How We Fell in Love with Murder

Originally published in The Lady · 15 May 2015

Everybody loves a good inventive Victorian murder. A cobbled alley, top hats, capes and walking sticks, dismembered corpses, body parts bubbling on the stove, the kind of spooky goings-on we have come to expect from TV dramas such as Penny Dreadful or Ripper Street. The combination of gory details and historical distance is the key. As Judith Flanders writes in her book The Invention Of Murder, you don’t personally want to come home and find bits of your sweetheart bobbing in the tea urn, but to read about someone else’s sweetheart bubbling away simultaneously creates a thrill of fear and reinforces a sense of safety.

Flanders says the feeling of reading about such horrors is paradoxically cosy: ‘It is like hearing blustery rain on the windowpane when sitting indoors.’

It might be tempting to see this idea of the cosy, reassuring murder story as a modern preoccupation, but in 1827, 10 years before Queen Victoria came to the throne, Thomas De Quincey published a wickedly satirical essay, ‘On Murder Considered As One Of The Fine Arts’, in which he was the first mischievously to point out the fatal combination of the disturbing and the seductive that so draws us to a good elaborate murder. It was De Quincey who came up with that very modern-seeming image of the body in the tea urn.

The next two decades saw the rise of a Victorian appetite for sensation and murder, and the notion of the picturesque gory murder. Descriptions of Victorian homicides turned an even then relatively rare crime into an enormously popular and lurid theatrical event. It’s an appetite we still have to this day: everything from Morse and Lewis to Midsomer Murders (and my own new book, The Infidel Stain, set, not by accident, a few years into Victoria’s reign) draws on a well that the Victorians would have recognised straight away.

There had been grisly accounts of murders before the Victorians. The Ratcliffe Highway Murders of 1811 (which inspired De Quincey) spawned a slew of grubby pamphlets and broadsides. But the first prince of ‘true crime’ was James Catnach who, around the same time de Quincey wrote his essay, set up a stable of hack writers known as Seven Bards of the Seven Dials. (This now fashionable area of Covent Garden, close to the offices of The Lady, was then a grim part of London; a reputation that stood for over a century, when Agatha Christie called her ninth novel The Seven Dials Mystery in 1929.)

For the next 20-odd years the Bards’ stock-in-trade were alleged ‘true stories’ of rapes, blackmails and violent deaths, especially public executions, published as one-page broadsides at ½d a pop. Stories involving death always sold best. If there weren’t enough deaths, Catnach would make them up. When a London theatre collapsed, killing 15 people, his list of casualties grew day by day until the death toll exceeded 100.

‘Then’, one of his street-sellers said, ‘we killed all sorts of people, Duke of Wellington, and all the Dukes and Duchesses…’

In the 1860s came the penny dreadfuls (aka penny horribles, penny bloods, or blood and thunders). They were cheap paper-covered booklets with a gory woodcut on the front, and their stories were all gothic horror, supernatural events and violent murders. From these stories enduring urban myths emerged: ‘The String Of Pearls’ introduced Sweeney Todd, Fleet Street’s demon barber, to the world, with his neck-slitting razor and Mrs Lovett’s meat pies. Fifty years before Bram Stoker wrote Dracula, the multi-part Varney The Vampire (aka Feast Of Blood) invented much of the vampire myth – the fangs, the bite marks in the neck, hypnotic powers and those hints of sympathy for the vampire’s predicament.

What made these publications both possible and popular were great reductions in the costs of paper and printing brought about by the age of steam, and rising literacy rates and an appetite for reading in Britain. By 1839 literacy of the male population in England and Wales varied between 52 per cent to 88 per cent and many children were getting some kind of literacy teaching. To give an example: in 1812 on the publication of his first book, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Lord Byron had written ‘I awoke one morning and found myself famous.’ The first edition sold out in three days: a runaway bestseller. In 1836, Charles Dickens’s first novel, The Pickwick Papers, was published in instalments in a magazine, the last instalment of which sold about 40,000 copies. Of course, no one else sold like Dickens, who had himself worked as a parliamentary reporter, subsequently joining The Morning Chronicle as a reporter.

Fearful of unrest after the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, the British government attempted to discourage the working class from reading by making newspapers in particular too expensive, by increasing stamp duty on paper to 4d a copy. Radical campaigners fought the tax, calling it a ‘tax on knowledge’ and often serving long prison sentences for publishing without it. By the mid-1830s the six most popular unstamped newspapers were collectively selling 200,000 per week, which was more copies per day than The Times sold in one week. Campaigners had their first success in 1836 when the duty was thus reduced to 1d.

The beneficiary of these advances was the mass-market weekly, the first of which was Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, set up in 1842 by Edward Lloyd. An enterprising man, Lloyd had taught himself printing and had made a living plagiarising Dickens (The Post-Humorous Notes Of The Pickwickian Club and Memoirs Of Nickelas Nicklebery). He had also virtually invented the penny dreadful in 1835 – The Calendar Of Horrors was one of the first, and he was famous for making his publications as lurid as possible: ‘more blood,’ he would demand, ‘much more blood!’

He knew exactly what his audience wanted: ‘cheap and sensational’ coverage with all the gory details. Murders: a small boy beaten to death by his stepfather, calling out piteously to his mother as he is killed. Horrible deaths: a man ‘roasted to death’ in a house fire. Stories of cannibalism: the guilty man ‘averred that he had indeed acquired a taste for human flesh that could not be satiated’.

Some of the stories were true, some were not. Actual news often took up as little as 20 per cent of the editorial space, while a good half of it went to stories of death and crime. Soon, Lloyd’s Weekly was selling tens of thousands of copies per week.

Lloyd’s successful publication was followed by a slew of copy cats: The Illustrated London News, The Weekly Police Gazette, The News Of The World. His second foray into weekly papers, Lloyd’s Penny Sunday Times, did not even need to pay the 1d stamps, because it didn’t have any actual news in it. Instead it featured serial stories, such as The Waltz Of Death. Crime stories of all sorts have been enormously popular ever since. This is the birth of our appetite for crime fiction, and for crime non-fiction, and also for the blurry, unrespectable, but still fascinating place where fact and fiction overlap.