Book of the Year 2011: The Invention of Murder


The Invention of Murder, by Judith Flanders, HarperCollins

I would guess that when Judith Flanders wrote, and HarperCollins published (in January, 2011),  The Invention of Murder, they little thought that by year’s end, something called the Leveson Inquiry into Media Ethics would be raking over the very latest coals this hugely enjoyable, erudite and engrossing slab of British social history rakes over from Victorian grates.

Such serendipity perhaps comes once in a writer’s life, and thankfully, Ms Flanders has presciently taken it at the oncoming flood. She is well up to the task: the research is exhaustive, but not leaden; she writes attractively and clearly; and, thankfully, she has a wickedly dry sense of humour which leavens the macabre and occasionally horrific tales which she details. Gallows humour can rarely be more apt.

First, a word about the title, The Invention of Murder. Its subtitle is How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime. Of course, the Victorians didn’t “invent” murder: the patent for that particular crime surely belongs to Cain (and the copyright for reporting that first murder obviously belongs to Moses, or whoever he got to write Genesis – Moses was perhaps the first press lord). But what the Victorians did was re-invent murder, or rather the reporting of it and consequently the public’s reaction to it in ways that resound to this day right up to the Leveson inquiry.

The first point Flanders makes (actually, it’s her second point, but I’ll get to the first later) is just how rare the murder rate was in England and Wales at the beginning of the 19th century: just 0.15 per 100,000 people. Given that the English at least have had experience of this sort of bean-counting since the Domesday Book, there is no reason to seriously doubt these figures (Scotland was perhaps another matter). Even today’s average of 1.65 murders per 100,000/year is hardly worth writing home about, particularly when compared with more savage parts such as El Salvador (71), Jamaica (62) or Washington DC (24).

So even if you lived in London or its outlying villages in 1810, you had good reason to feel your home, be it ever so humble, was your castle, even though the war against Boney was dragging on and bad harvests had seen the price of wheat more than double. Safe as houses, that is, until December 7, 1811, when the bodies of Timothy Marr, his wife, their baby and their 14-year-old apprentice were found brutally murdered in Marr’s East End hosiery story. The details of the mass slaying are gruesome (the baby’s throat was slit, the apprentice’s brains were splattered on the ceiling) and the crime itself conformed to Hannah Arendt’s edict of “the banality of evil”. What lifted it from the prosaic to the profound were a couple of major social changes which Flanders elucidates.

One was the rise of the media. It’s essential, as Flanders points out several times, to remember to look at the world through the Victorians’ eyes. The media, in those days, did not mean what we think of it – the press, TV, radio, the internet, YouTube, Twitter et ceteree, et cetera. Certainly, there was what we would today call the press – i.e. newspapers – but they were subject to tax, and were therefore mostly the preserve of the posh people, those who could afford 4d a day for The Times, for instance. That said, many pubs would display reports of the latest developments in sensational cases for the edification of their patrons.

For those lower down the social scale, there was still a welter of other printed matter: pamphlets, broadsides (single sheets, usually illustrated with woodblocks – not always entirely applicable to the accompanying text), ballads, the “penny-bloods” – later called penny dreadfuls, and available as partworks for a farthing, ha’penny or penny a time – and of course novels, often serialised, as Dickens’ works were. There was also the theatre, not just what we would call the West End ones, but also music halls and “penny gaffs”, highly lucrative temporary theatres often held in the spare back rooms of shops and warehouses at fairs, which specialised in half-hour shows of song, dance and sensation for a penny a time. Or they might have marionette shows, often quite elaborate (Flanders mentions one that had a stage eight feet deep). And special mention should be made of Madame Tussaud’s, whose waxworks of the latest victims and murderers could be seen in the Chamber of Horrors and on the many tours she undertook (Flanders adds the delightful fact that one of Tussaud’s touring bills includes the line “THE BAND WILL PLAY EVERY EVENING”, so that sensation-seekers would be entertained while studying the features of Burke and Hare). For all of these, the latest murder – the gorier the better – was a real money-spinner.

