Poisonings, bludgeonings, suffocations
Illustrations from From Hell, Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, 1999
Flanders’s book is more than a catalogue of crimes and their subsequent incarnations in popular culture. Over 500 pages it builds into an alternative history of the Victorian age, its narrow, purposeful focus providing a means of seeing, from an oblique perspective, terrain which might previously have seemed familiar. The numerous incidents of bloodshed are linked by three larger stories, a trio of significant socio-cultural developments: the professionalization of the police force, the rise of the popular press and (in fiction more than in life) the arrival of the detective as the righter of wrongs and the solver of problems, the man who can explain the strange workings of the world.
In lively and accessible prose (though some readers may not care for its frequent colloquialisms – “wallop”; “hot-footed”; “a proper whinge”), Flanders plaits these strands together in her final chapter, which she devotes to Jack the Ripper. Stating (a touch recklessly, perhaps) that the Whitechapel killings “have probably had more written about them than any since Cain killed Abel”, she argues that those crimes represent a grimly logical summing up. “Everything we know”, she writes, “about Jack the Ripper – his name, his persona, his reasons for killing – is the culmination of a century of murderous entertainment, of melodrama, of puppet shows, of penny-dreadfuls and more”. The press, growing in influence decade by decade, were by 1888 – the year of the slaughter of prostitutes in the East End – well able to foster national panic. Many, if not all, of the letters that were sent to Scotland Yard, the Central News Agency and the Vigilance Committee (“My knife’s so nice and sharp I want to get to work right away . . .”), supposedly from the perpetrator, were almost certainly composed by journalists, while the Star, in an article on the alleged mistreatment of newsmen by officers of the law, thundered that reporters “are direct agents of the people who have a right to the news and a right to know what their paid servants the police and the detectives are doing to earn the bread and butter for which the people are taxed”. The murders went unsolved, of course, and the culprit unpunished. No real-life Sergeant Cuff, Inspector Bucket or Sherlock Holmes ever emerged to bring the killer to justice.
For all that society evolved in the Victorian century, what has become most apparent by the end of Flanders’s impressively thorough book (both bibliography and index are excellent) is how little things have changed. In these pages we seem to see reflections of our own time – in the statistics (then, as now, murders seem overwhelmingly to involve male violence against women: “throughout the sixty-three years of Victoria’s reign, 26 per cent of convicted murderers were men who killed their wives, while only 1 per cent were women who killed their husbands . . . eight out of every ten female homicide victims were killed by a husband, lover, or would-be husband or lover”), and in public concern over the corruption of the young (the “vibrant illustrated posters” of the time prompted the Police News to fret that “such pictures” might have the same effect on suggestible members of the public as “the taste of blood produces upon the tiger”).
“Murder”, she writes, “is like hearing blustery rain on the windowpane when sitting indoors. It reinforces a sense of safety, even of pleasure, to know that murder is possible, just not here.”