Flanders trawls through the famous and not-so-famous murders of the 1800s and shows how they provided fodder for the broadsheet and newspaper business, and for the writers of melodramas and novels. We discover that the hunger for a story led journalists then as well as now to downright lies, inventions and deceit. The Times especially never let truth stand in the way of a good story.
She shows how playwrights and novelists embroidered real details of sordid crimes into their work. She introduced me to a vast array of melodramas I had never heard of before. She shows how Dracula, written two years after Jack the Ripper, incorporates many elements of the Ripper crimes into the text. She traces the antecedents of Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White and The Moonstone and of Inspector Bucket in Dickens' Bleak House. This aspect of the book reminded me of James Shapiro's 1599 which similarly showed how events surrounding Shakespeare in 1599 provided the material for the plays he wrote in that year. What impressed me was how thin a line there is between cheap sensationalist fiction and works of art. Dickens (who loved a good murder) frequently crosses the border into melodrama. Perhaps the difference is simply in the quality of his prose, as revealed to me in The Haunted House where the stories contributed by Dickens, Collins and Mrs Gaskell are simply better written than those contributed by the other, now less well-known, writers. Quality tells in the end.
She is also remorseless in her evidence that the lower classes received a much lower standard of justice than the upper classes: judges were biased against the poor, they could not afford counsel (and in many trials they only ever got to speak in their own defence because there were not defence witnesses), and all-male, all-bourgeois jurors equated respectable prosperity with honesty. Most killers were desperate. "Helen Blackwood, a Glasgow prostitute, shared a room measuring eight feet by six feet four inches with her lover, two other prostitutes who stayed there intermittently and two homeless boys, aged nine and eleven, whom she let sleep under her bed. This was reality."
There are moments when laws were changed. She shows how the mass spectacle of public execution became abhorrent to many (especially since so many murderers were pathetic rather than evil and especially since so many hangmen were incompetent) and changed to 'private' executions inside the prison (which then hoisted a black flag). And there is the wonderful moment when Thornton, having been acquitted of murdering the woman he had sex with and having the charge of rape dropped (because the complainant is dead) is rearrested for 'appeal of murder' which was a type of private prosecution brought by the bereaved family. "When called upon to answer, whether guilty or not guilty, Thornton .... took a pair of gauntlets, put one on, throwing the other on the floor" thus challenging the complainant [who was only a boy] to Trial by Battle. He got off the third trial and emigrated to America, leading a blameless life thereafter.
There are moments of humour. One murderer called Palmer was known as the 'Rugeley Poisoner'. The good people of Rugeley applied to the Prime Minister to change the name of their town; he agreed on condition that they named it after himself, Palmerston.
It is a rollicking good read but it is made even more special by her deliciously dry sense of humour shown in numerous asides of which these are but a few:
- "Wills had a knack for turning theatrical fiction into untheatrical theatre: his adaptation of Jane Eyre drops the novel's dramatically interrupted wedding scene; instead, Jane is informed of Rochester's previous marriage in a letter."
- "... a plot so confusing there is no real resolution because, I strongly suspect, the author could not quite work out what had happened and understandably did not want to read it over again."
- "... a notorious Secret Intelligence Office .... is so secret that the office has a brass plaque on the door: 'Secret Agent' it reads."
- A story has a swallowed suicide note discovered at post-mortem: "This may trump Paul Ferroll's confession left in his wife's grace for 'least likely place to leave a confession'."
- In another melodrama a female detective indulges "in that passion of all stage detectives, disguise, appearing as a nurse, a man and an Irish lad, as well as changing her frock (which fools everyone)."
- "The Daily News merely reported Martha Tabram's death as a 'supposed murder in Whitechapel' - which since the woman had been stabbed more than three dozen times seems to stretch the meaning of the word 'supposed' past breaking point."
- "The Times solemnly reported that the police were taking 'extra precautions': if they heard 'any cry of distress, such as 'Help', 'Murder' or 'Police', they are to hasten to the spot at once'. "What, one wonders, had their instructions been before?)
A fantastic book.
February 2012; 466 pages