Murder in Victorian England

By Elaine Holden
Last modified: Thursday, March 10, 2016
I recently attended a murder mystery dinner theater. It was a delightful experience and I am hoping there will be more of these events in the coming months.

My fellow diners at the table were all mystery buffs and conversation covered many topics associated with the genre. Of course no murder conversation is complete without at least a passing mention of that most famous serial killer — Jack the Ripper. This is usually brought up by a confirmed Ripperologist.

Have you ever heard of a Ripperologist? Neither had I. However, more than 1,000 curious and presumably stalwart individuals, not to mention my table companions, have. Even an actual magazine all about Jack the Ripper exists, and this bi-monthly publication has been in circulation for more than 15 years.

Why is Jack the Ripper continually reported on after more than 100 years since his last killing? To really understand the continued interest generated by this most famous serial killer, it is necessary to understand Victorian England.

During the Victorian era the population in England was quite interested in both the bizarre and the occult. The citizens were innocent enough to believe in supernatural forces that controlled at least part of their lives. Thus, when Jack the Ripper began his killing spree there was a common belief that much more was afoot than the newspaper facts that were reported on at the time. Because no one was ever caught for the grisly killings, the topic remains ripe for speculation even to this day.

‘Jack the Ripper and Black Magic’

Spiro Dimolianis now enters the picture as a modern researcher and author of “Jack the Ripper and Black Magic: Victorian Conspiracy Theories, Secret Societies and Supernatural Mystique of the Whitechapel Murders.” Dimolianis addresses the ways that the murders were incorporated into the spiritual and occult beliefs of the time. While he clearly does not believe these supernatural theories, he reports on his investigations into the supernatural reports by the Victorian era mainstream press, as well as by the different occult groups of the period.

This sets the stage for modern readers to understand the thinking and disposition of Victorians. The most noticeable group of spiritualists during that era, of course is the theosophists. He treats us to an in-depth explanation of their beliefs and habits as well. This gives readers extensive insight into the Victorians and prepares us for further study. Overall, we can read the primary as well as secondary sources related to the Ripper, and get a real feel for the language and thinking of the crime writers of that period.

While I cannot say with certainty that this particular book will alter the overall research into Ripperology, I can most certainly say that this volume is very thorough and contains flawless research. I also must state that while I learned a tremendous amount about the culture of the time, as well as having access to the primary research on Jack the Ripper, I cannot recommend it to the casual reader. Rather, if you are interested in the topic, find this period of history fascinating, and are interested in the Ripper crimes — you cannot do any better than this impeccably researched book. The contents are really a gold mine of information.

‘Murder in the First-Class Carriage’

Once I got into the Victorian era and the subject of murder I came upon “Murder in the First-Class Carriage: The First Victorian Railway Killing” by Kate Colquhoun. Initially this mode of transportation was looked upon with some scorn. But in just a few years, rail service had revolutionized travel in Great Britain as train excursions took England by storm.

Of course the British, known for a dogged adherence to class consciousness, had different levels of comfort for their conveyance accommodations. The first-class railcar was naturally outfitted with fine woods, polished brass fittings, and leather seats as befitted their wealthy patrons.

Thomas Briggs was one of these privileged passengers. In July of 1964, he was traveling home, via first-class rail, after an evening at his niece’s house. Yet, he never arrived at his destination. When two other passengers entered the car they found a pool of blood, Thomas’ ivory-knobbed walking stick and empty leather bag. They also discovered a bloody hat that did not belong to Thomas.

Eventually Thomas’ body was found where it had been shoved out of the moving rail car, and a suspect was identified. However, before he could be apprehended — he fled by boat to America! Detectives were in hot pursuit and the entire investigation and eventual trial of the suspect rocked both England and the United States. The shocking end may rock you!

‘The Invention of Murder’

So, what was with those Victorians? According to Judith Flanders in her book “The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime,” the actual crime rate in the British Isles was very low. In all of England and Wales in 1810, only 15 people were convicted of murder — out of a population of nearly 10 million.

Thus, crime became rather pleasant to think about in the abstract, because overall the population was safe, secure, and it seemed to happen, if it happened at all, to someone else. What could be better? Answer: to read about it; as the titillation of a heinous crime that is rare and far from you was about the best ever for the Victorians. Flanders’ knowledge of Victorian literature and culture is amazing. Her investigation includes the “penny-dreadful” crime novel, ballads of murder, and the evolution of a modern police force supported by forensic research. The real crimes of the Victorian era spurred an ever-increasing desire for murder-mystery fiction and the development of the character of the private detective.

Naturally, no murder book can close without an exploration of poison. Flanders really shines in this respect. She handles poison deaths with a deft hand, and for me this was one of the most interesting aspects of her book. I will caution readers, however, that this, too, is not light reading. If you are a Ripper aficionado, an avid mystery historian, or really interested in Victorian England these are all excellent additions to your collection. Casual murder fans will have to wait until April for my cozier murder reviews.

Elaine Holden of Peterborough is a nationally recognized expert in the diagnosis and treatment of dyslexia. She is the director of The Reading Foundation and senior lecturer at Rivier College Graduate School of Education.