Judith Flanders, a British journalist and history writer specializing in Victorian times, has written an entertaining and exhaustive book showing how the Victorian fascination with murder grew and forced improvements in policing. In addition, it resulted in the evolution of the detective novel. Flanders begins this discussion with the interest in a few major crimes from before the Victorian era, explaining how public response changed during the Victorian age.
One theme of the book is class. Flanders effectively shows that the public interest in murder was for crimes that involved the middle or upper classes, with a tendency of the newspapers and popular songs and legends to elevate in class the murderers who were from the lower classes. Newspapers flagrantly made up “facts” about accused murderers that sensationalized their backgrounds or their crimes, including changing their social class. Even as late as the Jack the Ripper murders, interest was probably only taken by the public (since the victims were lower-class prostitutes) because of the number and viciousness of the crimes.
Flanders tells us about a series of panics that took place as a result of a growing audience for this kind of subject matter. Once a tax was removed from newspapers in 1855 that had kept the price high enough to restrict their circulation to the middle and upper classes (although the poor shared newspapers or picked them up in coffee houses), circulation greatly expanded and the papers found a new audience for sensationalism.
Even though there had only ever been a very few cases of murder by poisoning, in the early and mid-nineteenth century a poisoning panic resulted from a highly publicized murder case. In the ensuing rash of accusations, people were brought to “justice” when there was no actual proof that anyone had been poisoned let alone any proof that the accused was guilty of any wrongdoing. Unqualified persons were allowed to testify on the “scientific” evidence, including one Alfred Swaine Taylor, who for years testified to the presence of arsenic using a test that actually introduced arsenic into the sample through copper gauze. Even worse, the lower class “poisoners,” who usually had little or no legal representation, were invariably hanged, while the middle and upper class accused often got off completely or with lighter punishment, even if there was more real evidence against them.
Eventually, with improvements in the science of criminology and the rise of public indignation about some obvious miscarriages of justice, the police force was compelled to become more professional and the law to pass more stringent rules of evidence.
Frankly, our lurid interest in crime hasn’t changed, as shown by the prevalence of true crime shows on TV. A large part of the fascination and entertainment value of this history has to do with the details of the crimes as well as the plots of the many plays, novels, and penny dreadfuls that derived from them. Flanders has written an entertaining and lively history for anyone interested in true crime, the evolution of the mystery novel, or the history of advancements in criminology.