legs in the water, and the water bubbled for a minute. We waited till these symptoms were past, and then went in-doors, and afterwards I think we went out, and walked down Shoreditch to occupy the time, and in about three quarters of an hour we returned and took him out of the well, by pulling him by the cord attached to his feet; we undressed him in the paved yard, rolled his clothes up, and buried them where they were found by the witness who produced them. We carried the boy into the wash-house, laid him on the floor, and covered him over with a bag. We left him there, and went and had some coffee in Old-street-road, and then (a little before two in the morning of Friday) went back to my house. We immediately doubled the body up, and put it into a box, which we corded so that nobody might open it to see what was in it; and then went again, and had some more coffee at the same place in Old-street-road, where we staid a little while, and then went home to bed, both in the same house and to our own beds as usual ; we slept till about ten o'clock on Friday morning, when we got up, took breakfast together with the family, and then went both of us to Smithfield, to the Fortune of War; we had something to eat and drink there, and after we had been there about half an hour, May came in; I knew May, but had not seen him for about a fortnight before; he had some rum with me at the bar, Williams remaining in the tap-room. May and I went to the door." [The confession then states the way in which the body was disposed of at the King's College, and concludes with the declaration that May knew nothing of the murder, but that he believed the body was procured after interment.]

Bishop shortly after made the following additional confessions:—

" I and Williams were concerned in the murder of a female, whom I believe to have been since discovered to be Fanny Pigburn, on or about the 9th October last. I and Williams saw her sitting about 11 or 12 o'clock at night on the step of a door in Shoreditch, near the church. She had a child four or five years old with her on her lap. I asked why she was sitting there. She said she had no house to go to, for her landlord had turned her out into the street. I told her that she might go home with us, and sit bythe fire all night; she said she would go with is, and she walked with us so my house, Nova Scotia Gardens, carrying her child with her. When we got there we found the family a-bed, and we took the woman in and lighted a fire, by which we all sat down together ; I went out for beer, and we all took of beer and rum (I had brought the rum from Smithfield in my pocket); the woman and her child laid down on some dirty linen on the floor, and Williams and I went to bed; about six o'clock next morning. I and Williams told her to go away, and to meet us at the London Apprentice, in Old-street-road, at one o'clock; this was before our families were up; she met us again at one o'clock at the London Apprentice without her child ;we gave her some halfpence and beer, and desired her to meet us again at ten o'clock at night at the same place; after this we bought rum and laudanum at different places, and at ten o'clock we met the woman again at the London Apprentice : she had no child with her; we drank three pints of beer between us there, and stayed there about an hour. We then walked to Nova Scotia-gardens, and Williams and I led her into No. 2, an empty house, adjoining my house. We had no light. Williams stepped out into the garden with the rum and laudanum, which I had handed to him; he there mixed them together in a half-pint bottle, and came into the house to me and the woman, and gave her the bottle to drink; she drank the whole at two or three draughts ; there was a quartern of rum, and about half a phial of laudanum; she sat down on the step between two rooms in the house, and went to sleep in about ten minutes. She was falling back; and I caught her to save her fall, and she laid back on the floor. Then Williams and I went to a public-house, got something to drink, and in about half an hour came back to the woman ;we took her cloak off, tied a cord to her feet, carried her to the well in the garden, and thrust her into it headlong; she struggled very little afterwards, and the water bubbled a little at the top; we fastened the cord to the palings to prevent her going down beyond our reach, and left her, and took a walk to Shoreditch and back in about half an hour; we left the woman in the well for some length of time that the rum and laudanum might run out of the body at the mouth; on our return we took her out of the well, cut her clothes off, put them down the privy of the empty house, carried the body into the wash-house of my own house, where we doubled it up and put it into a hair box, which we corded, and left it there. We did not go to bed, but went to Shields' house in Eagle-street, Red Lion-square, and called him up; this was between four and five o'clock in the morning; we then went with Shields to a public-house near the Sessions-house, Clerkenwell, and had some gin, and from thence to my house, where we went in and stayed a little while, to wait the change of the police. I told Shields he was to carry that trunk to St. Thomas's Hospital. He asked if there was a woman in the house who could walk alongside of him, so that people might not take any notice. Williams called his wife up and asked her to walk with Shields, and to carry a hat-box which he gave her to carry. There was nothing in it, but it was tied up as if there was. We then put the box with the body on Shields' bead, and went to the hospital, Shields and Mrs. Williams walking on one side of the street, and I and Williams on the other. At St. Thomas's Hospital I saw Mr. South's footman, and sent him up-stairs to Mr. South to ask if he wanted a subject. The footman brought me word that his master wanted one, but could not give an answer till the next day, as he had not time to look at it. During this interview, Shields, Williams, and his wife were waiting at a public-house. I then went alone to Mr. Appleton. at Mr. Grainger's, and agreed to sell it to him for eight guineas, and afterwards I fetched it from St. Thomas's Hospital, and took it to Mr. Appleton, who paid me 5l. then, and the rest on the following Monday. After receiving the 51. I went to Shields and Williams and his wife at the public-house, where I paid Shields 10s. for his trouble, and we then all went to the Flower Pot, in Bishopsgate, where we had something to drink, and then went home. I never saw the woman's child after the first time before-mentioned. She said she had left the child with a person she had taken some of her things to, before her landlord took her goods. The woman murdered did not tell us her name; she said her age was 35 I think, and that her husband, before he died, was a cabinet maker. She was thin, rather tall, and very much marked with the small pox. I also confess the murder of a boy, who told us his name was Cunningham. It was a fortnight after the murder of the woman. I and Williams found him sleeping, about eleven or twelve o'clock at night, on Friday, the 21st of October, as I think, under the pigboards in the pig market in Smithfield. Williams woke him, and asked him to come along with him. Williams, and the boy walked with Williams and me to my house in Nova Scotia-gardens. We took him into my house, and. gave him some warm beer sweetened with sugar, with rum and laudanum in it. He drank two or three cups-ful, and then fell asleep in a little chair belonging to one of my children. We laid him on the floor and went out. for a little while and got something to drink, and then returned, carried the boy to the well, and threw him into it, in the same way as we had served the other boy and the woman, He died instantly in the well, and we left him there a little while to give time for the mixture we had given him to run out of the body. We then took the body from the well, took off the clothes in the garden, and buried them there. The body we carried into the wash-house, and put it into the same box, and left it there till the next evening, when we got a porter to carry it with us to St. Bartholomew's Hospital where I sold it to Mr. Smith for eight guineas. This boy was about 10 or 11 years old, and his mother lived in Kent-street, and that he had not been home for a twelve month and better. I solemnly declare that these are all the murders in which I have been concerned, or that knew anything of; that I and Williams were alone concerned in these, and that no other person whatever knew any thing about either of them, and that I do not know whether there are others who practice the same mode of obtaining bodies for sale. I know nothing of any Italian boy, and was never concerned in or knew of the murder of such a boy. There have been no white mice about my house for the last six months. My son, about eight months ago, bought two mice, and I made him a cage for them. In was flat with wires at the top. They lived about two months, and were killed, I think, by a cat in the garden, where they got out of the cage. They were frequently seen running in the garden, and used to hide in a hole under the privy. I and my wife and children saw one of them killed by a cat in the garden whilst we were at tea. Until the transactions before set forth, I never was concerned in obtaining a subject by destruction of the living. I have followed the course of obtaining a livelihood as a body-snatcher for 12 years, and have obtained and sold, I think, from 500 to 1,000 bodies; but I declare, before God, that they were all obtained after death, and that, with the above exceptions, I am igrant[sic] of any murder for that or any other purpose.

