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Murder was incredibly rare in Victorian England. In 1810, only 15 people were convicted of the crime in England and Wales, out of a population of 10 million. But even though homicide was infrequent, the British became obsessed with these often gory crimes. Throughout the 19th century, Judith Flanders, author of “The Invention Of Murder,” says true murder stories seeped into all forms of popular entertainment, from the absurd like wax museums and “murder tourism” to the theater, novels and detective stories we love today. Author Judith Flanders joins guest host Frank Sesno to talk about the evolution of the real — and fictional — crime story.
- Judith Flanders author of "The Invention of Murder: How Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime."
Read An Excerpt
From “Invention of Murder” by Judith Flanders. Copyright © 2013 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC
MR. FRANK SESNOAnd hello everybody, thanks for joining us. I'm Frank Sesno of the George Washington University and Planet Forward sitting in for Diane Rehm. Diane is getting a voice treatment then going on vacation. We all wish Diane the very best. She'll be back in mid-September. Judith Flanders' first book was about four Victorian women. Her second book about everyday Victorian life, and her third -- well, about murder in Victorian England.
MR. FRANK SESNOShe's the author of the new book "The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime," and she joins us for the house from the BBC Studios in London. Judith Flanders, welcome.
MS. JUDITH FLANDERSThank you.
SESNOAll right. Well, so I've dived -- taken a big dive into this book, and, you know, as a guy who was based in London for awhile, you know, I've visited -- or tried to, 221 B Baker Street, and checked out "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," and I actually didn't realize until I started reading your book just how steeped in blood and gore Victorian England was. What though possessed you to write this book about this topic?
FLANDERSWhat, you mean, following a book about housework?
FLANDERSWell, actually, there was a book in between those two that wasn't published in the states which was about the leisure industries in the 19th century, and one of them was about -- one of the chapters was about theater. And the really interesting thing for me was to realize how many plays were based on true crime. And so from that, I then discovered that novels were, that puppet shows were, that endless amounts of Victorian entertainment revolved around murder, and I thought that would be a fun subject.
SESNOWell, you actually taught me in your book that they even named race horses after murders. It would be like...
FLANDERSWasn't that astonishing?
SESNOI mean, it would like, you know, going to the Preakness and rooting for the Boston Strangler. I mean, what is that all about?
FLANDERSWell, I actually phoned up the place where today you have to register the name of your race horse before you can run it and said, you know, what were the rules about naming a race horse today, and they said, oh, well, you know, it can't be obscene, and it can't be this, and it can't be that, and it can't be the other thing. And I said, if I wanted to name a horse Myra Hindley, which is an English equivalent of the Boston Strangler, could I do that?
FLANDERSAnd there was appalled silence, and the woman said no. And I said, how about Jack the Ripper, and she said no. And I stopped because I was afraid she was going to call the police. But really, there were horses named Jack the Ripper running while the murders were still taking place.
SESNOWhat was this fascination in Victorian England with murder?
FLANDERSWell, of course, when you focus on something like the race horses, or you discover that they made little pottery ornaments of the houses where murders took place, then you think this is deeply bizarre. But on the other hand, what are you going to do when you finish work tonight? You're going to go home and switch on "CSI." There's really not any difference.
SESNOWhat was the backdrop, though? Because, I mean, one of your observations is actually how little crime there was at the beginning of the century relative to the number of people who lived in the British Isles, and yet this became I guess a little bit like local news in this country, you know. The reporting on crime goes up as crime itself goes down. So maybe not -- maybe proportionality isn't necessary.
FLANDERSI think proportionality is hugely important. It's just the opposite of what you're suggesting. I think when there's a lot of crime it's quite difficult to be amused and entertained by it. When it's quite rare, and, therefore, you know it's not going to happen to you, it's good fun, you know. We all like a good detective story. We all like a good detective story because we know we're not going to be murdered. The odds are enormously against it.
FLANDERSI do have to add one caveat, though, that when you say that there was this negligible amount of crime, there's a negligible amount of recorded crime.
