Capital Crimes: Seven centuries of London life and murder by Max Decharne

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Capital Crimes: Seven centuries of London life and murder by Max Decharne

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Category: True Crime
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: Accounts of twenty London murder cases between 1381 and 1954, which reflect changing social and legal attitudes to crime and punishment over the centuries.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 402 Date: September 2012
Publisher: Random House
ISBN: 9781847945907

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True crime has been one of the great growth areas of publishing in the last few years. As more than one author in the field as observed, everyone loves a good murder in a manner of speaking, and anybody who is looking for books on murders in London will find no lack of choice.

This volume differs sharply from the others I have read so far. In fact, it must be one of the very few without a chapter on Dr Crippen and his wife, though the doctor merits two brief references in the text and index. Likewise there are only passing mentions to the already well-documented matter of Jack the Ripper.

In taking twenty cases from the fourteenth century to the mid-twentieth, it does not merely concentrate on the victim or victims and the legal processes which brought the parties responsible to justice, but also tells us much about changing historical attitudes to murder and capital punishment over the years. This is demonstrated well by the opening chapter, which is concerned with the violent death of questor Roger Legett. A questor was an assizer or professional juror, who made a profit out of inquests by holding them, or alternatively giving false evidence – and to some, in effect no more than a money-grabbing busybody. He was set upon by a crowd during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 and beheaded in broad daylight, and such was the state of anarchy at the time that, like many others who were killed at around the same time, nobody was ever held to account for his death. In those days there was no police force, with law and order, such as it was, being a local community function not dissimilar to neighbourhood watch schemes today. In medieval times, if peasants were murdered it was not always regarded as a crime, and convicted murderers might be fined (two-thirds going to the King, the other one-third to the victim’s family) or mutilated rather than executed, although there was a rise in the use of the death penalty after the Norman conquest.

At times of anarchy, if officials and dignitaries failed to find an effective refuge in sanctuary were summarily executed, the guilty men stood a strong chance of getting way with their crime. Sanctuary, by the way, was generally no safeguard at all. Any officials or members of the nobility could try to take refuge in a church or cathedral, but once they were discovered by the mob, they would almost certainly be dragged out without mercy and butchered on the spot.

Richard Hunne, the victim in chapter two, was one of the first people to fall foul of ecclesiastical issues during the reign of Henry VIII. An argument with the church led to imprisonment, and in December 1514 he was found hanging in his cell. What initially looked like suicide was found to have been murder, possibly on the orders of the clergy. More bizarrely still his remains were brought before the church authorities, tried for heresy, found guilty and publicly incinerated at the stake. There is some scant consolation in reading about this squalid episode in learning that the crowds, far from jeering at the long-dead prisoner, showed considerable scorn for the executioner and those who had ordered such proceedings.

From 1600 onwards, there are at least three murders for each century, all examined in detail. Some are fairly well-known, others less so. The mysterious death of Sir Thomas Overbury, a protégé of James I’s favourite, Sir Robert Carr, in the Tower of London in 1612, resulted in a scandal which considerably tarnished the reputation of the first Stuart King’s court. The killing of singer Martha Ray at Covent Garden in 1779 by the Reverend James Hackman must be one of the earliest documented cases of an unhinged stalker whose obsession with him victim culminated in tragedy, and in his case a botched suicide attempt, trial and hanging at Tyburn. Perhaps the most familiar case in these pages is that of Spencer Perceval, the only British Prime Minister to be assassinated, at Westminster in 1812. From the twentieth century, we have the episode of the East Finchley baby farmers in 1902, the fatal shooting of Palace Cinema manager Dudley Hoard in 1934, and a family argument in Hampstead in 1954 which led to Styllou Christofi, a Cypriot woman who spoke little English, strangling her daughter-in-law, trying to burn the body and almost setting the whole house on fire. After her trial, it was revealed she had had a fortunate escape from the gallows in Cyprus as a young woman by taking part in the killing of her mother-in-law when a burning piece of wood was rammed down her throat.

Throughout this book the emphasis is partly on judicial and social history, and to an extent on the city of London itself, as well as on the killers and the victims. Each case is examined in detail, and there are black and white half-tone illustrations at the start of each chapter as well as a colour plate section in the middle. It should appeal not only to devotees of true crime but to those interested in London and social history as well.

If this book appeals then you might also like to try Murders of London: In the steps of the capital's killers by David Long and The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death in the Sixteenth Century by Joel F Harrington.

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