One of the many problems that one encounters when studying Victorian crime and criminals objectively, is the sheer omnipresence of Jack the Ripper in the genre.
Indeed, so famous and pervasive have the Whitechapel Murders remained – and such is the volume of the annual word count on the case – that you might be forgiven for believing that Jack the Ripper was the only criminal to terrorise Victorian Britain.
It is safe to say that the names of Sir Charles Warren, Sir Robert Anderson, Inspector Frederick George Abberline, Chief Inspector Donald Sutherland Swanson and Sir Melville Macnaghten would have been long ago forgotten were it not for their involvement in the hunt for a man whose name we will, probably, never know for certain.
Indeed, it is almost a travesty that, despite their considerable achievements and successes in a plethora of fields, these aforementioned police officials are only really remembered for the major failure of their collective careers – their inability to catch Jack the Ripper!
Likewise, begin researching Victorian crime and it isn’t long before the mythical form of the riper comes barging onto the page and begins elbowing other 19th century criminals out of the way with the sheer bulk of written material there is on him.
THE A TO Z OF VICTORIAN CRIME
So, it is almost refreshing to see the appearance of a new book – written by Neil Bell, Trevor Bond, Kate Clarke and M. W. Oldridge – that puts Jack the Ripper firmly in his place by devoting a mere 3 and a bit something pages, out of a total of 320, to his reign of terror.
That book is The A – Z of Victorian Crime (Amberley Publishing), and it is a must have addition to the library of any serious student of 19th century crime, criminals and policing methods.
A COMPREHENSIVE STUDY
The book itself is as comprehensive as a reader might wish for.
Yes, there are omissions – after all when it comes to committing crimes (be it murder, assault, fraud, forgery or arson) the Victorians were, to say the least, an incredibly prolific bunch!
However, where they excelled was in the, often sensationalist, newspaper reporting of crime and thus the authors of this A to Z must have had an almost impossible task in deciding which cases and perpetrators to include and which ones to leave out.
Thankfully, they did a good job of selecting what cases to include and, as a result, the book makes for a gripping, though in parts depressing and stomach-churning, read. Depressing in that it demonstrates that, when it comes to cruelty, the human race leaves all other species well and truly in the shadows.
A ROGUES GALLERY
So, as you begin to leaf through the book, you begin to encounter all sorts of names – some of them instantly recognisable, others that you’ve probably never heard of – whose contributions to the field of Victorian arson, assassination, homicide, fraud, forgery, larceny, poisoning and many other felonies, were immeasurable.
One or two of the entries still have the ability to send shivers down the spine, even whilst merely reading about them with the safety fence of over a hundred intervening years between them and us.
There is, for example, the case of Eugene Marie Chantrelle who, having taken out a £1,000 life insurance policy on the life of his wife, Elizabeth – one that would only pay out in the event of her accidental death – went on to make careful enquiries as to what exactly would constitute an “accidental” death.
When she learnt of the policy, Elizabeth prophetically observed to her mother, “My life will soon go after this insurance.”
Sure enough, just under a week later – on New Year’s Day 1878 – Eugene poisoned his wife at their house at 81a George Street in Edinburgh and then tried to blame her death on a gas leak.
He even went so far as to feign a grief-stricken passionate outburst at her burial service – which took place at Grange Cemetery in Edinburgh – in the course of which he attempted to throw himself into the grave as his wife’s coffin was being lowered into it.
But, he failed to evade Victorian justice and, on 31st May 1878, he was hanged for his crime, becoming the first person to be executed inside Edinburgh’s Calton Jail, following the recent cessation of public executions on the roof of the jail during which eager spectators would crowd onto nearby Calton Hill to get a good view of the last moments of a felon being hanged.
BUNGLING BILL CALCRAFT
One entry that I found particularly disturbing was the image of the executioner William Calcraft (1800 – 1879), who is as much remembered for the hangings he botched as for those felons he succeeded in dispatching with speedy, painless (ish) efficiency.