FLANDERSBut we didn't have the statistics. We don't have the information gathering that we have today. So there may have been many more that we don't know. There obviously were, but it was still a very small number compared to -- certainly compared to -- I'm sorry, but the U.S.A. which historically has a much higher murder rate than the rest of Europe.
SESNOBefore we get into some of the details of some of these crimes -- famous crimes that we still know about and people apparently still study in Victorian England, there's one other element of this kind of fascination, this entertainment value of murder that you discovered in Victorian England, which is -- and it will come as a shock, I think, to people though is such a thing -- well, you call it murder tourism. What was murder tourism?
FLANDERSWell, it's phrase I made up. They didn't call it that themselves, but there was this bizarre habit of going to see the site of a murder, so a house where a murder had taken place, and often collecting as a souvenir something from that site. So, you know, there was a murder that took place in a barn in rural England, and one report said the barn was virtually torn down because people kept detaching splinters of wood to take home to say, look, I've got a little bit of the red barn.
SESNOOf the crime scene? Of the crime itself.
SESNOYeah. And then the hangman would sell off pieces of rope after the, you know, if somebody was executed, right? I mean, you know, there was...
FLANDERSYeah. That was -- that was one of his privileges as the hangman. He got to sell the rope and keep the money.
SESNOSo entertainment and free enterprise did rather well from the crime scene?
SESNOAll right. So take us into some of these -- some of these crimes that you look at and you investigate yourselves. Which one do you find particularly perplexing or delicious in its own twisted way that has resonated through history.
FLANDERSWell, what was so interesting was how some of the crimes that struck me as so bizarre seemed to have been totally forgotten almost immediately, while some of the really dull ones, you know Thug A hits Thug B over head with stick, Thug A dies, I mean, just not interesting, somehow captured the imagination, and I never really did resolve what it was that piqued people's interests in some of these really brutal, rather dull fallings out between two lots of nasty violent men.
SESNOYou write about, for example, the Marr murders. Tell us about the Marr murders.
FLANDERSWell, Andrew Marr and his family, a wife, a child, and an apprentice, lived in the east end of London. They were modestly well to do. They had a shop. And one night the servant went out to get oysters, which was a sort of standard take away food at the time, for their supper, and when she came back, the door was locked. And when finally they broke in, they found that the entire family had been viciously, and I mean viciously, beaten to death, all except the baby, whose throat had merely been cut.
FLANDERSAnd this was staggering because this was four people who were murdered in one night, and this was roughly the amount of people who were murdered in all of Britain in the previous six months, that we know of. So it was just a staggering number. And there was this huge upheaval, and everyone ran around screaming and yelling the way people do when there's a murder. There was at this stage no police force. There was a parish watch system and it was every bit as useless as incompetent in finding a murderer as everyone said it would be.
SESNOThe year was?
SESNOThe year was?
FLANDERSOh, I'm sorry. The year was 1811.
SESNO1811. So the dawn of the 19th century in the (unintelligible) .
FLANDERSThe dawn of the 19th century. And then two weeks later, basically the same thing happened again in a pub. An entire family was murdered.
SESNOIn the same brutal way.
FLANDERSIn exactly the same way. It was almost certainly the same probably people.
FLANDERSBut ultimately a man was arrested who committed suicide in jail before he was brought up for questioning. And so everyone decided hurrah, hurrah, hurrah, we've caught the murderer and we don't have to think about this anymore. The odds are it probably wasn't him. There's no particular reason for it to have been him. We will never know. Certainly murders like that did not take place again in the immediate future.
SESNOI was riveted, I must say, by your rendering of this, because after -- the man's name was John Williams who committed suicide, and he was then put on a wooden cart and paraded through the streets of London. And he was taken to the house where his dead face was turned toward the home, and a stake driven through his heart. I mean, this is positively gruesome stuff. You know, once upon a time you'd say you can't make this stuff up.
FLANDERSWell, it's not only gruesome, it just has this feel, doesn't it, of a really primitive society sort of fearing some kind of afterlife. And what -- what interested me...
