A history of Victorian violence


CRIME: JOHN S DOYLEreviews The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern CrimeBy Judith Flanders Harper Press, 556pp. £20

MURDERS WERE not that common in 19th-century England, despite what you might gather from reading Charles Dickens, but some practitioners of the crime became household names. Some remain so in the 21st century; one who doesn’t is James Greenacre, a London cabinetmaker who instead of marrying his sweetheart, a washerwoman named Hannah Brown, on Christmas Day 1836, as planned, killed her – accidentally, as he said – and dismembered her to get rid of the body.

“He took two omnibuses to reach the canal, sitting quietly with the head wrapped up on his lap. He later walked towards the Edgware Road with the torso in a sack until a passing cart gave him a lift some of the way.”

The newspapers, then as now enthusiastic about such stories, “fell on these details”, according to Judith Flanders. But for some reason, she writes, while most murderers were regarded with fear, Greenacre was funny. The periodical John Bullwrote that his whole life had been marked by “treachery and deception – in small matters as well as great”. When he took Mrs Brown’s head on the omnibus he had asked what the fare was. “Sixpence a head, sir,” said the conductor. Greenacre paid his sixpence, “thus paying only for one head instead of two,” said the paper.

It’s a story that captures the style of Flanders’s book: plenty of gruesome detail, but also a dry humour, and a scepticism that helps her separate the facts from the often heavily embroidered commentary of the time. The Invention of Murderis a valuable and well-researched account of Victorian society in Britain and its growing fascination with the ultimate crime. The narrative runs through the century, leaving no grisly story untold: not for everybody, therefore, but engrossing reading for anyone interested in the social and literary history of the period.

Flanders says there was no police force in England until well into the 19th century. A French visitor remarked: “How can one expect order among these people, who have no such word as police in their language?”

The “new police” first appeared on the streets of London in 1829 and, being dressed in blue, were known as “raw lobsters”, because people felt that if they got into hot water they would show their true colours and turn into soldiers (who wore red coats).

Before that there were such as the Bow Street Runners, a privately paid detective force. In 1823 two Runners were hired to track down John Thurtell in connection with a pistol that had been found with hair, and possibly brains, sticking to the butt. He was taken, and Flanders’s account of the resulting trial shows the extraordinary latitude allowed to the press, gutter and otherwise (for those who could not afford newspapers there were broadsides and “penny bloods”). Before the trial, they identified Thurtell as a murderer and a debaucher of women. The Timescarried an apparently invented report that as a soldier he had murdered and stolen from a fallen officer at the siege of San Sebastian.

MURDER TOURISM WAS popular too: the novelist Walter Scott visited the scene of the crime at Gill’s Hill, near Watford. Forty thousand people attended Thurtell’s execution, and his body was given to a hospital for dissection by students, as was the custom for felons. In addition, any body buried at the parish’s expense could be handed over for such purposes, and so burial clubs developed, to insure against the expenses of sudden death.

Insuring one’s children raised suspicions, as in the case of Robert and Ann Sandys, impoverished Irish immigrants in Stockport in 1840. There was scant evidence against them, and no evidence that either of their daughters was murdered, but the coroner reminded the jury that the Sandyses were Irish; moreover, they were Catholics, “and, on that account, might probably not attach that seriousness to the commission of a crime which parties of a different religion might do”. Robert was sentenced to death, but reprieved and transported.

Jews were scapegoats too, as were servants. A double scapegoat in this catalogue of horrors was Eliza Fenning, a 21-year-old servant who was accused of poisoning her employers. The almost complete lack of evidence against her did not stop the Observerfrom stating that “her father and mother are both from Ireland and that they are BOTH ROMAN CATHOLICS”, and presenting a string of her other supposed offences. The girl was executed, and 45,000 attended – for a change, not for the spectacle but out of solidarity with her parents over what was regarded as judicial murder.

Flanders writes with great fluency, and a light touch for such heavy material. She explains well how the real-life crimes, or alleged crimes, moved from reportage and partisan commentary to melodrama and serious novels, to songs and poems, and even the naming of horses and greyhounds. A celebrated case on all fronts was The Colleen Bawn, a play by Dion Boucicault inspired by Gerald Griffin’s novel The Collegians, both of them based on the sad history of Ellen Hanley, a child who in 1819 eloped with a Lieutenant Scanlan, who soon tired of her and arranged her killing.

As for other surviving household names, there are Burke and Hare, so-called resurrection men who turned to providing their own corpses for anatomy schools; sweet Fanny Adams, who met a horrible end, and Jack the Ripper. All human death is here.

John S Doyle is a freelance journalist