"John Bishop."

I, Thomas Head, alias 'Williams, now under sentence of death in Newgate, do solemnly confess and declare the foregoing statement and confession of John Bishop, which has been made in my presence, and since read over to me distinctly, is altogether true so far as the same relates to me. I declare that I never was concerned in or privy to any other transaction of the like nature; that I never knew any thing of the murder of any other person whatever; that I was never a body-snatcher or concerned in the sale of any other body than the three murdered by Bishop and myself; that May was a stranger to me, and I had never seen him more than once or twice before Friday, the 4th of November last, and that May was wholly innocent and ignorant of any of those murders in which I was concerned, and for one of which I am about to suffer death.

Witness, R. Ellis. Thomas Head.

Newgate, December 4, 1831.

The above confessions taken literally, from the prisoners, in our presence,

T. Wood, R. Ellis, Under Sheriffs.

Newgate. Dec. 5.

Besides the foregoing statement, Bishop and Williams just before going to execution, confessed that they had attempted to murder two men by giving them laudanum, but the dose having failed in both instances, they escaped.


The bodies of Bishop and Head, alias Williams, were removed from Newgate to Surgeons' Hall on Monday afternoon, the Royal College being, by charter, entitled to the bodies of all convicts found guilty of murder and sentenced "to be dissected and anatomised." The bodies were immediately afterwards given up—the body of Bishop to King's College, and that of Williams, alias Head, to the Theatre of Anatomy (Mr. Tuson's) in Windmill-street, Haymarket.

BISHOP.—A longitudinal incision was made from the thorax downwards, and transversely on the pectoral muscles. A more healthy or muscular subject has not been seen in any of the schools of anatomy for a long period. The ligaments of the altus indentatus were not broken, and he died of apoplexy, and not from the fracture of the vertebrae of the neck.. The body presented a remarkably fine appearance across the chest. The deltoides were splendidly developed and symmetrically beautiful. The biceps were also fully developed, and the pectorales, major and minor, were particularly displayed. The left side of the face, near the whisker, was cut deeply by the rope. The neck was short, and the eyes glassy, as when he was living. His height was about five feet seven; his limbs remarkably well formed; and. the body unusually hairy and muscular. There were the marks of two scars on his face, near the chin; and both his legs had been broken some time or other.

WILLIAMS—The countenance was somewhat collapsed, yet the general outline of a coarse and vulgar physiognomy was strongly marked—a low designing brow, a harsh severity of features, were discernible.. A cast of the countenance was taken, and we heard it observed that the phrenologists would be borne out in their views, for that the organ of murder was forcibly developed, whilst benevolence and religion were very slightly marked. There was an incision into the integuments down the centre of the body, which we believe had been made in the presence of the sheriff, but this had been most carefully sown up. On the left arm was tattooed the real name of this atrocious murderer " J.[sic] Head."


Much excitement and interest prevail respecting the circumstance stated in the confessions, as published by the sheriffs, that the boy, for whose murder the prisoners were convicted, was not the Italian boy, and that they were not guilty of having murdered Carlo Ferrari, who, for aught they knew, might be living. On Thursday Mr. Corder brought before the magistrates at Bow-street two of the witnesses on the late trial—Paragelli, the Italian who brought the missing boy from Italy, and Andrew Colla, who swore to the clothes found in Bishop's house, as being those which he had seen the boy wear in Oxford-street on the 1st of November. Those witnesses, in consequence of the circumstance stated in the confession, are fearful that it will be thought that they gave false evidence on the trial, and they wished to re-assert what they had stated before. On the magistrates expressing a willingness to hear them, they recapitulated their testimony.

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