FLANDERSSorry. It was a fairly -- it was a fairly primitive society at the time if you say there was no police force, there was on a rudimentary legal system there, and criminal justice system, right?
FLANDERSThere was a quite highly developed criminal justice system. We may not thing today it was highly developed, but I wouldn't like to say there was nothing. But this idea of, you know, the man escaping justice and, therefore, having to physically be brought face to face with his crime, just struck me as sort of Neolithic, and then as you...
SESNOAnd it became an industry. I mean, he and that murder and others as you tracked them became this entertainment industry. It's just fascinating stuff.
FLANDERSWell, the thing that was amazing is, the inquest, which was always held very quickly after any death, was about three days after and people went and looked at the bloodstained scene beforehand.
SESNOOn the scene. I mean, right there.
FLANDERSYes. They walked through the house to check out the bloodstains.
SESNOWe're talking with Judith Flanders. She is the author of "The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime." We'll come back and talk with her some more after this.
SESNOI'm Frank Sesno, sitting in for Diane Rehm today. Welcome back to "The Diane Rehm Show." We are talking with Judith Flanders. She is author of "The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime." She's a social historian of the Victorian era. Judith, talk a little bit about the case of John Thurtell. And as you write in the book, this was what you call the first trial by newspaper.
FLANDERSWell, Thurtell was one of those people that I saw was just an ordinary average. He was a gambler, a not very successful one, and he murdered a more successful gambler hoping to steal his winnings, which he then didn't find. So he was brutal and incompetent. He then sort of moved the body around. There are early stories, you know, he put it in a pond and then he took it out of the pond and he put it somewhere else.
FLANDERSI mean, he was really hopeless as a criminal and he was caught almost immediately. I mean, everyone had seen him leave. Everyone could track him all the way along and he was very shortly indeed arrested for the crime. And I say one of the great mysteries is what exactly was the fascination of this not-very-clever, not-very-competent man? And the answer is I have no idea. But a whole industry grew up around him.
FLANDERSBroad sides, which were these sheets that were sold on the street. They were sort of penny sheets.
SESNOKind of newspaper-type things, right?
FLANDERSYeah, that just told you the latest update on the story. There were poems about him. There were songs about him. Nobody could enough of this man.
SESNOWere these songs or poems vilifying him or were they lying? What were they doing?
FLANDERSWell, it was their interest in him because very swiftly he was turned from a brute into some sort of, you know, a gentleman murderer.
SESNOA gentleman murderer?
FLANDERSI don't know. I mean, it's a mystery to me. But he was sort of given these debonair characteristics, none of which, as far as we can tell, he possessed in real life. We were told he dressed very dashingly and he was very handsome. Neither of which seems to be true. And so on and so forth. And there were stories about him and children read about him. And it was one of the precursors to these books, which ultimately became boys stories.
FLANDERSYou know, that you bought in serial form. What ultimately became "Penny Bloods," which were adventure stories for boys. And Thurtell was one of the very earliest of these because people just couldn't get enough of him.
SESNOAnd he was tried and executed.
FLANDERSHe was tried. He was executed.
SESNOWhat was his execution -- I mean, his execution was, I hate to use the term, but it was entertainment as well. The execution attracted thousands. Did it not?
FLANDERSExecutions were entertainment for a long time to come, I fear. They were no doubt for a lot of people, people selling drink and food and all sorts of things were at the execution event. It was sort of like a fair day. And broad sides sellers who sold -- had sold these sheets about just the crime and then about the trial would then come to the gallows with a sheet which told about the execution. So the people there had to know it could not be true.
FLANDERSThey're standing there. A man has not been hanged and they are being sold a sheet telling all about the sad story of his execution. But they bought them all the same.
SESNOThere's a press story in there someplace, Judith. But we'll leave that for another time. What role did class play in both the crime themselves and the fascination of the crime after the fact?
FLANDERSClass has always played a great deal of importance in any part of English life. So it does in crime, too. Gradually, as the century went on, people became more and more fascinated with the middle class murderers, often somebody who were said to have killed to get an inheritance, to get rid of usually unloved husband. Very often these crimes, to modern eyes, don't seem to have been very real.