And the media coverage at all social levels certainly changed how crime – and particularly murder – was perceived. Early on, Flanders picks out one particularly egregious example: that of  Eugene Aram, a Yorkshireman involved in the robbery, and subsequent murder of a Daniel Clark with a ragged stick and finally a rock in a Kanareborough cave in 1745. The facts of the crime are, of course, banal enough, arising from an argument among Aram and his fellow robbers about the division of spoils, but what is interesting is what followed, and what followed lasted right through the Victorian era.

About 14 years passed between Clark’s death and the discovery of his remains and thence Aram’s eventual capture, by which time he had moved to King’s Lynn, where he was working as a junior teacher in a school. Aram was found guilty after one of his fellow conspirators turned king’s evidence, and duly hanged. There the matter may have, er, hung, except a remarkable thing happened: middle class authors and the media took up Aram’s case.

First was the philosopher William Godwin, who in 1794 (35 years after the trial) decided that rather being the 18th century equivalent of a teaching assistant, Aram had in fact embarked on an etymological investigation of the English language. Then in 1828, the poet and comic writer Thomas Hood gave the world The Dream of Eugene Aram, a mawkish slice of sentimentality  and bucolic baloney of which Flanders quotes just enough to give you a taste before full regurgitation erupts. “Now, instead of a ruffian who killed a fellow criminal when dividing up the spoils, Aram is depicted for the first time as a tormented, repentant sinner,” she says.

It didn’t stop there. Others picked up Hood’s baton and ran with it, most notably Edward Bulwer-Lytton, whose Eugene Abram was a big seller and influenced subsequent treatments through the century. By that time, Aram had not only completed the transformation from thuggish-murderer Mr Hyde into a scholar-gentleman Dr Jekyll with a fatal flaw. By 1832 he was being lauded not only for his knowledge of “Hersiod, Homer, Theocritus, Herodotus, Thucydidates” but was also immersing himself in Hebrew, Arabic and Celtic. Who knows what he may have achieved if that hunk of rock, and hank of rope, had got in the way, eh? I hope I ‘m not tempting fate in saying that I hope there are not people out there in the blogosphere who consider Eugene Aram was the real author of Shakespeare…

This highlights Flanders’ other social change, and one we often forget: just how literate even the poor were in the 19th century. We tend to think of the exploited child chimney sweeps and junior seamstresses working all hours and going to bed with just a plate of gruel and hunk of stale bread to sustain them. Well, yes: that did happen. But what is often forgotten is that more often than not, these kids could read and write, even if one or other of their parents could not. Flanders makes the surely pertinent point that even as early as 1837, Dickens in Oliver Twist simply takes it for granted that young Oliver, brought up in a workhouse, is literate, as are other underworld characters such as Fagin (who reads Hue and Cry, the official police newspaper)..

Sensation-seeking street-urchin: A "likeness" was a picture of the murderer

Of course, what you read was thought to depend very much on your class. Posh people read newspapers and went to the West End theatres; the rising middle class – and those who thought themselves rising to such a position – also read newspapers but also magazines, pamphlets and part works, and went to the theatre on special occasions; the lower class read penny-bloods and broadsides and went to the music hall and penny gaffs (if they were young). But of course, it wasn’t as simple as that.

As the illustration from Punch shows, right, kids would often club together their coppers to get a copy of a posh person’s paper, if it fulfilled their innate bloodlust.

Mind you, Eugene Aram and other juicy cases such as the body-snatchers Burke and Hare which seized the public imagination were the subjects of plenty of other more readily available penny bloods, such as Purkess’s Library of Romance and Purkess’s Penny Plays. Flanders says: “These publications were so popular, the police complained, that vagrant boys spent their leisure time playing cards and dominoes and reading Jack Sheppard and Oliver Twist ‘and other publications of that kind’, the implication being that this reading material would in and of itself lead to crime.”