In the case of one botched hanging, the felon was left dangling, but still alive, at the end of the rope. Calcraft was forced to climb down into the pit and climb on to man’s back in order to hasten his demise and his suffering.
It might come as a surprise to find the name Charles John Huffam Dickens amongst the entries; and an even bigger surprise to find two and a half pages dedicated to him.
But then, Dickens was fascinated by crime, criminals and the newly established Metropolitan Police Force and, as a result, his entry makes absolute sense.
So, in the entry about him, we get to learn about the murder of prostitute Eliza Grimwood, on the 26th May 1838, which may have inspired him to create the murder of Nancy at the hands of Bill Sikes in Oliver Twist, which was then appearing in instalments.
Elsewhere in the book, in the section on “pickpockets” there is an intriguing mention of Ikey Solomon who may, or may not, – opinion is divided – have been the inspiration for Fagin.
ATTEMPTS ON QUEEN VICTORIA’S LIFE
Under the entry on “Assassination” we are reminded that, during her long reign, Queen Victoria was subjected to seven assassination attempts.
I was particularly enthralled by the description of retired army officer, Robert Pate who, in 1850, having ambushed the Queen’s carriage as it made its way along Piccadilly, set about the Royal head with his brass-tipped cane and managed to inflict a wound on Victoria’s forehead the scar from which was, reportedly, still visible ten years later.
Then there was the case of Arthur O’Connor, who, in 1872, pointed a pistol at the Queen as she stepped from her carriage outside Buckingham Palace. Luckily, he was quickly overpowered by the ever faithful John Brown.
However, in an absolute gem of a story, we learn that, following his transportation to Australia, O’Connor wrote to the Queen to explain his motivation, part of which was a belief that, if Victoria met him, she would appoint him Poet Laureate!
Needless to say, Victoria was not in the least bit amused by these constant attempts on her life – and she was even less impressed by the fact that the perpetrators were mostly acquitted on the grounds of insanity.
She duly wrote to the Prime Minister to demand that the law be changed and, as a result, a new possible verdict of guilty but insane was introduced by Royal demand.
IT PUT ME OFF ARSENIC
Typical of the book’s all-encompassing approach to its subject is the entry entitled “Arsenic” which, I was perturbed to discover, “exists in the body in trace amounts” and which is “relatively” harmless in its natural form.
But – and this is where I started to feel palpitations – if you mix two atoms of arsenic with three of oxygen the result is the deadly white arsenic, a favoured means by which Victorian domestic poisoners chose to dispatch their victims.
The entry then goes on to give a detailed, and vivid, description of what happens to the human body as arsenic poisoning takes effect – and, believe you me, it is/was not a pleasant way to go.
As it happens, arsenic was a component of Scheele’s or Schloss Green, a yellowish-green pigment which was not only added to Victorian paints and wallpapers, but which was also, and unbelievably, used as a food colouring in sweets and green blancmange.
JACK THE RIPPER IS IN THERE
And, lest any reader be fearful that Jack the Ripper only has a few pages allotted to him, worry not – the book features many of the people, police officers and suspects alike, whose names crop up in the infamous case.
Indeed, the first name to appear is that of Frederick George Abberline (1843 – 1929) who gets two and a half pages dedicated to, not just his (failed) attempt to hunt down the Whitechapel murderer, but also gets credit for his numerous successes as well.
A GREAT READ
The A – Z Of Victorian Crime is packed full of fascinating anecdotes, illuminating facts and snippets that you will be able to dine out on (apart from the description of arsenic poisoning) for years to come.
The information is presented in an easily follow-able format, you can look names up alphabetically, or else simply dip in and out of the various crimes at your leisure.
The authors have done a great job at researching what is a fascinating, albeit macabre, subject and the book is a terrific resource that should adorn the shelves in the libraries of all serious students of criminology and ripperology.