FLANDERSThere was a murderer, supposedly named Wainwright who was said to have killed all sorts of people who he was supposedly had insured and who -- he was going to inherit the money when they died. There was actually never any trial because there was never any of it. He killed anyone. But that really didn't stop people. They loved the story of Wainwright the poisoner who, as far as I can tell, never poisoned anybody.
FLANDERSHe was a forger. He did end up going -- being sent off to Tazmania. He was deported as a convict, but not for murder.
SESNOI you want with Judith Flanders, our guest, about murder in the Victorian Age and how it became an entertainment industry, you can call us 1-800-433-8850 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We'll take your calls and questions in just a few minutes. Judith, let's come to some names that people know and maybe you can shed a little light on how this Victorian murder industry, era, entertainment shaped the narrative around these. Let's start with Jack the Ripper.
FLANDERSWell, Jack the Ripper is of course is a name we don't know precisely. That is why he is so famous. We have no idea who he was. There are probably as many suggestions for who he might have been as there are drops in the ocean. I have counted over 80.
SESNOEighty theories? Eighty...
FLANDERSEighty theories. And...
SESNOWhat do we know about who and what and where?
FLANDERSWe know almost nothing. We know that there were a number of murders in 1888 in the East End of London. Usually the women who were killed were prostitutes. The ones that we feel made up his victims were alcoholic but even the exact number we don't know because who is to say this one was and this one wasn't. There are usually accepted five murders which looked as though they were done by the same person. That is really all we know.
FLANDERSEverything else is guess. The name Jack came from a letter which even at the time it was generally supposed had been written by journalists.
FLANDERSOh, sure. It was wonderful for circulation.
SESNOSo the journalists were writing letters purportedly from Jack the Ripper to drive circulation.
SESNOYou don't sound mildly surprised by that.
SESNOYes, of course, I am as a journalist. This would never happen.
FLANDERSNo, no, no, no. At the time, it was -- the suggestion in the press was the journalists had done it. So when people talk about, oh, you know, the DNA on the letters and la di da di da di da we don't know where those letters came from. There is no evidence that they came from a man who did these murders. So the great fascination of Jack the Ripper is of course his entirely unknowable.
SESNOThis one you're not going to solve but it is delightful to hear your analysis of it. Many people have been, whether in the West End of London or on Broadway or someplace else to a play called "Sweeney Todd." That was something of an industry. Totally fictionalized? Any basis in fact?
FLANDERSOh, Sweeney of course has no basis in fact whatsoever which disappointed me hugely. I loved "Sweeney Todd." And indeed when I started I had a whole chapter on him, which for Mercy said got threw out, so you only got a little bit of Sweeney. He arrived in 1841 on stage. He was a theatrical construction. Not by coincidence he arrived in the decade that in Britain was called the Hungry '40s.
FLANDERSIt was a period of enormous hardship. Economic depression. Later on in the decade with the famine in Ireland, huge immigration and upheaval. And a lot of people were starving. So the story of somebody who, to survive, turns his customers into meat pies, well, that's the decade I would have chosen if I'd had to guess.
SESNOThe demon barber Fleet Street was never a demon or a barber of Fleet Street apparently.
FLANDERSHe wasn't a demon. He wasn't a barber. And he wasn't in Fleet Street. Apart from that, it works.
SESNOPerfect story. Elisa Fanning (sp?) is a story that did take place. The case of Elisa Fanning.
FLANDERSAnd breaks my heart.
SESNOTell us about that.
FLANDERSElisa Fanning, poor Elisa Fanning. She was a servant in 1815. She worked for a clerk, in American a clerk, who worked for the lower courts. And for reasons that nobody really understands, one day the entire family, five of them, became ill after a meal. They accused of Elisa Fanning of poisoning them. And despite the fact that she too had been ill, despite the fact that in 1815 there was no way of testing for arsenic, despite the fact that there was no evidence she'd ever had any arsenic, Elisa Fanning was tragically found guilty of attempted murder and executed.
