Deadly Encounters: Two Victorian Sensations

Deadly Encounters: Two Victorian Sensations

Deadly Encounters: Two Victorian Sensations

Deadly Encounters: Two Victorian Sensations


In July 1861 London newspapers excitedly reported two violent crimes, both the stuff of sensational fiction. One involved a retired army major, his beautiful mistress and her illegitimate child, blackmail and murder. In the other, a French nobleman was accused of trying to kill his son in order to claim the young man's inheritance. The press covered both cases with thoroughness and enthusiasm, narrating events in a style worthy of a popular novelist, and including lengthy passages of testimony. Not only did they report rumor as well as what seemed to be fact, they speculated about the credibility of witnesses, assessed character, and decided guilt. The public was enthralled.

Richard D. Altick demonstrates that these two cases, as they were presented in the British press, set the tone for the Victorian "age of sensation." The fascination with crime, passion, and suspense has a long history, but it was in the 1860s that this fascination became the vogue in England. Altick shows that these crimes provided literary prototypes and authenticated extraordinary passion and incident in fiction with the "shock of actuality." While most sensational melodramas and novels were by lesser writers, authors of the stature of Dickens, Thackeray, George Eliot, Trollope, Hardy, and Wilkie Collins were also influenced by the spirit of the age and incorporated sensational elements in their work.

Richard D. Altick is Regents Professor of English, Emeritus, at Ohio State University. He is the author of many other books, among them Victorian Studies in Scarlet; Victorian People and Ideas; The Shows of London, A Panoramic History, 1600-1862; and Paintings from Books: Art and Literature in Britain 1760-1900.


In this double-feature account of the mysterious and bloody indoor battle in Northumberland Street and Baron de Vidil’s unexplained assault on his son in a Twickenham lane, I have invented no detail, however insignificant. Any deviation from the strict truth may be laid to the momentary inaccuracy or imaginative indulgence found in the day-by-day newspaper reportage on which my narrative is wholly based, thanks to the resources of that splendid institution for the preservation of the historic moment, the British Library’s Newspaper Library at Colindale.

As for the issues left unresolved-exactly what was Mrs. Murray’s relationship with William Roberts? just what, if anything, did young Vidil know about his father that he was so anxious not to divulge to the court, and conversely, what damaging statements might his father have made about him if he had been allowed to testify?-the reader has before him all the evidence that, so far as I know, was on the public record in 1861, and his guesses are as good as mine.

R. D. A.

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