Friday, May 06, 2011

The Victorian art of murder and the behaviour of Americans

The Victorians' thirst for murder - their fascination with the details, their poring over and feasting on it - mirrors western culture.

Obama, Hillary and others watching with glee the murder of Osama
Late one afternoon in the winter of 1836, a man boarded a London omnibus, carrying a soft, round object, approximately the size of a football, “wrapped up” under one arm. There was nothing about his appearance to excite suspicion. Indeed, he struck all those who saw him as placid and unremarkable. Taking his seat, he settled his luggage on his lap where it remained, held in place by its owner with perfect equanimity, for the rest of the journey. At Stepney, the passenger disembarked and walked the short distance to the canal where he disposed of his burden, hurling it, as discreetly as he was able, into the water. It floated for a second or two, as though struggling to remain in view of the world, before it sank at last beneath the surface, vanishing from sight.

The name of the traveller was James Greenacre and earlier that day he had committed murder. What he carried under his arm was the severed head of his victim – a washerwoman named Hannah Brown, who was his fiancée. Greenacre must have hoped that the canal would swallow the proof of his crime but the waters failed to keep their secret. On January 6, 1837, the head of Miss Brown was found by a lock-keeper when it came to obstruct the mechanism of which he was in charge. Brown’s torso was soon discovered, “in a horridly mutilated state”, dumped in a sack “tucked under a flagstone” on the Edgware Road, and in February “a pair of legs was dredged out of a bed of reeds near Coldharbour Lane, in Brixton”. Following the identification of the body by the victim’s brother, Greenacre was hunted down and arrested. Soon afterwards, he confessed and the crowd at his execution was apparently “large, vocal and perfectly good-humoured”. They purchased “Greenacre tarts” from a pie-seller while they waited to watch the killer swing.

In Judith Flanders’s new book, The Invention of Murder, a survey of homicide in the nineteenth century, the slaying of Hannah Brown is one of dozens of such atrocities. Here are to be found a horrifying array of “more than fifty” violent and bloody expirations – including well-known cases which have been popularized by other writers (Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, described by Oscar Wilde in “Pen, Pencil and Poison” in 1889 as a “young dandy” with “rich curly hair, fine eyes, and exquisite white hands”, who is revealed here as “short, fat, bald and with a speech defect”; the Ratcliffe Highway murders of 1811 which inspired P. D. James and T. A. Critchley’s The Maul and the Pear Tree, 1971; the murder of Francis Savile Kent, dramatized by Kate Summerscale in The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, 2008) and other less well-known cases. Here are crimes born of lust, pecuniary gain, revenge. Here are murders of servants by their masters and of masters by their servants, murders by strangers and murders by loved ones: poisonings, bludgeonings, suffocations.

Jonathan Barnes reviews the book THE INVENTION OF MURDER How the Victorians revelled in death and detection and created modern crime by Judith Flanders in The Sunday Times. Here

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