FLANDERSAnd even then -- even when executions were entertainment, no one was entertained by Elisa. It was said that 10,000 people went to see her being hanged and there was no noise at all. No one said anything. They knew they were watching judicial murder.
SESNONo such thing as an appeal?
FLANDERSOh, goodness no. In 1815, you were executed 48 hours after the verdict.
SESNOWhat role did gender play in this narrative. I'm fascinated as I read your book both the victims and in some cases the perpetrators, it seems to be different. The notion of gender changes the characterization tremendously.
FLANDERSWell, the entertainment market loved the idea of female murderers and made a great deal of it. In reality then as now they were very rare. Vastly fewer than male murderers. And while, again, the perception was that women were treated much more harshly for becoming unfeminine and murdering, in reality they were on the whole, Elisa Fanning notwithstanding, treated much more gently.
FLANDERSOn the whole women who, say, killed a violent husband, were not found guilty, women who -- unmarried women who let their illegitimate babies die were not tried for murder. There was generally -- they were treated much more gently. But in commercial terms, in terms of entertainment, newspaper reports (unintelligible) there, people really went to town and wrote very harshly about them.
SESNOWe're talking with Judith Flanders. She's author of "The Invention of Murder: How the Victorian Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime." She's a social historian of the Victorian Era. I'm Frank Sesno. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And we'd like to invite you to join us and our author guest today from the BBC Studios in London. Please give us a call at 1-800-433-8850.
FLANDERSSend us an email at email@example.com and we'll see what we get out of the Victorian Era and the entertainment industry that grew up around murders as odd as it may seem. But it really isn't odd because we've been fascinated by death in our narrative storytelling, our entertainment almost since the dawn of human time. Let's go to the first call. Katie joins us from Houston, TX. Hi, Katie.
KATIEHello. Thank you for taking my call. It's a fascinating topic and your book just sounds really interesting. I would like to know if you could talk a little bit about Victorian Era murders around Scotland. And I know that Burke and Hare, which I think would make a fascinating Broadway show. But if you could tell me maybe about a little bit other ones.
SESNOWell, Katie, after she answers your question, you can go produce the show. Go ahead, Judith.
FLANDERSWe'll go into business together. I'll give you the facts, you do the show. Burke and Hare, of course were also, as I said, so many murderers were, they were incompetent. They wanted to be resurrection men, that is digging up dead people to sell them to anatomy schools, medical schools to use for lesson. But they were so bad at it that the resurrectionists wouldn't let them join the club. And so they ended up killing people and selling them.
FLANDERSThey were, as I say, not very good at their job. A more elaborate in the 1850s was Madeleine Smith who was a daughter of a nice middle class architect. And she had a relationship with a man who was less socially permanent than her family. And ultimately - it's a secret obviously. And ultimately when her family found her a nice man to marry and he threatened to reveal all, she supposedly murdered him.
FLANDERSNow, I have to say, supposedly because in Scotland there was and still is a third verdict. We're used to guilty and not guilty. Scotland has a middle verdict which is not proven, which means that the prosecution hasn't proved its case but they don't really think she's innocent either. Madeleine was found -- her case was found not proven. So she was released. She actually lived to a ripe old age, dying Brooklyn in the 1920s.
FLANDERSMarried to a man 30 years younger than she was, who didn't know he was 30 years younger than she was. She was quite a girl.
FLANDERSI definitely liked her.
SESNOI think there's great Broadway potential in that one. Let's go to Robert in Little Rock, AK. Hi Robert.
ROBERTMy question has to do with the Victorian fascination with spiritualism. I'm wondering what role if any that fascination played in the moral and legal perspectives on murder.
FLANDERSWhat interesting question. I don't know, I think is my answer. I think in terms of legal, probably nothing. In terms of how people thought about murder, first of all, spiritualism didn't really arrive in Britain until the 1860s. So the whole first half of the century wouldn't really have been touched by it. Do I think that it changed people's attitudes? No, I suspect it really didn't. I don't remember seeing anything about people coming back and saying, you shouldn't have done that to me. Although it's a nice idea.
