Follow the Bodies: A Scenic Route from The Mysteries of London to the Medical Humanities.

By: Anna Gasperini

When I ask myself about how I got to study George W. M. Reynolds and his work, I think the most appropriate answer would be: I took the scenic route. This being Reynolds, of course, ‘scenic’ means dark and labyrinthine. In my case, it started from an interest in Victorian literature, in general, and in vampires and the Gothic, in particular; it passed through James Malcolm Rymer’s colossal Varney the Vampire; or: The Feast of Blood; and led me straight to the doorstep of the dissection room.

At the moment I am not, technically speaking, a ‘Reynolds scholar’. After spending my PhD in the company of Mr Anthony Tidkins, Mr Sweeney Todd, and Sir Francis Varney – about whom I wrote in a book called Nineteenth Century Fiction, Medicine and Anatomy (2019) I now find myself a medical humanities researcher working on children’s literature and culture. If you are wondering what Reynolds’s rambling, bombastic, and grim serial The Mysteries of London may have in common with Frances Hodgson Burnett’s heart-warming children’s novel The Little Princess, my answer is: more than you think. For example, both stories concern themselves with the protection, or the abuse, of exposed social categories and their bodies. They both reflect on how the provision of healthcare impacts individuals and, by extension, society, especially when it fails the underprivileged. Indeed, studying Reynolds’s Mysteries cycle played an important part in sparking my current interest for analysing literature and other cultural products from the perspective of health cultures, particularly relating to the health of powerless and/or exposed constituencies.

During my PhD, I examined the connection between the history of the 1832 Anatomy Act and the lurid penny bloods of the 1840s. If you are familiar with both The Mysteries of London and the background history of the Anatomy Act, you may have spotted the association between this law and Anthony Tidkins, aka The Resurrection Man, the formidable, cadaverous, ruthless king of body snatchers in Reynolds’s penny blood. A ‘body snatcher’ was an entrepreneurial individual who stole fresh bodies from cemeteries and sold them on the black market to anatomists for use in dissection. Following pressure from the medical fraternity, whose delicate feelings (and finances) suffered from their dealings with body snatchers, and the outrage that ensued following the discovery of ‘burking’ – that is, homicide for the express purpose of selling the victims’ bodies for dissection – in Edinburgh and London, in 1832 Parliament voted in the Anatomy Act.

The Act stated that the body of anyone who was unable to pay for their own funeral was to be used to train medical students in human anatomy, regardless of what the wishes of the deceased might have been in this respect. This was meant, in theory, to put an end to the body trade and to prevent burking; the Act, however, did not mention bodysnatching at all, and only mentioned burking in passing. What it did instead was to make it legal for anatomists to obtain the body of the pauper for dissection. The black market for cadavers continued to exist, providing doctors with bodies whenever the Act failed to grant an adequate supply. Ruth Richardson’s analysis of the Act and its impact on the Victorian pauper in Death, Dissection and the Destitute (1987) remains, to this day, a key-text for anyone approaching the study of this law in context, and more recently Elizabeth T. Hurren explored the demographics affected by the Act and its consequences in Dying for Victorian Medicine (2012). My idea, after reading the work of Richardson and Hurren, among others, was that narratives of disinterment and/or dismemberment appearing in the infamous penny bloods reflected their audience’s anxiety about this situation. The Mysteries of London, a narrative punctuated with dead bodies that resurface, dug up by bodysnatchers and corrupt gravediggers, to be dissected by knowledge-thirsty doctors, proved to be an extremely interesting case in point.

The Mysteries of London is simultaneously a penny blood and a Chartist narrative. Rob Breton has recently analysed this latter quality in The Penny Politics of Victorian Popular Fiction (2021), addressing what is probably Reynolds’s most notable feature: the bad reputation he enjoyed, both in life and beyond, as a Chartist in general, and as a Chartist author of popular fiction in particular. Doubts about the sincerity of his advocacy for the poor and the workers were voiced in all quarters, stemming mainly from the idea that, since he was a publisher and an author, he profited from sales; therefore, whenever he denounced social injustice in his texts, it was perceived as pandering to the dissatisfaction of the lower classes and fostering dangerously revolutionary ideas to increase his profits. In Penny Politics, Breton convincingly argues that radicalism could not be considered something entirely separated from market dynamics and that, consequently, Reynolds’s radicalism was not incompatible with his publishing business (139-140). I concur with this reading; I would add that the fact that Breton, in 2021, found the need to discuss this issue signals that we still doubt Reynolds’s narratives’ value as vehicles of political and social messages. True enough, popular culture products necessarily tend to simplify complex themes and messages, and one must acknowledge that market demands influence content choice. However, is this enough to cast a verdict of unfitness, of not being a credible platform for discussing politics, social justice, human rights upon Reynolds and, more broadly, upon popular fiction?

