Thursday, 24 September 2015

A Very British Murder - Ghastly Goings on in The 19th Century

Respected Social Historian Dr Lucy Worsley, one of those sweetly eccentric women who just draw you in with their obvious fascination for their subject; takes us back to the 19th century to examine our rather avid addiction to all things Murder, both in the press and between the pages of our favourite books.  
(I have to profess myself a devotee myself, with Marple, Poirot, Murdoch, Father Brown  and Miss Fisher all being dear friends. If you have not actually sought out the source books for these popular TV detectives , I strongly urge you to do so. They do not disappoint.)

In this first episode Worsley concentrates on the rise of  writing  about real life Murders, moving away from direct reportage and bringing in scandal and intrigue to entice a ever hungry readership.


Thomas De Quincy was a writer friend of William Wordsworth, who had rented a cottage from him in 1811. At this time a family of four had been brutally murdered in the Docklands of London. It resonated across the whole country as it was almost unheard of for so many to perish at once.For instance in 1810 there had only been fifteen Murder Convictions  in the whole of Britain. 


De Quincy noted a rather extreme reaction to the crime, that fear rose beyond all sense and reason. A neighbour of his placed  18 lockable doors between her front door and her bedroom. Bear in mind that the Lake District town of Grasmere was three hundred miles from the Capital.Others however took a more "Ghoulish enjoyment" in the particulars of the killings. He named them Murder fanciers

The church of St Georges in the East was near to the scene in Wapping in East London  where Timothy Marr was a twenty five year Patriarch and old former sailor, his wife Celia, had just had a baby boy and 14 year old apprentice James lived in. On the night in question, Margaret Jewell the family servant was sent out  just before midnight to try to obtain some oysters. These were nutritionally rich and cheaply available from street stalls, however Margaret was unsuccessful in obtaining any, the hour being so late.

On her return she found she had been locked out and after much banging and calling, the night watchman came past and the noise finally brought a neighbour outside who eventually gained entry to the house at the rear ,by hopping over a wall and going in through the open back door. Searching the house, he happened across the  dead body of the apprentice whose head injuries were severe enough to have allowed brain matter to be found on the ceiling. Next he found Mrs Marr, behind the shop counter. "Murder Murder" he shouted and the waiting crowd outside, knowing the family make up wanted to know where the baby was?  Still in its cradle, it's throat had been slit. 

Charles Horton was a local  Marine Constable and was first on the scene and determined no robbery had taken place. Upstairs he found a Maul, this was a specialised weapon, a mallet used by ships carpenters. 



The house became a ghoulish attraction with Bodies laid out on beds like exhibits, blood left where it had fallen. The crime scene left for strangers and friends alike to  traipse round the place.

 To make matters more murky and hard, there was no properly organised police force to conduct an investigation , only parish constables, Night Watchmen  and Magistrates to pass judgement. They hoped that witnesses would come forward to give evidence. 

Charles Horton, a Marine Constable was primarily responsible for protecting  the docks and Ships Cargoes, they only had a cutlass for personal protection and a pair of handcuffs to subdue anyone they caught pilfering. It was just pure happenstance that Horton was first responder. These police were reactive not proactive and were not trained in detection. Organised Police forces did not appear until 1820 and so with little to go on the populace were afraid and angry, worried the culprit might strike again.




Rewards were normally how crimes ended up being detected and in this case the sum originally posted for information was £50 , but combined boroughs and the Home Office soon increased to to £700 given how high profile the case had become. Newspapers outside London were spreading the story. The richer parts of society were able to pay for newspapers, but they were also read aloud in pubs and Taverns or streets would pool their coppers to buy a copy to be shared around.


The Marrs were buried in a single grave after a funeral at the church where they had so recently had their baby son baptised. Their Epitaph read "Life is uncertain, in this world".

Twelve days after the Marrs' demise, the lodger at the Kings Arms was seen fleeing the pub via knotted bedsheets shouting "Murder". Once again the scene was violent and bloody. The publican, his wife and a servant were hacked and beaten to death. The Streets were in pandemonium, drums beaten, bells rung and volunteers with pistols and cutlasses searched buildings and moored boats . Magistrates demanded all foreigners and vagrants be picked up and London Bridge was closed. Countless false arrests were made.

Finally a real development, a constable discerned some initials on the handle of the Maul, JP.
A  woman came forward to say. JP  was John Petersen, a Hamburg born sailor.  He, however had  a watertight alibi, quite literally, he had been out at sea, so another sailor was placed under suspicion. 