SESNOComing up, more of your calls and questions for Judith Flanders. She is author of "The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime." It's quite a story. We'll be back. I'm Frank Sesno. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show."
SESNOWelcome back to "The Diane Rehm Show." It's my great pleasure to be with you today. I'm Frank Sesno and my guest, Judith Flanders, author of "The Invention of Murder: How The Victorians Reveled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime." Judith, we have a number of questions, some of them follow up on the conversation we've had already and I'd like to circle back before going back to the phones, because some of these questions are terrific.
SESNOOne, this is a Jack-the-Ripper question from John in Baltimore, Md. He asks, "So can we ask you if you've heard the theory that Vincent Van Gogh was Jack the Ripper?"
FLANDERSI've heard the theory that everyone was Jack the Ripper except for my Great Aunt Mary. She's clean. Everyone else is a possibility.
SESNOShe's off the hook, but Vincent Van Gogh?
FLANDERSWell, he wasn't...
SESNOHow credible is that theory? How developed is it?
FLANDERSI haven't examined it in detail. He was in England in 1888. He lived in London. He was working as an art dealer. But so did several million other people.
SESNOSo you don't take that one very seriously.
FLANDERSI don't take any of them seriously in the sense that there is simply no way of ever knowing. And mathematics tell us that the more numbers that get out that the less likely it is we're ever going to have an answer.
SESNOHere's one from Tom and he -- his subject line on this one is "We're Worse!" And he observes the following. "Your guest only briefly touched on how the blood-thirstiness of the Victoria times relates to contemporary culture. Popular culture is drenched in blood for entertainment purposes, some of it fictional but not all. Can we hear some compare and contrast?"
FLANDERSWell, of course that's true whether it's the internet, the 24-hour rolling news, all of which focuses on violent crime if some sort or another. Then we move to television, film. On a so-so supposedly highbrow level, we have whole novels, whether we're talking about now or whether we're talking about Dostoyevsky, about murder. Yes, of course. I mean, extremes all human condition are what interest people. We aren't la drenched. It's the deal.
SESNOYou know, as I think about his question and the topic I think of, you know, so many of the television programs that are on today. And some of them have gotten quite graphic in representational, whether it's, you know, CSI or Dexter the Serial Killer show that's wildly popular here. And you see heads floating in barrels and things like that. And we think, oh my gosh, that's just so graphic. Do we really have to go there? But actually, back in Victorian times the theater, the writing, it was very graphic then.
FLANDERSWell, one of the things we have to remember about the 19th century is they were much closer to physical reality than we are. Most people were born and died at home. They were used to dead bodies in a way we simply are not. Several of the trials I looked at, body parts were brought into the court. And nobody mentions this as a particularly odd thing. Indeed, in one crime in the 1890s in Edinburgh, a dead person's skull was brought into court to discuss where he may or may not have been shot just openly.
FLANDERSThe gun that may or may not have shot him was brought in decently shrouded in black fabric.
SESNOThe gun was shrouded, the head was not?
FLANDERSExactly. So there is this thing with Victorians that they are just very real. We're not used to that.
SESNOLet's go to the phones, Judith, and hear from some of our listeners. Joel from Ann Arbor, Mich. is calling in. Hi, Joel.
JOELHi. I'm interested in the affect of the popularity of crime on the actual commission of crime. Do you know if there was a good deal or any copycat crime in Victorian England?
FLANDERSI think this has always been a fear. People used to write about it a great deal, particularly the influence on children, these boys' stories of daring do and adventure and murder. I don't think there's any evidence that we can call real evidence as opposed to, well I just feel it's so, that there were indeed more crimes when people wrote about them and less when they didn't know.
SESNOHere's another caller, Lenore of Charlottesville, Va. Hi, Lenore.
LENOREHi, good morning.
SESNOGood morning. Go ahead.
