The A-Z of Victorian Crime by Neil R A Bell, Trevor N Bond, Kate Clarke and M W Oldridge

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The A-Z of Victorian Crime by Neil R A Bell, Trevor N Bond, Kate Clarke and M W Oldridge

Category: True Crime
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: Victorian crime has never ceased to cast its spell, perhaps because it all happened so long ago that it disgusts us less than similar equally dreadful events in our own time. Our never-ending fascination with murders and other misdeeds from the nineteenth century is well catered for in this book which makes a very worthwhile and relatively light read as well as as a work of reference. It also provides an incentive to seek out other works in more detail.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: July 2016
Publisher: Amberley Publishing
ISBN: 9781445647869

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Victorian crime has never ceased to cast its spell. Is it because such terrible goings-on took place sufficiently long ago that they do not disgust us in the same way as equally dreadful events from, say, the last few days of which we read from today's papers or online coverage? Whatever the reason, there is an endless fascination with murders and other major transgressions of the law from the era of gas lamps and swirling fog – true Victorian melodrama, misbehaviour and horror from real life writ large. It is amply catered for in this title, the joint work of four authors.

The majority of entries, seldom more than two pages long, inevitably deal with notorious murder cases. Which of them vie with the distinction of 'most terrible'? Certainly Amelia Dyer, the 'baby farmer' who advertised to give unwanted infants a loving home and may have disposed of as many as 400 before the long arm of the law caught up with her, stands revealed as one of the worst. Mary Anne Cotton, who callously poisoned several husbands, children and perhaps other relatives as well in order to claim the insurance money on their deaths, was not far behind. Moreover, although she only killed one victim, the business of the adolescent Constance Kent, who eventually owned up to killing her little brother, is pretty chilling. 'Jack the Ripper', whoever he was (or whoever they were) is likewise given some attention. The remarkable story of James 'Babbacombe' Lee, who was convicted of killing his employer, survived three attempts to hang him and thus walked away free, is here. So are the most notable executioners of the period, James Berry (who tried and dismally failed to send Lee on his way), Thomas Calcraft and William Marwood. One of the saddest incidents described was that of the mentally ill Richard Dadd, whose personality problems are believed to have been exacerbated by sunstroke, resulting in his stabbing his father to death. Diagnosed as insane, he was confined in Broadmoor where he was given ample time to give free rein to his outstanding gifts as an artist.

In addition to individual cases and personalities, mostly but not exclusively concerned with murder and execution, there are several thematic entries in the book. Although we think of it as a violent age – and was any age not a violent one? – there were remarkably few assassination attempts in Britain. Half a dozen men attempted to shoot Queen Victoria during her long reign, but in each case they bungled it and although badly frightened she was never wounded. The only really illustrious victim was Edward Drummond, secretary to Prime Minister Robert Peel, who had probably been the intended target. A botched attempt on the life of Napoleon III in Paris was made with a bomb made in Birmingham and the assistance of English accomplices, and claimed several lives but not the Emperor or Empress themselves.

Charles Dickens has a couple of pages to himself, partly on the strength of his position as a writer of crime fiction. Given this, it is a little surprising to find nothing similar for Wilkie Collins, who is sometimes regarded as the English father of the genre. There are also several paragraphs on the sorry history of Dorset Street in the East End, now perhaps fortunately no longer in existence, but over a hundred years ago dubbed 'the worst street in London' because of its history of overcrowding, alcohol abuse, domestic violence and subsequent roll call of violent death. Infanticide, insanity, prostitution and homosexuality are also covered, and it is very much a sign of changing times that the latter was in some circumstances a capital offence, even between consenting adults, until 1861.

The entries to be found here do not go into great depth, but the book makes a more than worthwhile and relatively light read as well as a work of reference. It also provides an incentive to seek out other works on the subject in more detail. Most of the entries are followed by one or more recommended source works for greater in-depth study.

For further reading on two of the murder investigations mentioned in this book, we also recommend The Poisoner: The Life and Crimes of Victorian England's Most Notorious Doctor by Stephen Bates, about the notorious Dr William Palmer; and The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale, which examines the Constance Kent affair. Murders of London: In the steps of the capital's killers by David Long deals with several killings from medieval times to the present.

Booklists.jpg The A-Z of Victorian Crime by Neil R A Bell, Trevor N Bond, Kate Clarke and M W Oldridge is in the Top Ten Non-Fiction Books of 2016.
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Buy The A-Z of Victorian Crime by Neil R A Bell, Trevor N Bond, Kate Clarke and M W Oldridge at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The A-Z of Victorian Crime by Neil R A Bell, Trevor N Bond, Kate Clarke and M W Oldridge at Amazon.com.


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