Victorian crime: The sensational murders we still remember
The sensational murder stories in the Victorian era sold newspapers and crime fiction in a way that had never been seen before, stories which continue to fascinate us today.
On a summer's evening in July 1864, a banker named Thomas Briggs was attacked in the first class compartment of a Hackney-bound train. Blood was found in the carriage and a few hours later Briggs was found near the tracks, seriously injured. He died soon after from his injuries.
It was the first murder on a railway and the story shocked and intrigued the nation. The newspapers followed it in great detail. An editorial in The Daily Telegraph reported:
"As news of the murder spread a feverish fear emerged. It was said that no-one knew when they opened a carriage door that they might not find blood on the cushion, that not a parent would entrust his daughter to the train without a horrid anxiety. That not a traveller took his seat without feeling how he runs his chance."
Find out more
- Murder on the Victorian Railway explores the first murder on the railway
- Features first hand, dramatised testimonies of the people involved at the time
- Broadcast on BBC Two on Thursday 21 February at 21:00 GMT
Initially there was no suspect, but after a few weeks of thorough investigation by a determined inspector, all evidence pointed to a German immigrant called Franz Muller.
He became a wanted man and was tracked all the way to New York, arrested and brought to trial. He was found guilty and hanged in front of an audience in November 1864.
Stories like the railway murder gripped the nation. Public executions attracted thousands of eager spectators.
For the first time, mass-market newspapers were being created such as The Illustrated Police News which specialised in reporting on crime and criminals, using language and pictures that were far more lurid than that used in modern tabloids.
- The Newgate Calendar was a general title given to a number of popular publications of the late 18th and 19th centuries
- The books began as compilations of the broadsheets sold by peddlers at fairs and public executions
- These broadsheets fed public interest in the crimes, trials and punishments of notorious criminals
- Prisoners were held at Newgate prison before public execution at Tyburn (now the site of Marble Arch, London)
- Image above is from the Newgate Calendar. The caption on this image read: Catherine Hayes and her accomplices cutting off her husband's head
Source: The British Library
It used gory illustrations to illustrate the crimes and it famously printed post-mortem pictures of the Whitechapel murder victims, killed by the ever elusive Jack the Ripper.
With a captive audience already hungrily consuming murder stories, novelists were inspired to weave such stories into popular fiction, which emerged in the form of serialised pamphlets known as "penny dreadfuls".
The "tear jerking confession and repentance of the murder" were the most popular sections of any serialised story," says Kathryn Johnson, curator of the British Library's current season on crime fiction. "If a confession was included they sold even more quickly."
The creation of crime fiction
Crime fiction didn't really take off until the 19th Century when there were enough people who could read, and had enough money to allow themselves leisure time.
Victorian novels often came in several volumes. As printing became cheaper, and leisure time increased, 'penny dreadfuls' were pumped out cheaply and in bulk.
The spread of the railways meant that news of sensational crime could be broadcast much more rapidly.
All this combined with the establishment of police forces in a recognisable modern form created the ideal medium for the genre of crime and mystery writing to develop and flourish.
Kathryn Johnson - curator of Murder in the Library: An A-Z of Crime Fiction
"If murderers weren't so kind as to make their confessions public, the writers made them up," she says.
Sensational murder reports were not new to the Victorian age. But this was the first time that such stories became the basis for entertainment on a mass scale, says social historian Judith Flanders.
"The prototype of the all-knowing detective is a form we still recognise today. We still use the same storytelling formulas that were built in the 19th Century," adds Flanders.Enduring fascination
The nation followed these whodunits, real or fictitious, with fascination and today we revisit these stories in books and television dramas - such as The Suspicions of Mr Whicher and Ripper Street.
But why do the victims and villains of the Victorian period have such lasting interest?
Some of the murder stories from the Victorian age have a theatrical quality to them - which is perhaps a reason why they fascinate us still, says Dr Heather Shore from Leeds Metropolitan University, who specialises in the history of crime and poverty.
The fact that they occurred "over 100 years ago also gives them some distance and glamour," she suggests.
"Is it purely a great whodunit or is it something more voyeuristic? We can gaze at post-mortem pictures of the victims of the Whitechapel murders in a way we feel less uncomfortable about, than if it was a victim today."
And the Victorian obsession with crime had some positive aspects. A new policing system was created and the Victorian age saw crime fall.
And it was not just sensationalism which made the stories sell, says David Taylor, emeritus professor of history at the University of Huddersfield.
"They appeal because they are moral stories as well. Particularly where you have a very clear difference between good and bad."