At the risk of sounding like I have ice-water running through my veins, I have to say there are few things more delicious than a really good murder. Reading about it, that is. Or watching a program about it. A re-enactment, say, or a really good investigative documentary. After a hard day slogging through my social media feeds and watching the world crumble around me, there’s nothing I like more than curling up with a glass of wine and an amoral, psychopathic serial killer.
Now before you jump in to criticise, let me remind you that true-crime documentaries have mesmerized viewers during Covid. Hands up any of you who did not watch at least one of the following: Unsolved Mysteries; Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel; Making a Murderer; The Sons of Sam; Murder Among the Mormons; Night Stalker; American Murder: The Family Next Door; Sophie: A Murder in West Cork.
Right. That’s what I thought.
In April of last year, Parrot Analytics—a media-tracking company that measures audience demand – said that the documentary genre has become the fastest-growing segment of the streaming industry, with the number of series growing 63 percent between January 2018 and March 2021. And true crime is not only the biggest documentary subgenre, it’s growing faster than nearly any of the others.*
Now, the Victorians, as I’m sure you know, didn’t have Netflix. What they did have were broadsides – cheaper alternatives to newspapers – which sold on the street for a penny or less. These were single sheets, printed on one side, which reported sequentially on the crime, the arrest of the suspect(s), details of the magistrate’s court hearing, the trial, and finally a “last confession” (generally fabricated) with a description of the execution. Pubs and coffee houses posted these for customers to read while they drank; others were put up in shop windows and attracted crowds of street children.
If a murder was really popular, or had happened nearby, you could always attend the funeral of the victims or even, if you were lucky, explore the crime scene while the corpses were in situ, so to speak. Bodies had to be left where they were until the inquest jury had trooped through, allowing sightseers a chance to view the gore-spattered rooms where the killings had taken place. As the Pall Mall Gazette wrote in 1887, “Scratch John Bull and you find the ancient Briton who revels in blood, who loves to dip deep into a murder, and devours the details of a hanging.”
In The Invention of Murder, Judith Flanders examines the gruesome, gripping cases that captivated the Victorians and eventually led to the emergence of the detective novel. Subtitled How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime, the book was shortlisted for the Crime Writers’ Association’s Gold Dagger award in 2011. This is history written for the lay person – colourful, detailed, and eminently readable. As one reviewer puts it, The Invention of Murder is “full of gory details that are hard to forget, has an appropriate sense of overview, and is delivered in a tone that is at once seriously attentive and sympathetically appalled”.
Flanders begins by telling us that murder in pre-Victorian Britain was a pretty rare event. In 1810, just fifteen people were convicted of murder out of a population of ten million. But that was about to change. On the night of December 7 1811 twenty-four-year-old Timothy Marr, his wife, their baby, and a fourteen-year-old apprentice were found brutally murdered in their shop on the Ratcliffe Highway in London’s East End. Marr and the apprentice had been battered to death, Mrs. Marr lay dead a few feet away, and the baby was found upstairs in its cradle with its throat cut.
Then, twelve days later, it happened again. On December 19, a few hundred yards from where the Marrs had been killed, the owner of a pub, his wife and their servant were found with their heads beaten in and their throats cut. With no witnesses to either crime, the authorities struggled to find the culprit. Or culprits – a popular theory promoted by the newspapers at the time was that this was the work of “a gang of villains”. At one point seven men were arrested because their clothing bore red stains that looked like it might have been blood. It turned out they were hop-pickers and the stains were vine sap.
Suspicion finally rested on John Williams, a lodger at the Pear Tree Tavern. The evidence was circumstantial, to say the least: he had shaved off his whiskers for no apparent reason and he’d been seen washing his own stockings at the pump in the yard. Williams was arrested and on 27 December he committed suicide in his cell. This clinched it – his suicide was an outright confession. His body was paraded through the streets and brought to stand in front of his victims’ houses, watched by the local community.
In 1823 when John Thurtell, a sports promoter and failed cloth merchant, was arrested for murdering fellow gambler William Weare and dumping his body in a pond, the public was in a frenzy for information on the case and the newspapers were only too happy to provide it. Thurtell-mania took over the country. The Times printed a stream of vitriolic, and mostly unsubstantiated, stories about the accused and referred to Thurtell and the two men arrested with him as “the guilty culprits”. The Morning Chronicle referred to the three as “the murderers”, and the Bristol Mercury reported that an unnamed clergyman’s daughter, who had been “ravished” by the gang, had disappeared. “The worst is surmised,” it added hopefully.
All of this was before the trial even began. Melodramas were written about the case and Weare’s murder was vividly recalled in broadsides such as The Hertfordshire Tragedy: “Then pulling out his murderous knife,/As over him he stood,/He cut his throat, and, tiger-like,/Did drink his reeking blood.”
As the century wore on the salaciousness of the reporting, and the public appetite for it, increased. Forty years after the Ratcliffe Highway murders there were 20,000 unexplained or suspicious deaths and as the figures rose so did the policing and the means of detection. By the time of the Whitechapel killings near the end of the century, England had a police force, it had detectives, and murder had become a fine art involving melodrama, puppet shows, waxworks, and songs. As Flanders writes, “Detection – in fiction at any rate – made the world safe. The sleuth-hound would track down the murderers and bring them to justice; no longer would people have to look over their shoulders in fear.”
*Sayles, Justin. “The Bloody Bubble.” The Ringer, https://www.theringer.com/tv/2021/7/9/22567381/true-crime-documentaries-boom-bubble-netflix-hbo
Flanders, Judith. The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime. (2011) HarperPress.