"More blood! Much more blood!" Lucy Worsley on Britons' fascination with murder

As Britain’s cities expanded in the early 19th century, so too did the nation’s obsession with murder. Lucy Worsley selects a series of objects that testify to Britons’ fascination with this most grisly of crimes – from the Regency to the Second World War...
 
This article was first published in the October 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine
Dorothy L Sayers pictured with Eric the Skull in 1939. (Getty Images)

Dorothy L Sayers pictured with Eric the Skull in 1939. (Getty Images) 

 

The editor’s instructions were clear. “More blood!” he demanded. “Much more blood!” Edward Lloyd was, after all, in the business of publishing ‘penny bloods’, a cheap and lurid form of fiction aimed primarily at a working-class readership. He and his authors were making money out of a new obsession with murder and crime that came to dominate the entertainment industry in the early 19th century. It’s an obsession that remains with us to this day, when detective stories and dead bodies dominate the TV schedules.

Why did the British become, in the words of the late Georgian writer Thomas De Quincey, a nation of “murder-fanciers”? It was a development linked to urbanisation, industrialisation and, indeed, everything that we might call ‘civilisation’. In the crowded cities of Regency Britain, people no longer knew their neighbours. Until this point, war, famine or disease had been their greatest fears – but now, community ties weakened, strangers represented danger. 

In 1811, one particularly horrific set of crimes proved a turning point. The slaughter of a family in the East End, shortly followed by a further triple killing, became known as the Ratcliffe Highway Murders. In the previous year, there had been only 15 convictions for murder in the whole of Britain. A new terror had entered modern life. 

The Ratcliffe Highway Murders inspired an essay, published in 1827 by the opium-addicted De Quincey, called On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts. He identified a new phenomenon: the consumption, even enjoyment, of murder. Hearing about or reading about a murder satisfied a ghoulish, slightly guilty appetite for tales of slaughter and suffering that people had now developed. 

This craze also took a physical form. Many a living room would have contained the often macabre, sometimes funny but always gruesomely intriguing products created by the murder industry. 

I’ve selected just a few of the objects that bear witness to a national obsession with the dark side of human nature…

 

A mug hailing a ‘gentlemanlike’ killer

This ceramic mug commemorates murderer John Thurtell who, in 1823, killed a friend during a dispute about money. Thurtell and his victim – William Weare, a fellow dodgy dealer – were denizens of a murky underworld known as ‘The Fancy’, inhabited by professional boxers, promoters and gamblers. The murderer and his somewhat inept accomplices killed Weare in Radlett, Hertfordshire, and threw his corpse into a pond. On discovering that the water was too shallow to hide the body, they pulled it out and tried another pond in Elstree. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Thurtell was easily caught. 

There’s a whiff of the 18th century about his career as a murderer. The public took to him because of his good humour and charisma. They also had a more positive image of violent crime than we might expect. In Georgian times, capital punishment was meted out for all sorts of crimes against property as well as for murder, so a captured criminal was often considered unlucky rather than evil – hence the Georgian public’s fondness for dashing highwaymen or a ‘gentlemanlike’ murderer such as Thurtell. Many of the crowd of 40,000 who gathered to watch him hang saw him as a heroic character rather than an evil one.

 

Marionettes depicting the ‘Red Barn Murder’

The ‘Red Barn’ in the sleepy village of Polstead, Suffolk, was the scene of a crime that became one of the most potent stories of the 19th century. In 1827 William Corder tricked his lover, Maria Marten, into believing that he would elope with her. Instead, he killed her and buried her beneath the floor of the barn. The ceramic depiction of the crime scene pictured below shows William beckoning his victim into the barn. Probably produced in 1828, it became a popular ornament. Though meaningless to those unfamiliar with the story, this item, placed on your mantelpiece, would certainly provide a talking point. 

The real-life events of the ‘Red Barn Murder’ were very quickly translated into ballads and broadsides, and inspired melodramas staged in the London theatres. Even country folk could enjoy the story in the form of a travelling puppet show. Performed with the utmost seriousness, these puppet performances were shocking and tragic. 

