About Me

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Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada
I am a lawyer in Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada who enjoys reading, especially mysteries. Since 2000 I have been writing personal book reviews. This blog includes my reviews, information on and interviews with authors and descriptions of mystery bookstores I have visited. I strive to review all Saskatchewan mysteries. Other Canadian mysteries are listed under the Rest of Canada. As a lawyer I am always interested in legal mysteries. I have a separate page for legal mysteries. Occasionally my reviews of legal mysteries comment on the legal reality of the mystery. You can follow the progression of my favourite authors with up to 15 reviews. Each year I select my favourites in "Bill's Best of ----". As well as current reviews I am posting reviews from 2000 to 2011. Below my most recent couple of posts are the posts of Saskatchewan mysteries I have reviewed alphabetically by author. If you only want a sentence or two description of the book and my recommendation when deciding whether to read the book look at the bold portion of the review. If you would like to email me the link to my email is on the profile page.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Invention of Murder – How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime by Judith Flanders (Part I)

The Invention of Murder – How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime by Judith Flanders – There were but 15 murders among the 10,000,000 people living in England and Wales in 1810. While the number of murders was modest, by current standards, for the rest of the century murders became the primary entertainment of the masses in Great Britain.

The rise of newspapers in the 19th Century, needing content of interest to readers, was a striking comparison to the rise of internet journalism in the 21st Century. As with current media, there was a constant embroidering of reporting murder with a great willingness to spread rumour.

As the 19th century progressed lurid theatrical plays, sometimes transposing the stories of real life convicted killers into tragic, often sympathetic characters, were eagerly watched. There were often multiple plays based on the same murder. There was little respect for copyright of the words crafted by an author or playwright.

Absolutely amazing were the porcelain sculptures of the scene of the crime and the participants. Fowler provides a fine photo of “The Red Barn” sculpture modeled after the location of a famous 1828 murder.

As a lawyer it was interesting but disturbing to read how trials were conducted in the 1800’s.

There is an amazing story from 1818 where Abraham Thornton, acquitted of murder, is charged again when the deceased’s brother, William Ashford, invoked an ancient legal procedure, appeal of murder (it was a time before appeal courts existed) whereby a family member could appeal a not guilty decision. Thornton’s unnamed but very clever lawyer has Thornton turn to the equally aged English procedure of trial by battle. Thornton throws down a gauntlet before Ashcroft who declines the challenge and the appeal ends. The law is subsequently revised.

You can barely call the poisoning cases of the middle of the century trials. Men and women, especially women, were found guilty on rumour without even proof of poisoning.

It was frightening how Palmer was convicted of poisoning with strychnine when none was found in the body. At his trial only a 19th Century “expert” could render an opinion that poisoning occurred because he could not find other poisons and the deceased exhibited signs of poisoning at death though the “expert” acknowledged he had never witnessed strychnine’s “actions on a human subject”.

Public hysteria over alleged poisoning for death benefits in burial clubs undoubtedly produced false convictions.

As the public realized the dangers of convictions on such flimsy evidence trials became fairer. There was the gradual introduction of real expert evidence such as post mortem analysis of bodies, fingerprints and crime location study. By the end of the century the modern criminal trial process had been put in place.

A murder such as Palmer was good for newspaper circulation. It was the first major trial after the newspaper tax was abolished. The Illustrated Times special on the trial had double the existing circulation at 400,000 copies.

The popularity of murder was evident from the thousands who thronged executions until 1858 when they ceased to be public spectacles. Flanders does not spare the cruel deaths suffered by numerous convicted because of incompetent or careless hangmen.

Flanders includes some remarkable statistics. A prominent example involved murder of spouses. From the 1840’s to the 1890’s the number of women who killed their husbands decreased from 20 to 7 per decade while the number of husbands who killed their wives increased from 55 to 158 per decade. The author is careful to report that the statistics were for women and men charged with murder.

Within the book Flanders has a great deal of discussion on the development of the mystery novel and my next post will be upon that subject within the book.


  1. I thought this book was an excellent read. It was by my bed for a while as I read a couple of chapters a night. I found it both readable and informative - a really excellent book.

  2. "The Invention of Murder" must have been a very absorbing read. I enjoyed your review of what is, no doubt, a very well-researched book. Crimes, especially murders, have been associated with Great Britain for over two centuries and it has reflected both in the country's media and literature. Tabloid journalism probably owes its origin and success to crime in the Victorian period.

  3. Sarah: Thanks for the comment. I am glad you enjoyed the book. In my second post on the book I set out that I did enjoy the book but would have preferred certain sections to have been condensed. The amount of research done by Flanders was remarkable.

  4. Prashant: Thanks for the comment.

    While tabloids may exploit murder the most all newspapers feature murder when possible.