What struck me during my study of The Mysteries of London was the vast quantity of news material Reynolds embedded in the plot, a trait Ian Haywood examines in The Revolution in Popular Literature (2004, 179). Of course, my attention concentrated on cases in which he did so to address the (mis)management of the body of the poor in Victorian London, the most obvious example being the character of Anthony Tidkins. Tidkins’ characterization presents elements that are redolent of the London burking case, also known as the Italian Boy case. Self-professed bodysnatchers John Bishop and Thomas Williams were found guilty of burking three people, including Carlo Ferrari, a fourteen-year-old unaccompanied Italian immigrant who roamed the streets of London showing a cage of white mice, as did countless such Italian children who were trafficked from Italy to France and England by exploitative padroni. For obvious reasons (if in doubt, look at my name), this case struck a chord with me. To this day, my favourite text on this topic is Sara Wise’s wonderful The Italian Boy, in which Wise herself notes that Reynolds’s fictional Resurrection Man bears resemblance to the two real-life burkers (2004, 285–89). Tidkins, a professional body snatcher, turns to burking whenever the opportunity presents itself, and his modus operandi resembles that of Bishop and Williams. He lives in the London East End, (around Bethnal Green, where Bishop and Williams lived), and there he assaults people, dragging them into his house and drowning them to sell their bodies for dissection.

Reynolds’s liberal use of news material emerges also in his representation of burial ground mismanagement and issues of health and bodily agency related to it, a trait that I explore in greater detail in my book (179-229). The episode ‘The Gravedigger’, set in the fictional Globe Lane cemetery, includes clear references to two scandalous episodes that made it to the press in the 1840s. Globe Lane cemetery is based on the notorious Spa Fields burial ground, an insalubrious, severely overcrowded burial space. The Spa Fields gravedigger regularly dug up bodies and burned them in the bone-house to make room for new ones, so that the manager could increase his profits. The nauseous smoke pouring out of the bone-house chimney, and the smell and substances developing from the decay of the bodies in the overcrowded space, constituted a health hazard for the neighbourhood, and the occasional sight of the disinterment and manhandling of their loved ones outraged people living nearby. Reynolds used Spa Fields as a model for the ghastly Globe Lane, where Mr Jones, the titular gravedigger, has a burial ground management style that closely resembles that adopted for Spa Fields. Furthermore, Reynolds had Mr Jones and Mr Banks, the local undertaker, discuss the Enon Chapel scandal, a real case of burial ground mismanagement that broke out in 1844. The minister who managed the chapel had the burial vault beneath it stacked up with bodies beyond capacity and pocketed the profits. The situation got so bad that the smell of decomposition emanating from the overstuffed vault caused fainting fits in the congregation, while flying bugs generated from the decay of the human remains buzzed through the chapel. Right before Mr Jones and Mr Banks discuss Enon Chapel within The Mysteries of London, the Globe Lane gravedigger, motivated entirely by money, is depicted disinterring and burning human remains to make room for new cadavers. By the end of the episode, he accepts a bribe to let body snatchers steal a fresh body from the burial ground to sell it. In London, the episode suggests, in fiction as in reality, money makes the bodies go round.

Reynolds, George W. M. The Mysteries of London. Vol 1. London: George Vickers, 1846. Illustration to Chapter 108. Hathi Trust Digital Library 

These stories were sensational, gruesome, high in pathos – the kind of narrative that Mysteries’ weekly episode provided for its readers. Yet, they were also part of a nation-wide conversation about the safety (and sacredness) of life, death, and the human body. When they broke out, the Italian Boy case, Enon Chapel, and Spa Fields were widely covered in the newspapers. Especially in ‘The Gravedigger’ episode, Reynolds did not so much draw inspiration from Enon Chapel and Spa Fields, as he transcribed into his story passages from newspaper articles about the two cases (Gasperini 2019, 211–13). Both burking and burial ground mismanagement would likely have struck a chord with Reynolds’s readership, who inhabited the areas the story described and to whom the stench of the overcrowded burial ground or the consequences of the Anatomy Act were reality. By writing about fictional burkers, body snatchers and mismanaged cemeteries against the backdrop of real-life stories, Reynolds blurred the boundaries between reality and fiction. The Mysteries of London, and Reynolds, remind the reader of the fact that in both the fictional and real London not only human life, but the human frame, has a market price.

Looking at how Reynolds achieved this in Mysteries helped me to reflect about popular narratives as venues for discussion of health and body rights and their management. The way in which I started thinking about how humans use narratives to come to terms with these issues still impacts how I approach my research. It made me consider matters of class conflict and social justice (or lack thereof) related to human health; and it made me think about the importance of acknowledging  the role of what we call ‘popular fiction’, ‘popular culture’, or even ‘minor genres’ – whether it is a mid-nineteenth-century penny publication, the latest historical romance, a children’s book, or a serialised TV show produced by your streaming service of choice – in making us reflect about our bodies, about our humanity.

I am a medical humanities researcher and to become one, I took the scenic route. In my case, it started on the dissection room doorstep, and wound its ways through the dark alleys and overcrowded cemeteries of G. W. M. Reynolds’s The Mysteries of London.


Breton, Rob. 2021. The Penny Politics of Victorian Popular Fiction. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Gasperini, Anna. 2019. Nineteenth Century Popular Fiction, Medicine and Anatomy: The Victorian Penny Blood and the 1832 Anatomy Act. Palgrave Macmillan.

Haywood, Ian. 2004. The Revolution in Popular Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hurren, Elizabeth T. 2012. Dying for Victorian Medicine – English Anatomy and Its Trade in the Dead Poor, c. 1834-1929. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Richardson, Ruth. 1987. Death, Dissection and the Destitute. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Wise, Sarah. 2004. The Italian Boy – Murder and Grave-Robbing in 1830s London. Pimlico 20. London: Jonathan Cape.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s