Sam Leith marvels at Victorian Britain’s appetite for crime, where a public hanging was considered a family day out and murder became a lurid industry in itself
On my satellite TV box, murder is being committed 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I could probably live out the rest of my life watching the three CSIs, Bones, Criminal Minds and Waking the Dead without ever once breaking for a cup of tea or having to set the video to record.
Is this a new thing? Sky Plus may be, but the obsession with murder? Not a bit. It all kicked off with the Victorians, as Judith Flanders’s winningly cheerful new book (aimed squarely at The Suspicions of Mr Whicher market) sets out to demonstrate. From the early 19th century onwards, the British public thrilled to tales of murder, detection, confession and execution — garlanded then as now with bogus pieties and tenuously drawn social morals.
No sooner had a murder caught the public imagination than it became an industry, with every stratum of society catered for. Newspapers were crammed with tutting copy, while lurid broadsides and penny-bloods (later known as penny-dreadfuls), melodramas and sensation novels, ballads, puppet-shows, waxworks and reliquaries, magic-lantern presentations and Staffordshire pottery figurines proliferated. Racehorses, greyhounds, and in one case a ship, were named after murderers.
A German traveller was advised by an Englishwoman that if he wanted to see ‘our popular festivals … go to Newgate on a hanging day.’ Courtrooms became theatres and executions were a family day out, catered by roving snack-vendors selling biscuits and peppermints named after the condemned. When, in the case of the poisoner William Palmer, the defence moved to have the proceedings in another county where he’d be more likely to receive a fair trial, the loudest objections raised were by Staffordshire’s ‘victualling interest’.
Against this background — both shaped by and shaping literary representations of crime and police work — there emerges a modern conception of the police as a detective rather than just preventive force, and of germinal professional detective and forensic work. Flanders ably and entertainingly picks through all this — and includes enough lightly worn theory to make the necessary wider points about social history.
She’s particularly alive to the overwhelming importance of class in Victorian representations of criminality: how powerful were the dynamics behind hysteria about poisoning and the murder of gentlemen by servants; or the absolutely accepted notion that working-class women routinely murdered their children to collect funeral money from burial societies (a Victorian version, surely, of the current hysteria about working-class women ‘playing the benefits system’ by breeding).
Flanders is very good, too, at thinking herself into period and reminding the reader of how different certain things we take for granted were: how incredibly dark London streets were at night; how shockingly disreputable a man without a hat would seem; how ‘unimaginably modern’ the image of a lady detective showing an ankle and smoking a cigarette would have been in an era ‘20 years before one book still thought it necessary to explain that cigarettes were “paper cigars”. ’
The problem — though it’s not of Flanders’s making, and I can’t see an easy way round it — is that the material essentially consists of serial précis: this crime, then that, followed by an itemising of the journalistic and theatrical ephemera that arose from it. And that ephemera is mostly pretty third-rate, as Flanders, who has a beady eye for genre, points out.
Anyone who thinks the 21st-century tabloid represents some sort of journalistic nadir, for instance, will find this book a bracing corrective. On the contrary, we live, it turns out, in a hitherto unexampled golden age of truthfulness and integrity.
Even proper 19th-century newspapers seethed with class bigotry, and routinely printed rumour as fact without thought to prejudicing a trial. What are now called ‘backgrounders’ would report that the accused robbed corpses in battle, spent his childhood torturing dogs, or had ‘been known to twist a whipcord round a horse’s tongue, and tear it out by the root’.
If facts weren’t available, they’d be invented. The Morning Chronicle, Jackson’s Oxford Journal, John Bull and the Bristol Mercury all reported solemnly that Mary Ann Milner had ‘conducted herself with much composure’ at her execution. This stretched plausibility, considering she’d committed suicide in her cell the night before. Even the illustrations were, more often than not, stock images appended at random: the purported likeness of one murderer, it was pointed out, was actually a portrait of William IV.
As for the ballads and melodramas, most are deservedly forgotten. But homicide celebrity itself had real staying power: the murderess Maria Manning was still honoured with a statue in Madame Tussauds 122 years after her death.
So perhaps it’s unsurprising how many 19th-century murder stories remain just below the surface of the culture. Flanders’s examples touch on the origins of a higgledy-piggledy collection of things, from phrases like ‘a victim of circumstance’ or ‘murder in the red barn’ (title of a fine Tom Waits song) to Flann O’Brien’s alter-alter-ego Myles na gCopaleen, named for a stock character in the melodramatisation of a real murder. That is to say nothing of the directness with which they were patched into the works of writers such as Dickens, Eliot and Hardy.
The producers of the hokum have a certain charm, incidentally. One ballad-seller is quoted recalling gratefully of the killer James Rush: ‘Irish Jem never goes to bed but he blesses Rush the farmer; and many’s the time he’s told me we should never have such another windfall as that.’
A patterer records bitter disappoint- ment at the failure of Maria Manning to confess:
Every day I was anxiously looking for a confession from Mrs Manning. All I wanted was for her to clear her conscience afore she left this here whale of tears (that’s what I always calls it in the patter)… In course the public looks to us for the last words of all monsters in human form, and as for Mrs Manning’s they were not worth the printing.
In this light, Dickens stands out as a lonely eminence. Flanders briskly contextualises his work in its sensation-fiction background — a drily funny footnote summarising the violent and unnatural deaths in his books — and the great novelist winks at us, here and there, from the crowd around a scaffold.
As I mentioned, there is a bit of a sense of one thing after another about The Invention of Murder: a parade of dim villains, bent judges and bad literature, interrupted by the odd brilliant writer, ingenious murderer or shrewd detective. But Flanders retails her stories with sufficient brio, and picks out detail aptly enough, to overcome that.
She herself mixes genres deftly. Her book is part social history, part literary history, and part penny-blood itself. In the fine tradition of its subject it both has its cake and eats it. Yum. Strychnine.