Friday, June 24, 2011

The Invention of Murder - Judith Flanders

I love a good murder. I don’t read contemporary true crime but I do enjoy historical true crime. Judith Flanders’s new book, The Invention of Murder is an exhaustive catalogue of 19th century murder. She concentrates on the way that murder was reported on & investigated during the 19th century. Victorian murder has been the focus of several books recently. Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher told the story of the murder of a young child at the Road Hill House in Kent. Kate Colquhoun’s Mr Briggs’s Hat is about the first murder committed on a train.

Judith Flanders begins in the early 19th century with the murders of Burke & Hare, the notorious resurrection men of Edinburgh. They began by supplying recently deceased bodies to doctors holding anatomy classes for medical students. They soon realised that they could make a lot of money by killing tramps & homeless people & selling their corpses rather than just digging up the graves in the churchyard. They were caught when one of their victims was recognised by the students & an investigation took place. William Burke was himself anatomized after his execution in an exquisite piece of poetic justice.

The reasons why one case of murder captured the public’s imagination, & not another, is difficult to work out. The murder of Maria Marten by her lover, William Corder, in the Red Barn in 1827 was one case that created an industry. Maria had two illegitimate children before she met Corder, who promised to marry her when she became pregnant with his child. Instead, he murdered her & buried her in her father’s barn. He pretended that they had run away together & sent letters & messages home to her father & stepmother to keep up the pretence. Her stepmother was said to have had a dream of Maria telling her of her murder & her body was soon discovered. Corder was arrested & executed. The case caused a sensation. Maria was portrayed as an innocent girl led astray by an unscrupulous man. Her children were conveniently airbrushed out of the picture.

...Victorian mores were some time in the future, and the broadsides do not deny her two illegitimate children, they just don’t think they mattered. In one, Miss Marten was of ‘docile disposition’, inculcated with ‘moral precepts’, and her behaviour aroused ‘the esteem and admiration of all’; her little missteps (the children) were caused entirely by a ‘playful and vivacious disposition’; although ‘her conduct cannot be justified, much might be said in palliation.’

Sermons were preached, ballads & broadsheets written & Staffordshire figures produced of Maria, Corder & the sinister Red Barn surrounded by flowers & contented pigs & chickens with Corder beckoning Maria inside. Corder was convicted by the Press before the trial even began. This is one of the themes of the book. Libel laws were practically non-existent & the speculation & descriptions of suspects even before they were charged were biased in the extreme. The wildest rumours were printed as established fact.

The other theme of the book is the rise of the detective force of the police. At the beginning of the century, there was no police force as we know it. Each parish employed watchmen but they were really there to prevent crime rather than investigate after the crime had been committed. Until mid-century, a householder, especially middle or upper class householders, could turn the police out of their homes & decide exactly where they were & were not permitted to search for evidence. The increasing professionalism of the police force, & especially the detective force, was vital in the pursuit of justice but the quality of legal representation was also critical. Some of the accused murderers in the book had pathetic representation or none at all. Trial by public opinion was often the result. Medical & forensic evidence was rudimentary at best & sometimes ludicrous. There were no recognised post-mortem procedures & tests for poison, for example, were often not available.

One of the saddest cases in the book was that of Eliza Fenning, a cook accused of poisoning her employers in 1815 during a period when there were several poison panics. The public became obsessed with fear of mob violence & class anxieties led to several servants being accused of violence towards their employers. Eliza was accused of poisoning dumplings eaten by five members of the Turner family. Despite the fact that there was no proof that poison had been administered & no one died, Eliza was convicted of attempted murder & executed. The Marsh test for detecting arsenic wasn’t available until 1836 but the lack of a reliable test didn’t stop the prosecution blaming arsenic. There was a public outcry after the trial but it didn't stop the sentence being carried out.

The courts had accepted statements from respectable (that is, middle-class) witnesses at face value, without questioning motives or sources of information, and the newspapers continued to do so. The Morning Chronicle thought that an employer should be believed by virtue of the fact that he was an emplyer. The Observer chose a more circular argument...'The ultimate fate of the criminal is the best proof that (her protestations of innocence have) no foundation in truth'- that is, Mrs Fenning was guilty because she had been found guilty.

Other cases examined in the book are those of Madeleine Smith, accused of poisoning her lower-class lover in Edinburgh. The verdict was Not Proven, a verdict only available in Scotland that meant she was not convicted but the jurors felt the evidence just wasn’t quite strong enough to find her guilty. Mary Ann Cotton was accused of poisoning many members of her family, including children, for financial benefit. She had bought policies from the burial clubs that working class people used so that they could pay for the funeral of their loved ones. The prosecution believed that the temptation to kill the children & collect on the policy had been too strong. Maria & Frederick Manning were convicted of murdering Maria’s lover & burying his body in quicklime under the hearth. Charles Dickens famously attended their public execution & wrote about his disgust in his campaign to end the gruesome public spectacle.

All the most famous murders of the 19th century are here & Flanders discusses the many manifestations of public interest, from ballads & plays to sensation fiction & Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors. One aspect that I found particularly interesting was the impact of class & sex on these stories. The class of the victim & the accused was vital in the level of interest shown by the public & often the verdicts handed down in court. Middle class Madeleine Smith gets away with a Not Proven verdict. Lower class Eliza Fenning is executed. Middle class victims like young Saville Kent, murdered at Road Hill House, are the object of sympathy & outrage. The prostitutes murdered by Jack the Ripper are treated with much less dignity by press & public alike. Sexual & class politics are evident in every case.

I’m not sure about the accuracy of the title, though. The invention of murder implies that there was no such thing before which is obviously untrue. Certainly the Industrial Revolution & the expansion of cities led to an increase in crimes committed by strangers against other strangers. The increasing randomness of crime certainly created public fear & sometimes hysteria. The subtitle is equally sensational – How the Victorians revelled in death and detection and created modern crime. The rise of literacy & cheap newspapers certainly meant that more people were able to read about these crimes & journalists did nothing to tone down their reports.

Newspapers took over from broadsheets & played into the fears of the public. Journalists, playwrights & novelists certainly profited from the fascination with crime, murder & detection & some of the greatest novels of the period – Bleak House, The Woman in White, The Moonstone & Mrs Audley’s Secret – were influenced by cases of the time. I’m just not sure what “modern crime” is. However, The Invention of Murder is a fascinating look at 19th century murder, detection & justice. I’d recommend it to anyone interested in Victorian life & literature.


  1. Just started reading this as part of my studies and have high hopes for it. Your review just confirmed them! I'll look forward to the rest of the book.

  2. Fascinating is right, a very good read.