LENOREMy question is about urbanization, the role that that might have played in changing popularity of crime. I'm sort of the theory that when people don't know each other as well, you know, the anonymity of the big city, it's easier to be a little bit less empathetic either for the murderers or the families of the victims than when you're in a country village and everybody knows everybody else. But then your guest's talking about people being close to physical realities might have demolished that. I was just wondering what will the changing urban landscape versus rural life might have in all this.
FLANDERSI think urbanization has an enormous influence, not so much on crime itself as how it was dealt with, i.e. the development of the police force and how we think about it, which is the development of the detective story. Suddenly living with a whole bunch of strangers was very frightening. And I think that the development of the detective story, which grows in the 1840s and onwards, exactly as urbanization takes off, was very much part of a way of taming that fear.
FLANDERSBecause in the classic detective story, of course, everyone is a possible suspect until at the end one bad person is taken away, by definition everyone else is innocent. But the thing you have to remember is that crime was very rare anyway. And most crime, then as now, took place in the home. The most dangerous place then for a woman, just as the most dangerous place now for a woman, was to be alone at home with your loved one.
SESNOFunny how that works. Very...
FLANDERSSorry about that.
SESNOYeah, right. Here's a question from a listener via Facebook. If Charles -- in the Charles Dickens' novels, young children were often hung or were sometimes hung for stealing -- hanged for stealing is should be -- but anyway, how common was that? And if it did happen, how did the spectators react at such hangings?
FLANDERSBy the time Dickens was writing, children were in effect -- stealing apart from anything else was no longer a capital crime. Any time that you see in a 19th century novel that anyone is hanged for stealing, it is a novel that is set in the past. By the time we are talking about, there are only six crimes which have the sentence of death. And stealing is no longer one of them. Basically, by now, people only get executed for murder. So although Dickens may have written about it, they're always in his historic novels.
SESNOAnother caller from Miami, Fla. this time. Michael, you're on the air with us. Go ahead.
MICHAELHi. Yes, my question has to deal with the concern of the enthusiasm into education. How did the crime enthusiasm in entertainment affect academia, you know, colleges, universities and even at the secondary level as well?
SESNOSo the popular culture -- does the popular culture in this preoccupation with some of these spectacular crimes, Judith, spill into other literature teaching educational institutions?
FLANDERSWell, of course, the thing is that popular crime turned into popular entertainment. And what we know regard as highbrow entertainment versus popular was not necessarily the case then. For instance, in 1860s, in one year the two most popular novels of the year, one was "The Woman in White" which is a sensation proto detective novel. And the other is "Great Expectations," which also is about a convict and a crime.
FLANDERSAt the time there was less recognition that these were particularly different. Today we think about it differently, Just as after the Ripper case, one of the novels that was published was "Dracula." Another was Oscar Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray." Today we call one literature and we call the other genre. It's perspective.
SESNOI'm Frank Sesno and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Our guest is Judith Flanders. She's author of a fascinating, sometimes disturbing book called "The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Reveled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime." It is fascinating, Judith. One of the other things you track through your crime exploration is the rise of policing, because now suddenly these broadsides and the press were out there as well. The entertainment industry drives policing.
SESNOOne question that's come up though too is how some of these crimes were taken to court and proved or not. I'm very curious as to -- you talked about the, you know, poisoning people and killing people that way -- what forensics were around back then? How would you prove a poisoning?
FLANDERSWell, in the 1830s and '40s they began to develop tests that could find say arsenic in human remains. The difficulty with that for a long time was arsenic was in almost everything in Victorian Britain. It was in soap, it was in washers you used on farm animals, it was in wool paper, it was in fabric dyes. So finding arsenic in somebody did not necessarily indicate they'd been poisoned. That of course didn't stop a lot of people from being convicted all the same.
FLANDERSBut you watch gradually over the century as experts became expert. They learned to test for things. I mean it wasn't until the very end of the century that they could absolutely reliably identify human blood. Earlier they would say, it looks like blood or, you know, let's arrest him. He's got brownish stains on his shirt. It was very slow. And part of the heartbreak is watching, in particular, one expert who was no such thing, just go for prosecution after prosecution after prosecution on evidence that we today, you sit there in the library shouting, it's tainted. Stop it.