John Williams became prime suspect, purely as he would have had access to the weapon. Taken to Coldbath fields prison . He was later found in the cell, he had hung himself from an iron bar. Taken as an admission of guilt, the authorities were delighted.

The people had  had no closure though as he had not faced a judge or been punished in the eyes of the law, so on New Year's Eve 1811, the cart carrying his body was drawn through Wapping. Blinds  were drawn and shops shut. Once the procession came to the Marrs shop, it halted and an angry throng amassed , one man twisting his head so that he might in death confront the consequences of his actions. At the crossroads . A shallow grave, his skull went missing and was  later found in the possession Of the Landlord of Crown and Dolphin Pub


The sale of Broadsides, one sheet newspapers;  had been given the hugest boost by the events of the murder 100,000 sheets were printed and canny newspapers saw how a grisly murder saw circulation  boosted, but soon fact and fiction began to blur.


Eventually the juicy detail reached Grasmere and the voracious appetite of Thomas De Quincey. His other appetite, for Opium to which he was addicted is cited for the reason for his unconventional and dreamlike writing, dripping in satire. His Essay on Murder was designed to provoke the avid readers of all those newspapers. He surmised that there were Murder clubs whose sole aim in convening were to discuss the fine art of Murder and their favourite Murderers, that they might be enjoyed by the murder Connoisseur as a type of artful entertainment and that men  such as John Williams would reach the pinnacle of the lists of the most notorious and celebrated.

"After the Deed is done, why not enjoy a murder." He wrote.

De Quincey latched onto the idea that we love a GOOD murder, with interesting characters, a complex detection or unusual methods and that when it is dull or Brutish, we "Damn it Unanimously"

His opium use was heavy, and by today's standards such behaviour would be thought squalid and unsavoury, but it was an established part of 19th century life. Not illegal, opium powder could be bought over the counter at the chemist. Lucy examines his actual  opium scales. She explains it was also available as a tincture which is what we all know know of as Laudanum, in those days it was used to quiet a crying baby by giving it drops to make it drowsy, or you might take it to dull a toothache which is actually how Thomas De Quincey's addiction started by dropping into a glass of brandy. It seems his consumption was extreme , getting through 8000 Drops in a day. This is about an Ounce a day, which she uses Ground ginger to Demonstrate. Anyone unused to the drug would die outright if they ingested that much at once! 




A Marvellous example of true crime becoming populist entertainment, is the Murder of  Mariah Marten at The Red Barn in the sleepy Suffolk village of Polstead by her clandestine lover with whom it is supposed she had already had an illegitimate child.

Daughter of the village Mole Catcher, Mariah had been secretly meeting with William Corder ,son of one of the wealthy landowners in the village , but William was not as squeaky clean as his stature in village society might suggest, he had criminal connections in London and had been nicknamed Foxy by his School contemporaries . Foxy and Mariah had used the rather gothic reputation of the Red Barn, which was said to turn Blood Red in the light of the setting son to their advantage, their trysts would not be discovered if people were afraid to enter!

Friday 18h May 1887 was the last time she was seen alive. For a whole year it was believed they had eloped and Corder himself had said that he had left her in Ipswich and that she had been unable to pen the letter herself as she had hurt her wrist, but after what she deemed prophetic dreams, her Step Mother said she felt sure that Maria had been murdered and buried in the Red Barn and after her father investigated, he had found her decomposing body. Corder was arrested by Essex Police in Brentwood where he had set up home with a new wife.


The dream Premonitions would be an integral part of the Melodrama written about the whole affair weeks after the crime came to light. Melodramas were stories with much exaggerated characters and set to music and real life crimes such as The Red Barn murder lent itself perfectly to the arch villain, poor heroine set up of such dramas and The Old Vic Theatre in London, formerly named The Royal Coburg, its's affectionate name was the Blood Tub due to the number of Gory Murder stories played out there. Lucy Meets Actor  Michael Kirk to learn more. 



Over the top, earnest and filled with coincidences, Ghosts and the public loved them, they loved knowing who the villains were . They loved seeing the villain taken to task and the village Maiden avenged, they would jeer and catcall and generally get thoroughly immersed. 

Provincial and rural audiences did not need to miss out on the story either as travelling Marionette shows using puppets like those held at the Victoria and Albert Museum would re-enact the story.