From which the modern parent might conclude that letting the kids play Battlefield 3 on the Wii might be better than letting them loose with Bill Sikes on the Kindle.

The levels of accuracy is each strata of publication differed too, but often only to a degree which it would take an instrument of high sensitivity to measure. Broadsides – cheap and cheerful (well, sort of) – were churned out almost as soon as the latest developments in a case occurred, and often before they occurred.

For instance, broadsides were always produced for the public hanging of a convicted criminal, and almost always included the heartfelt “confession” of the condemned on the gallows. From the fact that these broadsides were being hawked before the condemned had even approached the noose, one could be forgiven for thinking a certain licence had been taken by the writers. And you would be right.

Which brings up a point that Flanders makes almost in passing, but which is one acute observation among many that make this tapestry of social history so rich and colourful. At the beginning of the 19th century, the desire for a “final confession” – a desire expressed not only by the media (Flanders quotes one broadside hawker’s disgust when one condemned prisoner had been so inconsiderate as not to confess all on the gallows), but also by the authorities and indeed by the people – arose from a religious impulse: the condemned would be judged more leniently by God if they confessed the sin for which they had been found guilty. By the middle of the century – with Britain moving inexorably into a more secular age – the desire was less religious: it had more to do with confirming that the rule of law had been correct in its judgement, the soul of the condemned be damned, or not, as the case may be.

In the days when the concept of a criminal case being sub judice was at best inchoate, if it existed at all, newspapers could and did cheerfully report all manner of rumour, gossip, half-baked “facts” and downright lies in order to generate enough column inches to keep the sensationalist ball rolling. Often they would report contradictory “facts” within the same report, in a perverse manifestation of  “balanced reporting”. Suspects were quickly branded “murderer” sometimes before they had even been arrested, let alone convicted.

Many of newspapers’ excesses would, I think, cause even the redoubtable Kelvin McKenzie and Piers Morgan to drop their jaws floorwards. The Times, for instance, thought nothing of printing any rumour about those suspected (merely suspected, not even charged, let alone found guilty) of murder. The Morning Chronicle solemnly reported that Mary Ann Milner, a convicted poisoner,  “conducted herself with much composure” at her execution. “The usual preliminaries were quickly adjusted,  and the drop having fallen, the wretched murderess, after struggling a few seconds, ceased to exist”. Well, she must have done, surely, because pretty much the same report appeared in the John Bull and Jackson’s Oxford Journal. Except the poor woman had committed suicide the night before. (The media hounding of  Christopher Jefferies in the Joanna Yeates case has a long, unworthy, tradition.)

Judges too were not immune to this perversion, often directing juries to verdicts which directly contradicted the weight of evidence. If an accused had the wherewithal to hire a barrister, they could, and often did, successfully counter this prejudice, but more often than not they didn’t.

Theatre too could play fast and loose with the facts. The Victorian era was the great age of melodrama, featuring a cast of generally stock characters – the evil, licentious squire, the virginal, innocent heroine, the stout-hearted hero who has usually been duped out of his rightful inheritance and is driven to extreme measures to reclaim it, the comedy servant etc – the vestiges of which survive today in mostly pantomime. Often playwrights – for want of a better word – would take salient facts from the latest sensational murder and tack them on to existing plot formulae, with little if any regard to the facts. Not that the audience were particularly interested in the realities of either the purported subject or indeed life in general. Flanders provides a hilarious example of one melodrama, an 1829 adaptation of Walter Scott’s Guy Mannering, in which “a character is lost in a storm-racked Scottish heath, when suddenly: ‘Ha! What do I see on this lonely heath? A Piano? Who could be lonely with that? The moon will rise shortly and light me from this unhallowed place so, to console myself, I will sing one of Julia’s favourite melodies.’ And he does.”

Ironically, we know a lot about these productions because of censorship. Until the mid-1960s, most stage productions had to be licensed by the Lord Chamberlain, with the happy result (for social historians and their readers) that the scripts were kept and are available today. What strikes the 21st-century reader about many of the crime-based productions in the first half of the 19th-century is the curious case of the dog who doesn’t bark: the dog in this case being the detective.

