The Victorians’ grisly fascination with murder

Clive Bloom lifts the lid on the Victorians’ grisly fascination with murder – from the case of the constable-killer who believed he was Christ to the ruthless conman who drowned his wives in the bath...

This article was first published in the February 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine

Kent’s pirate king dies a hero

During the 18th century, one sure-fire way of garnering the acclaim of your fellow countrymen – and, if you were lucky, earning a fast buck – was to carve out for yourself a career in crime.

The Georgian public widely hailed those who chose to live outside of the law – smugglers and highwaymen among them – as popular heroes. And if these rebels could create merry hell for the authorities while they were going about their illicit business, then all the better.

By the time Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837, attitudes to crime were hardening. Yet some lawbreakers were still able to win a place in the public’s affections – and perhaps nowhere is this better illustrated than in the career of ‘Sir William Percy Honeywood Courtenay’.

Courtenay’s real name was plain John Nichols Thom from Truro, but by the time he arrived in Canterbury in 1832 he had awarded himself a knighthood and changed his name. Having tried – and failed – to win a seat in parliament, Courtenay could soon be seen around town sporting a velvet suit and hat reminiscent of a pirate king, with a scimitar strapped to his waist which he called ‘Excalibur’. By this time he was certainly suffering delusional episodes and voluntarily entered an asylum.

Shortly after regaining his freedom, Courtenay fell into the belief that he was Christ returned to Earth. Local villagers believed him too and he was soon leading a local rebellion for ‘liberty’. In May 1838 Courtenay shot dead a constable and, when Lieutenant Henry Bennett arrived on the scene leading a detachment of soldiers, Courtenay dispatched him too (making Bennett the first Victorian soldier to be killed in combat). Courtenay was also killed in the shoot-out, and so died Britain’s last true rural outlaw, a hero despite his murderous career. His followers waited three days for his resurrection.

 

A fatal brush with flypaper

By the middle of the 19th century, the public had, for the most part, stopped swooning at wild, reckless outlaws like John Nichols Thom and turned their attentions – with prurient, horrified fascination – to murder in the privacy of the suburban villa. The killings had to be deliberate and cold-blooded, the perpetrators calculating monsters. And for many men, women fitted the bill perfectly. Wives were no longer the ‘Angels of the Hearth’ but potential demons of domestic hell intent on poisoning their husbands and families.

Such was the case with Madeleine Smith, the Glaswegian daughter of a wealthy architect. Smith began an affair with Pierre L’Angelier at the same time as her family found her a suitable husband in William Minnoch. Furious, L’Angelier threatened blackmail if Smith didn’t marry him, but before he could carry out his threat he was dead from an overdose of arsenic. Once the lovers’ letters were found, Smith was arrested. The letters were, however, poorly catalogued by the police and did not prove murder, so Smith walked free.

Florence Chandler, an American born to a wealthy family in Mobile, Alabama, wasn’t so lucky. She married James Maybrick, a Liverpool merchant and hypochondriac who took arsenic to cure imagined ills. He also happened to be 23 years her senior.

Illustration by Ben Jones.

The Maybricks soon found themselves being invited to the best parties, but it wasn’t long before their unconventional relationship was catching up with them: Mrs Maybrick’s infidelities were soon causing tongues to wag, while Mr Maybrick’s secret life – he had fathered five illegitimate children by different women – also proved a rich source of gossip.

In April 1889, Florence bought flypaper infused with arsenic and soaked it to decant the poison for cosmetic use. Then, on 27 April, James apparently took a massive dose of strychnine and fell ill. James’s brother soon became suspicious and held Florence captive in her house while he ‘investigated’ a note sent to her lover, Alfred Brierley.

On 11 May Maybrick died and a pathologist’s report showed traces of arsenic in his stomach. Florence was finally charged and sent to trial. She was convicted of murder, but without any real proof. The sentence was therefore commuted to life imprisonment for ‘intent to murder’ and Florence was released only in 1904, dying penniless and forgotten on 23 October 1941.

 

A one-way ticket to disaster

By the late 19th century, the Victorians were becoming ever more fearful of the terrors that lurked below the surface of polite society. Yet if crime fuelled the fear then the appearance of one of the great fictional detectives went some way, at least, to soothing it. Sherlock Holmes made his debut in ‘A Study in Scarlet’ in Beeton’s Christmas Annual. The tale addressed the twin issues of lawlessness and societal disintegration – and it’s probably no coincidence that it was published in 1887, the same year as the Bloody Sunday riot in Trafalgar Square (in which 75 people were badly injured in clashes between demonstrators and police), seen by many as a portent of revolution.

Yet, as Holmes’s many high-speed adventures aboard trains prove, if social decay was widely regarded as the backdrop for the late Victorian crime wave, then the rise of the railways provided a murderous new platform on which these crimes could be carried out. Trains had transformed Britain over the past half-century but, by the time Holmes was bringing master-criminals to book, they were regarded as so dangerous that women would put pins in their mouths while travelling through tunnels to avoid amorous advances.