Back in the real world William Corder was brought back to the assize town of Bury St Edmunds and put on trial, he at first denies the charge, but then confessed, but claimed he shot her in the eye by accident as the gun shook in his nervous fingers. It took the jury just thirty five minutes to reach a verdict of guilty and on the day of his execution, a huge crowd gathered at the Jail. It took William Corder ten minutes to actually die, despite the hangman hanging from his feet to hasten things. Barely cold, his demise was appearing in street ballads and tavern songs.

The popularity of the songs was partly due to the buzz the case had created but also the popularity of singing socially at the time.



The notoriety of the crime resulted in some utterly gruesome memorabilia from the murder, from ceramic Red Barns for your mantelpiece, little knick knacks made of barn timbers, up to the actual pistols Corder used to kill Maria. Ore disturbing is the legal record of the case, bound in the treated and tanned skin of Corder himself to a piece of his scalp comp,eye with ear. It seems, his body was taken down from the scaffold and taken to the Guild Hall for a Public dissection to determine if his physiology might offer clues to the depth of his wickedness. Phrenologist, a discipline very popular at the time studied his head bumps to better understand criminality.




The Bermondsey Horror was the story of a Murderess Maria Manning. Maria and her husband were down on their luck. He had been a guard on the Railways, but had failed as a publican, she was Swiss and had previously been a Ladies' Maid travelling Europe. They had befriended a excise man Patrick O'Connor, a wealthy man was a constant visitor at their home. There was even some scandal that there was a love triangle in place. On the 9th August he told people he was Dining with the Mannings and that was the last time he was seen. At some point that evening he was killed and Maria went to his lodgings stealing all of his valuables including his stocks and shares certificates.


Four days later he is reported missing to the now Centralised Metropolitan police ( formed in 1829) were a preventative force trying to catch folk before they offended. Two PCs gained access to the house . The furniture had disappeared, so when going into the kitchen they saw an anomaly in the floor they pulled up a flag stone that was loose and found O'Connor there naked and covered in quick Lime, his corpse now blue.

The Met now had a Detective Branch, formed in 1842.  Eight men based at what is now Old Scotland Yard, led by Inspector Charles Field, went to pursue the couple who had now split, Maria double crossing Frederick and absconding with all of their stolen wealth went to Scotland and Her husband on a steamer to the Channel Islands. By tracing the cab driver who took Maria to the Train Station. Realising that she went to Euston Station he can trace the likely train to Edinburgh. They were able to send a telegram to their Scottish counterparts with a description and Maria and her Husband were both apprehended.



The Times ran 72 articles on the case and an illustrated booklet sold a phenomenal 2.5million copies. Interest in Maria was at fever pitch, here was a woman involved in a violent murder throwing into question  notions of femininity . She was foreign and vaguely exotic. This was new and the public devoured all they could find on the case.

They  were tried at the Old Bailey in Court number One where all manner of interesting observer was seen during proceedings. She was dressed  as ever in a  fine black satin dress and bonnet.


Frederick George Manning was accused of murder, aided by Maria. the particulars of the death were as follows, O'Connor had been Shot through the eye and had a smashed skull. Rather damningly it could be proven that the couple bought a Shovel, crowbar and quick lime in the period just before the murder. 

Frederick's lawyer in an attempt to divert attention from his client basically put Maria on trial for being a woman claiming that when a woman sinks into iniquity she sinks far lower than a man. After a two day trial and a forty five minute deliberation , the verdict was guilty.

Given a chance to speak she starts a furious rant at the unfairness of her treatment and the way she has been discriminated against for being a foreigner and even throws the fragrant herbs (used in the courtroom to mask some of the more pungent London smells) right at the judge she is immortalised both in word and in effigy by Charles Dickens who based Hortense the murderous Ladies' maid on her  and at Madame Tussaud's s a long standing model that remained even into the 1970s



The execution of the Mannings was carried out on the roof of the Horse Monger Lane Gaol, 50,000 people turned up to witness it , among them was Charles Dickens. Hangings were only meted out for Treason or murder so 1849, a public hanging a real occasion. The Mannings died side by side, but the fervour surrounding them and the more widely known success of the Police to be able to more readily catch the guilty was a precursor to the Public Obsession for all facets of crime and crime writing and detection.


1 comment:

  1. A very thorough write up, Emma, you do this well. I'm not a fan of true -crime murder stories (I make exception for Forever because it's fiction & it's Ioan...) but you really do a good job writing these up!

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