Excerpt from The Invention of Murder by Judith Flanders, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Invention of Murder

How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime

by Judith Flanders

The Invention of Murder by Judith Flanders X
The Invention of Murder by Judith Flanders
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2013, 576 pages
    Jul 2014, 576 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Judi Sauerbrey
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Print Excerpt

Imagining Murder

'Pleasant it is, no doubt, to drink tea with your sweetheart, but most disagreeable to find her bubbling in the tea-urn.' So wrote Thomas de Quincey in 1826, and indeed, it is hard to argue with him. But even more pleasant, he thought, was to read about someone else's sweetheart bubbling in the tea urn, and that, too, is hard to argue with, for crime, especially murder, is very pleasant to think about in the abstract: it is like hearing blustery rain on the windowpane when sitting indoors. It reinforces a sense of safety, even of pleasure, to know that murder is possible, just not here. At the start of the nineteenth century, it was easy to think of murder that way. Capital convictions in the London area, including all the outlying villages, were running at a rate of one a year. In all of England and Wales in 1810, just fifteen people were convicted of murder out of a population of nearly ten million: 0.15 per 100,000 people. (For comparison purposes, in Canada in 2007–08 the homicide rate was 0.5 per 100,000 people, in the EU, 1.8 per 100,000, in the USA 2.79, while Moscow averaged 9.6 and Cape Town 62 per 100,000.)

Thus, when on the night of 7 December 1811 a twenty-four-year-old hosier named Timothy Marr, his wife, their baby and a fourteen-year-old apprentice were all found brutally murdered in their shop on the Ratcliffe Highway in the East End of London, the cosy feeling evaporated rapidly. The year 1811 had not been kind to the working classes. The French wars had been running endlessly, and with Waterloo four years in the future, there was no sense that peace – and with it prosperity – would ever return. Instead hunger was ever-present: the wars and bad harvests had savagely driven up the price of bread. In the early 1790s wheat had cost between 48s. and 58s. a quarter; in 1800 it was 113s.

The murder of the Marrs, however, was more dramatic than the slow deaths of so many from hunger, or the faraway deaths of soldiers and sailors in unending war, and the story was soon everywhere. The Ratcliffe Highway was a busy, populous working-class street in a busy, populous working-class area near the docks. At around midnight on the evening of his death, Marr was ready to shut up shop. (Working-class shops regularly stayed open until after ten, to serve their clientele on their way home after their fourteen-hour workdays. On Saturdays, pay day, many shops closed after midnight.) The hosier sent his servant, Margaret Jewell, to pay an outstanding bill at the baker's, and to buy the family supper. After paying the bill she looked for an oyster stall. Oysters were a common supper food, being cheap, on sale at street stalls and needing no cooking. The first stall she came to had shut up for the night, and looking for another she lost her bearings – before gas lighting streets had only the occasional oil lamp in a window to guide passers-by – and was away for longer than expected, returning around 1 a.m.* She knocked; knocked again. She heard scuffling, someone breathing on the other side of the door, but no one opened it. She stopped the parish watchman on his rounds, telling him she knew the Marrs were in, she had even heard them, but no one was answering the door. He had passed by earlier, he said, and had tapped on the window to tell Marr that one of his shutters was loose. A man had called out, 'We know it!' Now he wondered who had spoken.

Their talking attracted the attention of Marr's next-door neighbour, a pawnbroker. From his window he could see that the Marrs' back door was open. With the encouragement of the neighbours and the watchman, he climbed the fence between the houses and entered (some reports say it was the watchman who entered). Whichever man it was, once inside he found a scene from a horror film. Marr and his apprentice were lying in the shop, battered to death. The apprentice had been attacked so ferociously that fragments of his brains were later found on the ceiling. Blood was everywhere. Mrs Marr was lying dead halfway to the door leading downstairs. The pawnbroker staggered to the front door, shouting, 'Murder – murder has been done!' and the watchman swung his rattle to summon help. Soon an officer from the Thames Division Police Office appeared. Meanwhile Margaret Jewell rushed in with a group of excited bystanders, looking for the baby. They found him lying in his cradle in the kitchen, his throat cut. Some money was scattered on the shop counter, but £150 Marr had tucked away was untouched. On the counter lay an iron ripping chisel, which seemed not to have been used; in the kitchen, covered with blood and hair, was a ship's carpenter's peen maul – a hammer with sharpened ends. A razor or knife must have been used on the baby, but none was found. Outside the back door were two sets of bloody footprints, and a babble of voices reported that a couple of men, maybe more, no one was quite sure, had been seen running away from the general direction of the Marrs' house at more or less the right time.

From Invention of Murder by Judith Flanders. Copyright © 2013 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Press, LLC

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