Flanders, Judith. The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime
. 2011. New York: Thomas Dunne Books-St. Martin's Press, 2013.
Tucher, Andie. Froth and Scum: Truth, Beauty, Goodness, and the Ax Murder in America's First Mass Medium
. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1994.
This is another inadvertant pairing, but even aside from the part where both Flanders and Tucher are talking about murder, they're both talking about popular culture in the nineteenth century and the way the snowballing literacy rate created popular print
culture. And how popular print culture addressed the phenomenon of murder.
Tucher is interested in a very narrow window: 1836 to 1841 in New York, from the murder of Helen Jewett
by Frank Robinson to the murder of Samuel Adams by John Colt. She is particularly interested in the way these two murders were reported by James Gordon Bennett and the New York Herald
and the development of the "objective" style of newspaper reporting. I have some problems with the motivations she ascribes to Bennett (mostly in that I'm not sure he was as self aware as she thinks he was), and it turned out in the last chapter that she was aiming for an argument about journalism that I don't agree with, but the part about the history of the penny press in New York was excellent
Flanders' is a much larger book, in every sense of the word, larger in scope, larger in outlook, larger in physical dimensions (556 pages vs. 257). Ignore the pretentious title (and the doubly pretentious sub-title): nowhere in her argument does Flanders claim that the Victorians "invented" murder, nor that they "created modern crime." The Invention of Murder
is half an overview of the famous murders of the nineteenth century in England, from the Ratcliffe Highway
murders to Jack the Ripper
. (Although, oddly, Charles Bravo
is nowhere to be found.) The other half is an exhaustive teasing out of what happened to those murders (those murderers and those victims) as they were swallowed by the increasingly insatiable maw of Victorian print culture, and the particular ways in which they were fictionalized. Broadsides, pamphlets, newspapers, penny-bloods (later called penny-dreadfuls), novels, plays, puppet shows, waxwork exhibits; she even notes racehorces and greyhounds named for murderers. She also follows the unfolding of detective fiction as a genre and the development of the institution of the police. And if nothing else will convince you of the inadvisability of time travel, the utterly horrific standards of justice in nineteenth-century England should do the trick.
This is a very good book, very well-written, very entertaining. If you're interested at all in the process by which fact becomes fiction, it is endlessly fascinating. In the cases where I know enough to tell, she seems to have her facts straight. (She gets some details wrong about Jack the Ripper, but everybody
gets some details wrong about Jack the Ripper, and it's mean to cavil.) I inevitably disagree with some points of her interpretation, but nothing that really gets in the way.
This is not a true-crime book. Flanders pays attention to the victims and the murderers (and the victims of legal murder), but she's interested more in the cultural transmission of their stories than she is in trying to uncover the truth (or "truth," if you're feeling particularly skeptical today) about the murder of Francis Saville Kent
, for instance, or Adelaide Bartlett's husband*, or the Marrs and the Williamsons back in 1811. The historiography of murder, rather than the history.
*Frederick Bartlett died from swallowing liquid chloroform. The general consensus is his wife murdered him, but nobody knows how the hell she got him to swallow the stuff.