Victorian Crime: Clive Emsley Argues That Nineteenth-Century Perceptions Owed More to Media-Generated Panic Than to Criminal Realities. (New Agendas)

Article excerpt

On the morning of Tuesday, 15 November 1892 Dr Thomas Neil Cream was executed in London's Newgate Prison. Cream was the kind of criminal who makes headlines and sells newspapers. He was a serial killer who had murdered seven women in England and North America. He was the kind of criminal who, by his actions, appeared both mad and evil; the kind of criminal that the general public want criminals to be -especially, once they have been caught and executed. Outside the prison crowds waited in a drizzle to see the black flag hoisted which was the signal that Cream had been executed. They cheered when it was raised: "Now `ee's a danglin'" was said to be the shout. Yet how typical was Cream of Victorian criminals? And how typical was that response?

Criminal statistics are notorious for their unreliability. How, for example, can we have statistics for perfect murders since, by definition, the perfect murder is never discovered. Yet if the statistics of Victorian crime can be taken as telling us (and the Victorians) anything, then the message was that homicide was not particularly serious, and that its incidence was declining from the middle of the century; in the 1860s the annual rate of homicides known to the police was 1.7 per 100,000 of the population, in the 1890s it was 1 per 100,000. Moreover, if we probe into the individual homicides in the criminal statistics, we find that a majority were committed within the family or amongst acquaintances. Serial killers, like Cream, appear to have been rare though, of course, when they did appear, the newspaper press exploited the horrors to the full, and readers lapped up the grisly details: the Ratcliffe Highway murders in December 1811; Mary Ann Cotton who was executed in Durham Gaol in March 1873 after allegedly murdering perhaps as many as twenty -- husbands, lovers, children and step-children; and, of course, Jack the Ripper in 1888.

Victorian perceptions

Jack the Ripper was perceived as a gentleman, slumming it in the London's East End and seeking victims to butcher amongst unfortunate prostitutes. Part of this perception may have come from the publication, in 1886, of Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in which the mild-mannered, respectable doctor experiments and is gradually taken over by his dark side -- Hyde's evil crimes were never precisely explained to the reader which, of course, permitted imaginations to run riot. But `criminals' were rarely perceived as coming from amongst gentlemen in either Victorian fiction or non-fiction. Charles Dickens drew a vivid portrait of a burglar and murderer with the character of Bill Sikes in Oliver Twist. `A stoutly-built fellow of about five-and-thirty, in a black velveteen coat, very soiled drab breeches, lace-up half boots, and grey cotton stockings, which inclosed a bulky pair of legs, with large swelling calves; -- the kind of legs, which in such costume always look in an unfinished and incomplete state without a set of fetters to garnish them. He had a brown hat on his head, and a dirty belcher handkerchief round his neck; with the long frayed ends of which he smeared the beer from his face as he spoke. He disclosed, when he had done so, a broad heavy countenance with a beard of three days' growth, and two scowling eyes; one of which displayed various parti-coloured symptoms of having been recently damaged by a blow.'

The journalists like Dickens, and others, who explored the criminal classes for the vicarious delight of respectable readers, commonly set this group amongst the poorer sections of the working class. Such people were described in terms as exotic as those employed in travel literature discussing African or American `savages'. Occasionally offences seemed to bear out the validity of such descriptions as when, for example, in the autumn of 1850 what appears to have been a gang of burglars murdered the vicar of Frimley -- a murder so shocking that it prompted the magistrates of the Surrey Quarter Sessions to establish a county police force under the `enabling legislation of 1839 and 1840. …