Early Victorian attitudes towards violent crime

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The scene of the murder, the Red Barn, so called because of its half red clay-tiled roof, which can be seen to the left of the main door in this sketch. The rest of the roof was thatched.

In the early 19th century people were more worried about disease, destitution and Napoleon than they were with being murdered. When violent murders came too close to home the prime aim of the government was to avert panic.

Without a national police force, the many small forces such as the Marine Police, the parish force or the night watchmen were unequal to the task of solving and preventing crime, their role was primarily reactive rather than proactive.

This inability of the authorities to display either a high profile presence or catch criminals left common people feeling extremely vulnerable and lurid stories of crimes, especially murders, quickly spread across communities contributing to the general sense of unease.

Surprisingly, news of bloody murders and violent crime was spread predominantly by the national and local press. Even though most poor people could not read or afford a newspaper many of the more salacious stories were read out in public houses and coffee shops. Many working people clubbed together to buy a paper and it was read aloud to them. Needless to say the press hyped up the stories and concentrated only on the most grisly and shocking of criminal acts.

Sensationalised reports of horrendous killings could boost circulation enormously, fact and fiction often became blurred and many murders and murderers became mythologised in the eyes of the reader. The public became hooked on these lurid tales and it’s no wonder that fear of rape and murder swept across communities leading to fear and panic.

Crime scenes

Whilst demanding the authorities take action the public eagerly sought out the latest crime scene, trampling over the evidence, taking objects of interest and collecting clues that might help them solve the case. Their interference with the crime scene ultimately made little difference to subsequent events as the authorities had no investigative branch to call on and Sir Robert Peel’s new police force was primarily designed to prevent, and not detect crime.

Murders and other serious crimes quickly became excellent material for entertainment, frequently being turned into melodramas and puppet shows. Street ballads, alehouse songs and broadsides were incredibly popular and the gorier the better.

But almost as bad as the murders themselves, were the people who flocked to see the scene of the crime. It was usual at the time to leave bodies in situ for the jury to view, whilst the Inquest was held in a nearby public house or tavern. (Even as late as 1926, the law required Inquest juries to view the body in the case.) This all had the unfortunate consequence of attracting people to see the crime scene first hand. Murder sight-seeing was not uncommon and indeed, some people were not above turning a profit on it.

In 1823, William Weare unwisely boasted of his personal wealth and was murdered for his troubles (He was actually penniless.) His body was thrown into the pond adjacent to the cottage of a Mr Probert, one of the conspirators. The case was widely reported in the press attracting crowds of people on excursions as ‘murder tourists’. They wandered through the grounds and paid a shilling to visit the cottage itself. A contemporary publication reported that as many as five hundred people parted with their money.

The souvenir industry

The growing public taste for crime lead to the growth of a souvenir industry specializing in crime scene memorabilia. China models of the victim’s house or the murder site became common place on mantelpieces throughout the country. Objects removed from the crime scene, reproductions of the murder weapons and artefacts made from the skin of a murderer were eagerly sought after. Death masks and body parts were also highly prized. Not even the graves of the murder victims themselves were sacred and often the headstones were defaced by souvenir hunters.

The authorities encouraged the public’s taste for blood and theatre by making a great display of public hangings and lesser punishments. It was a way of assuring the public that they were performing their duties. However, it probably also titillated the public palate, enhancing its lust for gore and violence and encouraging the press to produce even more outrageous and alarming stories.

 

 

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