This is another strand in Flanders’ book: the rise of detection, and as a sub-plot of that, the use of science in detection.

The police, as conceived and implemented by Robert Peel, were primarily a preventative force. Taking over from the parish watchmen, they were meant to prevent crime before it happened, not detect crime afterwards. Despite the initial resistance – they were called “raw lobsters” because of their blue uniform (lobsters are blue until they are dunked in boiling water) – they soon proved their worth at various riots, able to disperse unruly crowds without the deaths or injuries occasioned by earlier deployments of dragoons etc. Flanders credits Richard Mayne with establishing a detective force at Scotland Yard – at first clandestinely – in 1840, which was gradually brought out into the open and accepted, albeit with some opposition.

That opposition came from mostly from newspapers at first. But from the 1830s on – from Victoria’s accession,in fact, that began to change. The rise of the middle classes – and how the middle class came to love the police (while the upper and lower classes   and remain – suspicious of them) is an undercurrent of The Invention of Murder , one that Flanders does not labour, but occasionally highlights with a wry footnote. (That she can highlight with a footnote shows her skill, wit and intelligence).

The establishment of Scotland Yard in 1842 coincided with a media-fuelled “poison scare”, which if all the reports were believed, would have you thinking that women (it was usually women at first) were ganging up to knock off unwanted children and wayward husbands on an almost industrial scale in villages throughout the realm.

In these early cases highlighted by Flanders it’s hard not to escape the conclusion that the scare owed more to Witchfinder-General Matthew Hopkins’ work in the 17th-century than to any reality, but the accused’s case wasn’t helped by the fact that poisons such as arsenic and strychnine were readily available (as well as being useful for killing rats, arsenic was considered good for the complexion and was even put in soap), and that the forensic science of detecting poison was rudimentary at best. This didn’t stop “expert witnesses” such as Alfred Swaine Taylor, the Professor of Medical Jurisprudence at Guy’s Hospital, blithely testifying that death was due to poisoning, despite their accompanying evidence being that they hadn’t found any trace of poison (and the science of detecting such poisons except in vast quantities did not exist at the time).

The watershed case was that of Dr William Palmer of Rugeley, Staffordshire, whose wife died shortly after her husband had taken out a £13,000 insurance policy on her. He then took out a policy on his alcoholic brother, Walter, who also swiftly perished. An attempt to take out another policy for £25,000 on George Bates, whom Palmer described as “a gentleman…with a famous cellar of wine” was foiled when the insurance company discovered Bates was actually Palmer’s groom.

Undeterred, Palmer then set his sights on John Cook, a pal from the racecourse, who had just scored a big win with his horse at the Shrewsbury races. Celebrating his win with Palmer that evening, Cook was immediately taken ill. He recovered, but then (foolishly, in retrospect) accepted an invitation to visit Palmer in Rugeley, where he immediately fell ill again. Cook recovered when Palmer was called away to London (during which visit he bought strychnine), but – you guessed it – immediately declined when Palmer returned, and finally expired a week after his win. Palmer had a friendly local doctor, the 80-year-old Dr Bamford, sign the death certificate, stating the cause of death was apoplexy.

Suspicions were immediately aroused when Cook’s step-father, Stevens, arrived in Rugeley to find Palmer  was busily arranging for Cook to be buried without any of his family present, and that the victim’s betting book and related papers had disappeared – as had any sign of his big win, although Cook had scarcely been in a position to spend any of it.

What made the Palmer case so deeply shocking to the middle classes was that he was resolutely one of their own: the son of a prosperous timber-merchant, who had trained at Bart’s and was a member of the Royal College of Surgeons. But as might have been already gathered, he was also a gentleman who was more interested in the turf than his surgery – he owned racehorses – and was consequently in serious debt at the time of his wife’s death.

