English social historian Judith Flanders is on the case of famous and obscure murders in “The Invention of Murder,”a fascinating story of crime and punishment in Victorian England. Her book is about how murder was “invented” by the Victorians. For most of the 19th century, until the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, the English were fascinated with what Thomas de Quincey called “a copious effusion of blood.”
In fact, de Quincey titled one essay, “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.” How this blood-lust desire was transformed over the 19th century, and how it transformed the century itself in England, is the subject of Judith Flanders’ book.
One might not think that the English would be any different from other cultures on this subject, but Flanders makes a compelling case that a large portion of the English public seemed to salivate over the prospect of anyone but themselves being steeped o’er in blood.
Flanders describes how cold-blooded killings were transformed into novels, broadsides, ballads, opera and melodrama – even into “puppet shows and performing dog acts.”
In turn, this profusion of interest in the macabre bred a new detective fiction along with the founding of Scotland Yard and even Charles Dickens’ character, Inspector Bucket. This detective led to, who else, Sherlock Holmes – and as our author reminds us, of today’s successors – P.D. James and Patricia Cornwell.
Many Victorians got their jollies by reading detailed accounts of such crimes in broadsides that would be printed immediately after murders by Sweeney Todd or Jack the Ripper. They delighted too in an earlier murder, one committed on the night of Dec. 7, 1811, in which Timothy Marr, his wife, their baby and his 14-year-old apprentice were all found “brutally murdered in their shop on the Rathcliffe Highway in the East End of London … Blood was everywhere … On the counter lay an iron ripping chisel, in the kitchen, covered with blood and hair, was a ship’s carpenter’s peen maul, a hammer with sharpened ends.”
Then there was Greenacre, who transported his dismembered fiancée around town in an omnibus. Get the idea?
The lurid title of the book is contrary to the relative rarity of murder in 19th century England. In fact, “In all of England and Wales in 1810, just 15 people were convicted of murder out of a population of nearly ten million: 0.15 per 100,000 people.” (In the United States in 2007-08, by comparison, the homicide rate was 2.76 per 100,000 people.”) “ … By 1827, only murder, attempted murder, high treason, wrecking, rape, piracy, arson on inhabited premises and ‘unnatural offences’ continued to be punishable by death.”
Flanders, who has written well-respected earlier books that include “A Circle of Sisters” and “Inside the Victorian Home,” is a font of information about Victoriana. Her new book is concisely laid out with chapters that include imagining murder, trial by newspaper, entertaining murder, policing murder, panic, middle-class poisoners, science, technology and the law, violence and finally – sigh – modernity. Her notes to the various chapters comprise almost 100 pages of interesting information about Victorian England.
In addition, her clear reportorial style, similar to a later Dickens, in recounting the various murders and clues that led to the solving of cases will be a great boon for crime novel readers.
Here’s a quiz for you from the book: Who was the only prime minister murdered? Answer: Spencer Perceval (1762–1812). How many attempts at assassination did Queen Victoria suffer? Believe it or not, seven.
These juicy tidbits are mentioned briefly, perhaps crimes later to be expatiated and included in a work yet to come.
Michael D. Langan was senior adviser to the undersecretary of enforcement at the U.S. Treasury. He worked on occasion with English counterparts on transnational crime cases.
The Invention of Murder: How The Victorians Revelled In Death And Detection And Created Modern Crime
By Judith Flanders
Thomas Dunne Books
556 pages, $26.99