The marionettes of Maria and her murderer shown here belonged to a company that toured East Anglia. They demonstrate how the protagonists conform to the stock characters of melodrama, with its black-and-white tales of passion and revenge. Maria has been turned into a rosy-cheeked virginal maid in white (she had in fact borne three children), while William Corder sports a villainous moustache. 

 

A middle-class poisoner’s medicine chest

In the 1840s and 1850s the British began to suffer from a new fear of being poisoned. The growing industry of life insurance meant that the relatives of middle-class people now had a pecuniary motive for bumping them off. Dr William Palmer of Staffordshire (hanged 1856), whose medicine chest this reputedly is, was the classic murderer for this newly paranoid age. 

A physician who got into debt, he took out various life insurance policies and poisoned several friends and relatives for their money and to benefit from insurance pay-outs. He was particularly frightening to the middle classes, because it now seemed that a murderer might penetrate even a respectable drawing room. 

 

A ‘murder dossier’ that’s short on derring-do

The First World War transformed crime fiction. Late Victorian and Edwardian readers had loved an active, gallant, patriotic detective. In one story, for example, Sherlock Holmes uncovers a German spy, and has no hesitation in using a gun. However, after four traumatic years of war, tales of violent derring-do felt out of place in a nation where, it seemed, nearly every home had lost a son. Detective writers erased the violence from their stories, and turned detection into a peaceful, genteel affair that was rather like solving a crossword puzzle. 

Indeed, in the interwar period, murder came to be reconceived as a game. ‘Murder dossiers’ came with clues such as a bloodstained piece of wallpaper, crime scene photos or a matchstick. The solution was provided in a sealed envelope at the back. 

 

A novel charting the exploits of a racy ‘Lady Detective’

Working-class people of the 19th century had a taste for blood in their broadsides and ballads, and writers such as Charles Dickens (Bleak House, The Mystery of Edwin Drood) made stories of crime and detection respectable for middle-class readers, too. A new wellspring of fiction was created in 1842 with the founding of the Detective Branch of the Metropolitan Police Force, but the private detective business remained in good health. 

A fresh novelty arrived in the 1860s: a rash of novels about female private eyes, including Revelations of a Lady Detective by WS Hayward, published in 1864. The cover art suggests that our heroine is rather ‘fast’ – she is revealing an ankle, and unafraid to be seen smoking in public. But the ‘Lady Detective’ is also admirably free-spirited. At one point, while chasing a villain, she finds it necessary to drop down through a hatch into a cellar. Her fashionable crinoline won’t fit through the hole, so she simply takes it off and abandons it. It’s a wonderful moment of female emancipation: freed from the “obnoxious garment”, as she calls it, she is able to get on with her work. 

 

Eric the Skull, ghoulish creation of the Detection Club 

About one-eighth of all books published in 1934 were detective novels. It was big business, and the most successful of the authors behind this literary crime wave were women, who excelled at the social observation, the intricate plotting and introducing the large numbers of female characters readers now demanded. 

Dorothy L Sayers was the best of these, combining humour and insight into the female condition with crime-solving. She was among the founders of the Detection Club in around 1930, a mutual admiration society for detective novelists. The club developed its own arcane initiation ritual that involved swearing an oath upon Eric the Skull, his eye sockets illuminated with red bulbs. Aspirant members had to promise in their novels “to observe a seemly moderation in the use of Gangs, Conspiracies, Death-Rays, Ghosts, Hypnotism, Trap-Doors, Chinamen, Super-Criminals and Lunatics, and utterly and forever to forswear Mysterious Poisons unknown to Science”. 

It was all very cosy and enjoyable but eventually interwar detective fiction began to seem a little sterile and repetitive. “Snobbery with violence” was Alan Bennett’s disparaging assessment of the narrow world of the 1930s detective story, where murderous vicars, retired colonels and dowager duchesses abounded, and where the Great Depression and the rise of fascism made no impact. The late 1930s saw a new, morally ambivalent and more violent strand of British crime fiction arrive from America. The works of writers such as Graham Greene edged towards the style of the detective story’s modern successor, the thriller – and something of the ‘fun’ went out of murder. 

 
Lucy Worsley is a historian and presenter. She is joint chief curator at Historic Royal Palaces. 
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