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.
’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. Thornton
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.
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.