SESNOThere was no one to shout that, certainly not definitively at the time. Then talk about this development and the evolution over the century of police work. The role of the detective really starts to emerge during this time as information and forensics become more refined.
FLANDERSWell, in 1842 the first detective department was set up in Britain. And it's address was Scotland Yard. It was what ultimately became the CID, what we refer to as Scotland Yard today. And for the first time, being a policeman was not simply about preventing crime but it was also about detecting crime after it had been committed. And it's most fervent admirer was Charles Dickens. So very early on in 1851 we get a novel with a police inspector in it, Inspector Bucket of the detective we're told.
FLANDERSAnd what fascinated me was how detection and detective stories developed hand in hand. I actually felt it was rather like, you know, today if it hadn't been for the Godfather and the Sopranos, nobody in New Jersey would know how to dress. I think if it wasn't for detective stories, Scotland Yard wouldn't have known how to operate. You watch them working together, not knowingly but unconsciously learning from each other.
FLANDERSSo if there's a forensic development it very quickly shows up in detective fiction. Then...
SESNOAnd is this the emergence of the detective novel per say as opposed to what you call the sensational novel?
FLANDERSAbsolutely. Absolutely. The sensation novel is usually a family story. There is something secret that needs to be found out. In the detective novel you have an outsider, the independent person, pursuing this in, as it turns out when we get to Sherlock Holmes and things at the end of the century, this ideal of justice. And you watch this develop through the whole century.
SESNOPut Sherlock Holmes into context for us. Do you love it...
SESNO...or is it the logical conclusion to this violent entertainment century?
FLANDERSI adore Sherlock Holmes. Hell, I wrote the whole book so I'd have the excuse of lying on the sofa and rereading them all. But the thing about Sherlock Holmes that's really interesting is that he's tamed. It's safe. Very few of the stories actually involve murder. Many of them don't even involve crime. They're some sort of family trickery or underhandedness. And...
SESNOIn our final few minutes here I want to get back to the call -- one last call from Shay from Asheboro, N.C. Sorry to cut you off there but I want to let Shay jump in. Shay, go for it.
SHAYHi. I was wondering what you think the reason for this fascination with death, specifically in the Victorian era, but in storytelling since the beginning of storytelling. Why death? Why do we love death so much? And I'll take this off the air.
SESNOThank you so much and that's going to be a thought that we're going to let you wrap up with here, Judith. So why are we so fascinated, and have been in one form or another since the beginning of time -- look at the Bible, right -- in death and suffering?
FLANDERSBecause we're frightened of it. It's a way of saying, I'm sticking my fingers in my ears and I can't hear you. It's being -- we're going to be safe. We're talking about other people.
SESNOWhat was it about the Victorian years, this 19th century, that led to such a rise at least in popular culture of this behavior?
FLANDERSThis is urbanization. It's the commercialization of the leisure industries. It's the creation of a way of selling, whether it's newspapers or books or theater or puppet shows. It's about selling. And as we know, crime sells.
SESNOIn the minute left, you have spent your life studying the Victorian era and now this book on popular culture, newspaper, detective work, crime in the Victorian era. What surprised you the most as you did this detective work of your own, Judith?
FLANDERSI think it was how little there was of it. How safe the world was. And when you look around, really still how safe the world is. The murder rate in Britain is about 1.5 per 100,000 people. That strikes me as pretty damn safe. We don't think about it. We let the books, we let the newspapers, we let the magazines frighten us to death. We don't need to.
SESNOAnd in America?
FLANDERSWell, it's a little more dangerous but not a lot. I mean, murder rate there is about 6 per 100,000.
SESNOSo you live on either side of the pond.
FLANDERSMe? No, I live here.
SESNONo, but you would choose -- I mean, you'd feel safe here. You could join us.
FLANDERSYeah, I think you can walk down the street without panicking.
SESNOOkay. Judith Flanders, "The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Reveled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime. Thank you for your time. I'm Frank Sesno. This is "The Diane Rehm Show.
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