These fears were seemingly confirmed on 9 July 1864 with the discovery of the body of Thomas Briggs, who had been killed while commuting from Fenchurch Street station to Chalk Farm – and in doing so, earned himself the dubious distinction of being the first person to be murdered on Britain’s railways.

Illustration by Ben Jones.

The scent soon led to a German called Franz Muller, who had tried to sell a watch and chain stolen from the unfortunate Briggs at a jeweller’s and had evaded the police by fleeing to New York. Muller’s escape was only temporary, though, for Scotland Yard detectives had travelled on a trans-Atlantic steamer and beaten the murderer to his refuge.

Arrested and tried, Muller was hanged on 14 November 1864 in front of 50,000 spectators, despite the kaiser asking for clemency. Unsurprisingly, the case threw the spotlight on passenger safety and led to the installation aboard trains of corridors and spy holes called ‘Muller’s Lights’.

 

The dark tale of the baby farmer

There was never enough real evidence to make a waterproof case against Smith or Maybrick (see p52), just the scandal of ruined woman. There was proof enough, however, against Amelia Dyer, a ‘baby farmer’ who would become the century’s most notorious serial killer.

Dyer had begun her working life as a nurse, but had fallen in with a murderess midwife and switched to a more lucrative career. She was soon acting as a carer for illegitimate children, dosing her wards, or ‘nurse children’, with opium or letting them starve to death. Bored with waiting for the children to die, Dyer soon took to murdering them as soon as they were in her ‘care’.

During her life, Dyer was committed to asylums, convicted of neglect and addicted to drink and drugs – yet it took 20 years for the spotlight of suspicion to fall on her for being a baby killer. Her downfall came when a child’s body was retrieved from the Thames with an address and label for a ‘Mrs Thomas’. The label led the authorities to her door, but it was only after a police raid that it was revealed that Mrs Thomas was not only Dyer, but that she had murdered several children in the previous month alone.

Arrested on 4 April 1896, Dyer’s grisly two-decade career came to an end when she was hanged on 10 June 1896 for the murder of between 200 and 400 children. She had pocketed the money and simply moved on under the protective smokescreen of public attitudes, which stigmatised illegitimacy, and the law, which ignored the responsibility of fathers.

 

Brought to book by a bar of soap

By the Edwardian period, the forensic scientist had taken his seat alongside the detective at the top table of the public’s affections. And nowhere did this new hero display his glittering skills more spectacularly than in the case of the Brides in the Bath Murders.

In 1915, Sherlock Holmes’s creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, had gained special entry to the trial of George Smith, where he bore witness to the last music-hall gasp of Victorian villainy. Smith was a man in constant need of money. He was sufficiently plausible to trick older women into becoming his wives, spending all their life savings and getting them to sign life insurance policies to pay for his fictitious antique and picture restoring businesses.

Between 1908 and 1914, Smith contracted seven bigamous marriages. When he was finally apprehended he had also dispatched three of his wives. Each one had been bought a ‘luxurious’ new bath and each had perished by throwing a fit and allegedly drowning. Smith had simply returned the bath to the ironmonger and disappeared with the money. A series of coincidences backed by the suspicions of some of Smith’s landlords and detectives ultimately led to his apprehension.     

Illustration by Ben Jones.

Doyle had already seen the forensic pathologist Bernard Spilsbury in action, employing his deductive skill to send the infamous wife-killer Hawley Harvey Crippen to the gallows. Doyle was further able to marvel at the evidence given by the pathologist regarding the experiment by which he had proved how Smith had killed his victims by pulling them under the bath water. Spilsbury’s diagnosis and the solution to the case had revolved around signs of ‘goose skin’ (goose bumps) on the thigh of Bessie Mundy whom Smith had drowned in lodgings in Herne Bay.

She also had an unnatural grip on a bar of soap. The case broke new ground. It was possibly the first time that police detection in a case of multiple murders and forensic investigation had combined to provide a conviction.

The forensic science and leaps of imaginative deduction that Spilsbury employed seemed to turn Holmes’s fictional dabbling in blood types and cigar ash into an exact science of logical deductions from which criminals could no longer escape justice. Like Holmes, Spilsbury could be both dogmatic and bullying, but he was still popularly nicknamed the ‘real Sherlock Holmes’ for his supposedly infallible methods.

Clive Bloom is emeritus professor of English and American studies at Middlesex University. His books include Victoria’s Madmen: Revolution and Alienation (Palgrave, 2013). Find out more at clivebloom.com

On 25 February 2017, BBC History Magazine will be returning to Bristol's M Shed for a day of talks exploring the Victorian period. To find out more about our Victorian Day, and to buy tickets, click here.

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