And the case certainly was a sensation. As Flanders notes, for months before the trial, the newspapers went into overdrive. As well as the deaths themselves, the case had a number of other disquieting, even bizarre factors: Palmer had been allowed to attend Cook’s post-mortem, pots containing the victim’s viscera to be analysed in London arrived in the capital empty. As if that were not enough, the aforementioned Alfred Swaine Taylor dispensed his opinion freely the press not once but four times, before the trial he was giving evidence to had even started.

The press were also helped by the recent abolition of newspaper tax: The Telegraph halved its price to a penny, and circulation immediately rose to 27,000 copies a day, which continued to rise steadily over the next few years. The Illustrated News “Special Rugeley edition” doubled its circulation to 400,000, while Lloyd’s Weekly bought two new presses to meet demand. The medical journal Lancet contributed a stream of articles on poisoning, focusing particularly on the detection of strychnine, this at a time when Florence Nightingale was revolutionising nursing in the Crimea War (which attracted just one article, The Sanitary Condition of the British Army in the Crimea).

Palmer and Cook’s connection to the sport of kings added an extra frisson across all social classes and the trial, when it finally began, attracted an audience which reads like a DeBrett’s stud book: the Duke of Cambridge, Lord Lucan, Lord Derby, Earl Grey, the Marquis of Angelsey and Prince Albert of Saxe-Weiberg all popped in to watch proceedings for at least one day, as did Gladstone. The Prince Albert was said to be following the case closely.

Following the trial there was a usual flurry of pamphlets, penny-bloods and other publications worrying over the whys and wherefores of the trial and its outcome of varying degrees of seriousness. But the press had barely had time to catch its breath before the next big poisoning trial arrived on the scene, this time involving another doctor – albeit of a quackish variety – Thomas Smethurst, which was also seasoned with the added spice of bigamy.

By the time the third big poisoning trial came along, involving the demure upper-middle class Madeleine Smith, accused of poisoning her lover in 1857, poisoning could be said to be, at least in the popular imagination, a middle class crime, in whose genteel lodgings it was still to be found nearly a century later in the novels of Agatha Christie et al.

And then we come to the most infamous Victorian killer of all – Jack the Ripper.

Even on this well trodden ground, Flanders does not disappoint. Though she is, I think, too quick to attribute the famous first “Jack the Ripper” and “From Hell” letters to journalists, she does correctly pin the subsequent panic (and it was a panic) equally upon media hype and police inadequacy. On the general media front, she ascribes the Ripper panic to the formation of both Dracula and The Portrait of Dorian Gray, which I had not thought of before, but which certainly makes sense.

There is so much in this book that even this long review cannot do it justice. I have read it three times this year, and every time I find something I have missed: often something that makes me laugh, occasionally something that makes me retch, always something that makes me think about how we in the media report crime.

What I particularly like about this book is that Flanders never forgets she is dealing with real people – real souls – here. She takes extraordinary pains to flesh out the lives of victims and killers (alleged or otherwise) to the extent that is known. These are no tabloid one-dimensional sketches to be neatly slotted into convenient categories such as “slut”, “posh boy”, “jealous husband/wife/boyfriend/girlfriend” or, as in these celebrity-obsessed times, “six-packed TV actor stabbed 38-D porn star”.  Not that the media of the day did not try to portray them as such, albeit not quite in that language.

This is, I think, a remarkable book. Physically, the hardback edition is superb. The cover is a splendid parody of a Victorian theatre bill, such as might have included a production of the goings-on which are detailed inside, and I hope this cover is repeated with the paperback. The type is Minion, of adequate size and weighting that one can even read it in bed with those dim energy-saving bulbs the EU tells us must use.

Personally, I decided to read it by the light of some whale-fat candles I bought from Japan via eBay. They gave a much better light than the EU-approved curly-bulbs. Besides, they gave off a slightly fishy smell,which made me think I lived above a Victorian knocking shop. Very appropriate, don’t you think?

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  1. December 30, 2011 at 1:01 am

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