Horrid Mutilation! Read all about it!

Richard Davenport-Hines

  • Jack the Ripper and the London Press by Perry Curtis
    Yale, 354 pp, £25.00, February 2002, ISBN 0 300 08872 8

When Tennyson and Jowett sat up late together, it was to talk of murders. The Victorians took a ghoulish pleasure in every phase of their more ghastly homicides; from the moment a corpse was found the hunt for morbid thrills was intense. After seven members of the Marshall family were hacked to death at Denham in 1870, ‘pleasure vans’ brought hordes of day-trippers from London to see the gore, and to purloin souvenirs. The Victorians were not dainty in their interest, and journalists were seldom squeamish in their reporting. The Times of 4 January 1856, for example, described the inquest held at the Talbot Inn, Rugeley on the exhumed body of Walter Palmer five months after his murder by his brother William, the multiple poisoner.

On the removal of the outer coffin a hole was bored in the leaden receptacle in which Walter Palmer’s body was confined, and instantly a most sickening and noxious effluvium escaped, which permeated the entire building, affected parties at the other end of the inn, and produced a sickening effect on all in the immediate vicinity of the coffin. Subsequently the leaden lid was removed, and the spectacle presented by the body was absolutely frightful. The cheeks were so terribly distended as to extend to either side of the coffin; one eye was opened, and the mouth partially so, presenting the appearance of a horrible grin and grimace. Each limb was also swollen to prodigious proportions, and the sight was revolting in the extreme. Nearly all the jurors were afflicted with vomiting or fainting.

The inquest on Charles Bravo in 1876 lasted a month and provided his parents’ solicitor, George Lewis, with the national celebrity which made him the upper classes’ favourite, and most expensive, legal confidant. In 1865, Sir James Willes wept as he sentenced Constance Kent to death for suffocating her little brother and hiding his body in the vault of an outside privy. That’s the sort of court-room occasion the Victorians loved.

Newspaper agitation for the commuting of death sentences provided another form of sensation. After the conviction in 1877 of Louis Staunton, who starved his wife and baby son to death to obtain an inheritance, the novelist Charles Reade led a strenuous campaign in the Daily Telegraph which successfully pushed the Home Secretary into remitting the sentence. Riots were feared in Liverpool after the conspicuously unsound conviction and death sentence passed on Florence Maybrick in 1889; but executions generally fed a public appetite. Twenty thousand people went to watch William Palmer hang outside Stafford Gaol (we owe the drinkers’ ‘What’s your poison?’ to public interest in his trial). Coventry Patmore’s rousing poem ‘A London Fête’, describing ‘the wicked treat’ of a public hanging at Newgate, conveys the public’s ‘horrid thirst’ for gore. Even after public executions were abolished in 1868, they remained an entertainment for the elite. In 1875, the Lord Mayor and Sheriffs of London invited 60 guests to watch the execution in Newgate Prison yard of Henry Wainwright, a prosperous brush-maker who had shot and dismembered his bigamous wife. The scene, according to an eye-witness, was

absolutely Hogarthian and horrible, the cold December morning, the waning moon, the rope dangling to and fro in the shed awaiting its victim, a gaslight that flared noisily, the well-dressed crowd of privileged visitors come to see the show, the Sheriffs’ footmen, who had some of them obviously fortified their spirits for the occasion; the whole scene . . . ghastly and sickening in the last degree . . . I have felt sick and mean and ashamed of myself ever since.

In the history of Victorian sensationalism, however, the Whitechapel murders of 1888 were an episode apart. Sir Charles Warren, the Commissioner of Metropolitan Police, was not exaggerating when he told the Home Secretary, Henry Matthews, that the murders were ‘unique in the history of our country’. They were not the first serial sex crimes, but the first media(ted) serial sex crimes. They influenced Wedekind, Berg and Brecht, and have provided a staple film subject since Marie Belloc Lowndes’s Ripper novel, The Lodger (1913), was first adapted in 1926 by Alfred Hitchcock, with Ivor Novello playing a suspected serial killer known as the Avenger.

It was through the print media of the 1880s that they had their greatest impact, however. Revolting details – surpassing even Walter Palmer’s exhumation – were plumped onto breakfast tables, and telegraphed round the world. The murders were indivisible from their accompanying reportage. Lord Cranbrook, a Cabinet-Minister, recognised the association in his diary on 2 October. ‘More murders at Whitechapel, strange and horrible. The newspapers reek with blood.’ This media storm, and its meanings, form the subject of Perry Curtis’s carefully researched and informative study.

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