Murder most foul can be a gift to future historians, revealing the lives of people who would otherwise be lost to history. Small consolation to the victims of course. My favorite book of the past year is an example of this serendipitous genre, The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold. I had no interest in reading another book about Jack the Ripper. Haven’t we had enough of the endless speculation about his identity and the gruesome details of his crimes? But rest assured this book rarely mentions his name and doesn’t recount the murders. Instead it tells the stories of the five women up to the moment each made a fateful turn down some dark Whitechapel alleyway and encountered their murderer.
The lives of Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine, and Mary-Jane reveal the tenuous conditions for poor women in a time when the whims of men and fickle fortune largely determined their status in life, and one mistake could plunge them into homelessness. Contrary to the stereotype, only one of the women was a prostitute, and she turned to that profession in a typical way, as a result of seduction and abandonment by an upper-class man. Alcoholism played a part in the downfall of several. One had achieved a middle class life in the shadow of Windsor Castle before losing it all to drink. But the sad details of her life, enduring the deaths of several of her children, explain why she succumbed to the numbing effects of alcohol.
It is remarkable how much detail Rubenhold found to flesh out the lives of these unfortunate women. Beginning with clues in the inquest reports and sensational newspaper coverage, where she found many false rumors and inaccuracies, she followed up with extensive research in the archives. She also brings context to their lives from her background as a social historian familiar with the experience of young girls from the countryside arriving in the big city, working as servants in upper and middle class homes, or arriving as immigrants. The result is an enthralling read that restores dignity to five women previously known only as mutilated bodies and stereotyped as fallen sinners perhaps deserving of their fate.
Kate Summerscale is another writer who has used sensational Victorian crimes as a window into a bygone world. In The Suspicions of Mister Whicher she recounts the shocking murder of a three year old boy. In June of 1860. Saville Kent was found murdered in the outhouse of his home in the English countryside. The investigation takes us inside the Kent household, a typical home of the new industrial middle class, but with a family history reminiscent of a Bronte novel. The patriarch Samuel Kent had married the governess after his wife went mad and died. Summerscale explores the relationship dynamics between family members and servants in a Victorian household, that in this family exploded into violence. Scotland Yard detective Jack Whicher, who inspired the character Bucket in Dickens’ Bleak House, soon deduces that the crime was an inside job but fails to find convincing evidence of his hunch. The case destroyed Whicher’s career but an unexpected confession later proved him correct about the identity of the culprit.
Sensational murders like the Kent case influenced the fiction of Dickens, Wilkie Collins, and other Victorian novelists. But could the opposite be true? Could the popularity of sensational crime stories, which new printing methods made cheaply available to all, inspire actual crimes?
That is the question that obsessed literary London in 1840. In Murder by the Book: The Crime that Shocked Dickens’s London Claire Harman takes us into the upper crust world of Lord William Russell and his valet Courvoisier. When Lord Russell was found with his throat cut, his valet was the obvious suspect. But he had an unusual defense. Courvoisier claimed to have been influenced by a popular book, Jack Sheppard by William Harrison Ainsworth, which recounted the exploits of a notorious 18th century criminal. Jack became a folk hero for his four escapes from prison but was eventually hanged at Tyburn. His life inspired many popular tales and plays, including John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera.
Unsurprisingly Courvoisier’s “novel” defense did not work. He was hanged outside Newgate Prison before a crowd of 40,000 spectators. Dickens and Thackeray, who were on opposite sides in the debate over the influence of true crime books, were among the crowd. Harman’s page-turning narrative of this notorious case takes us from the aristocratic world of Lord Russell to the living rooms of ordinary people partaking in the new craze for sensational crime fiction, and to the literary salons where writers and critics debated its influence. Even Queen Victoria had an opinion.
For more background on this theme here are two excellent books by historian Judith Flanders:
For true and fictional crime set in Victorian times, here are some book lists including both Victorian and contemporary writers: