How murder became a guilty pleasure

The Invention of Murder – How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime by Judith Flanders Harper Press, �20

Flanders begins her exhaustively researched study of 19th century murder with the observation that reading about bloody deeds happening elsewhere reinforces our sense of safety.

“Murder is very pleasant to think about in the abstract, like blustery rain on the window pane when sitting indoors”.

Thus the century’s most notorious crimes – Edinburgh bodysnatchers Burke and Hare or the Ripper murders of desperately poor prostitutes in Whitechapel – offered entertainment for the vast majority of Victorians who didn’t live there.

This prefigures modern sensibilities – the way wealthy white Londoners view an Operation Trident murder or the killing of Ipswich prostitutes.

But it wasn’t always the case. At the start of the century, murder was extremely rare with just 15 convictions in 1810 throughout England and Wales. Britons were more concerned about war and hunger than becoming the victims of crime. This was before the creation of a police force, when public protection was offered by nightwatchmen, and inquests and trials were perfunctory affairs often conducted at the crime scene.

Over the next 90 years, policing became professionalised, the role of detective caught the public imagination, catching criminals became more forensic and the public hangings that so horrified the likes of Charles Dickens were driven behind prison walls.

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Flanders, who lives near Chalk Farm, charts the shift from crime detection to prevention, and lists the crimes that enflamed the Victorian imagination, how public panic and fascination was fuelled by sensational, wildly inaccurate newspaper reports, broadside balladeers, penny dreadfuls, plays and cheap sideshows as well as the literature of Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Robert Louis Stevenson and Arthur Conan Doyle.

Often deeply prejudicial to trial proceedings, they mythologised crimes and recast criminals and victims as characters in a melodrama.

Flanders’ lengthy tome at times sags under the weight of her research. She painstakingly reports the coverage of each murder that rose to prominence (and a few which didn’t) following the crime’s journey into newsprint, fiction and song.

Despite fascinating subject matter, it can be hard going. Flanders describes the crimes in a convoluted manner and refuses to take an authorial stand on how all her research connects and so the reader is often left with more questions than answers.

But it’s a fascinating insight into Victorian sensibilities and the emergence of crime as entertainment.

The flip side to the class nervousness that masked the activities of middle-class murderers like Constance Kent is the panic over working-class poisoners which leads an a innocent servant to hang in a case of food poisoning.

Then there’s the gender divide that means female murderers generate more column inches, yet frequently get off.

And the shocking revelation that child murder and the strangling of newborn babes by their unmarried mothers is considered a lesser crime. (In Mary Pearcey’s case – see below – she was never charged with the baby’s death.)

Flanders shows how certain anxieties were specific to the age. She reveals a criminal justice system where the defendant could be arrested, tried and hung within weeks, where forensics and pathology was laughably awful and miscarriages of justice were frequent in cases where poverty led to flimsy defences.

Yet I was struck that aside from the serial poisoner Mary Ann Cotton, who was possibly mentally ill, and the battered wife who killed her abusive husband, most killings were due to those age old motives; sex and money. Before easy divorces, wives and jilted fianc�es were despatched to make way for new relationships; children killed for burial club insurance money, and bodies snatched to sell for medical students to dissect.

The crimes may change but motives, it seems remain the same.

o Judith Flanders is at Chalk Farm Library in Sharpleshall Street, Primrose Hill, on Monday (February 7) at 6.30pm. The free event includes a talk and book signing.