By October of 1888, Jack the Ripper had the attention of everyone in London. But were they truly terrified? In The Invention of Murder, Judith Flanders tells the story of Victorians who visited murder sites, put on morbid puppet shows, and wrote songs of sensationalized killings.
Zola: As a social historian of the Victorian Era, what was it particularly about crime and violence during that time that inspired you to research and write this book?
Judith Flanders: My interest was not primarily with the crime and violence–not the actuality of what happened–but with the response to it, both by the media (newspapers, books) and entertainment world (theatre, novels). So, not ‘what happened?’, but ‘how did people respond to what happened?’ The crimes are, of course, very interesting, but I wanted to focus on how people thought about the crimes. We hear, for example, that all of London was ‘terrorized’ by the Jack the Ripper murders, and were afraid to go out. In reality, it becomes clear, not only were people perfectly happy to go out more generally, but they made special trips to see the places where the murders had been committed; or they bought song-sheets, which had new lyrics about the murders (including comic songs) to be sung to familiar tunes; or there were children’s games, where the way to win was not to bring ‘Jack’ to justice, but to enable him to elude the police.
The newspaper industry was really just being born to a mass readership at the beginning of this period, so just as we have 24-hour rolling news about a sensational crime, so too did the Victorians, and I wanted to look at what it was that interested them.
Zola: What fact or anecdote that you came across during your research surprised you most?
JF: There were lots of wonderful things: the Victorians in effect merchandized crime every bit as much as we do today. We have TV shows about true-crime, as well as detective shows, or shows about criminals, like The Sopranos. In the 19th century, crime was a major part of popular culture too, they just consumed it in different formats. There were ornamental pottery replicas of the houses of murderers that you could buy to put on your mantelpiece, for example; or you could go and watch a puppet show of some famous murders (some of these were so successful that they were still being staged sixty and seventy years after the crime they were about had been committed); or there were race-horses and greyhounds that were named for murderers (and, in one instance, I even found a ship that had been named for a–probably falsely accused–murderer).
Zola: Do you think contemporary violence and crime affects current detective and urban fiction any differently than the way 19th century crime did for the Victorian writers?
JF: I doubt there is a direct correlation — I don’t think that would-be criminals are affected by fictional trends in the type of crime they commit. But of course we learn our behaviour very much still from film and TV. Therefore I would be astonished if the behaviour of criminals, the way that they think of themselves, and the way they would like others to think of them, was not influenced by what they see on the screen, just as non-criminals also see reflections of their own lives on TV and in films, and are influenced in turn by these reflections. That’s not about crime, just about human nature.
Zola: Who would fare better: Victorian criminals in the present day or present-day criminals in the Victorian era?
JF: This is a great question, and fun to imagine Team 21st-century pitted against Team 19th-century!
There would be pluses and minuses on both sides, I suspect. Victorian criminals wouldn’t know about fingerprints, or that blood of individuals can be identified, much less things like DNA, so their crime scenes would be fatally contaminated. But on the other hand, we today know very little, for instance, about the poisons Victorians came across regularly. I asked a Home Office pathologist several questions I had about poisoning, and he kept saying ‘We don’t know, we don’t know’, which puzzled me, until he said, ‘We almost never see cases of deliberate poisoning any more. People just don’t poison each other.’ So an entire strand of Victorian crime would be a mystery to modern scientific investigators.
JF: That’s a tough one. My heart, of course, says Sherlock Holmes, but there are so many, both Victorian and modern, and all the ones in between, that I love to read. And I’d like to put in a word for Ruth Trail, who I identify in my book as the first female detective in English literature. Ruth, says this serial from the early 1860s, is used by the police when the job is too tough for a mere man, so I have to love her. (And she also works for a secret agent who is so secret that his office has a plaque on the front door: ‘Secret Agent’, it says. Irresistible.)
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.