“What class the murder was, what class the victim was, how the death occurred, all these things made a great deal of difference to public interest,” writes Judith Flanders. She’s referencing Victorian England, but she may as well be talking about the U.S. in the twenty-first century (and England and many other places, no doubt). A full century before the term “missing white woman syndrome” was coined, so much about justice in Victorian England resonates with frightening similarity to our own time and place.
First off, I picked up this book because I enjoy historical mysteries, real-life crime, and all things Victorian, so this was a natural fit. While I loved the book, the title fell short (or maybe exceeded?) expectations. Flanders does spend time illustrating how Victorian interest in crime launched the careers of the early fictional detectives, from Bleak House’s Inspector Bucket all the way to the appearance of of Sherlock Holmes in A Study in Scarlet. She also studies how changing attitudes towards the police helped evolve their role from keepers of the peace to solvers of crime, including a study of the case that effectively led to the formation of Scotland Yard. But where the book really sings, at least for me, is when it addresses the social injustices of the time.
One particularly sad case involved Eliza Fenning, a servant who was tried and ultimately hanged for poisoning the family for which she worked when five people fell ill after eating some dumplings that she had prepared. That no one had died, that Eliza herself had fallen ill, and that the presence of poison was never proven made little difference in the case. Her guilt was based on her station, her history (she was Irish, and her mother and father were Catholic!), and the fact that middle class people became hysterical at the idea that their servants might be trying to kill them (illogically, since that would put the servants out of jobs). Writes Flanders, “The court accepted statements from respectable (that is, middle-class) witnesses at face value, without questioning motives or sources of information. . . .” Perhaps the most odious prejudice against her was because she could read. Obviously a servant who had such ideas above her station could not be trusted.
Mistrust towards the poor was rampant among the middle class and was evidenced in the panic that surrounded “burial societies.” Burial societies provided inexpensive life insurance. Groups contributed monthly dues to a fund that would pay out on the death of a family member to cover the burial expenses. In 1840, a young child of Irish immigrants died under “suspicious” circumstances. Although there was no evidence of poison or that the child had been intentionally murdered, the case convinced the middle-class population of England that hundreds if not thousands of poverty-stricken parents were regularly murdering their children for money.
In some ways, I found this book fairly depressing, because it seems we have not come all that far in the last century and a half. People of a low station were generally convicted based on the fact that they seemed guilty, unless they could afford an actual lawyer, in which case things often turned out much better for them. Cases were tried in the press, with competing newspapers arguing opposing sides. Where the Victorians had printed pamphlets to argue their points to the public, we have blogs. They were biased against Irish Catholics, we are biased against (fill in the blank with the minority group of your choice). They had the hysteria of the burial societies, convinced that poor people were murdering their children based on zero evidence. Today we have the hysteria that vaccines are causing autism, and no amount of scientific evidence will persuade a small sector of frightened parents otherwise. The book does not draw any of these parallels; it doesn’t have to. It’s nearly impossible to read about cases that caused a media frenzy in the nineteenth century without relating them back to current events.
I may be making this book sound like a bit of a downer, but it’s actually a fascinating study into Victorian life, murder, and social justice. On top of being an interesting read, it’s given me a lot of food for thought, and isn’t that what a good book should do?