Saturday, June 12, 2021

Murder by the Book: The Crime That Shocked Dickens's London

 Murder by the Book: The Crime That Shocked London (2019) by Claire Harman

Lord William Russell, resident in a highly respectable Mayfair street, is found horribly murdered in his bed. His throat has been cut--nearly severing his head from his body. It doesn't take long for the suspicion of the police to rest on Russel's valet--despite the fact that the man seems wholly respectable and a calm and obedient servant. Evidence of theft is soon found and speculation is aroused that his master had caught him in the act. But the gentry are extremely unnerved by this crime--fearing that the true motive behind the murder is an unrest among the servant class; an unrest that has been growing. 

But after the trial is over and Francois Benjamin Courvoisier has been found guilty, he begins writing a series of confessions--each one supposedly, finally the truth. In one of these many confessions, he puts the blame for his actions upon a popular sensation novel, Jack Sheppard. This novel has celebrated the life of an unrepentant thief who escapes justice again and again and whose story includes a dreadful murder not too unlike that of Lord Russell. 

Before the gruesome murder which riveted the attention of all of London--from Queen Victoria herself to the lowliest street urchins, the novel and the many pirated theater productions which sprung up in its wake had been vilified by the press as having encouraged young people to take up thieving as a way of life. The public is even more horrified to think that a novel could incite a man to murder.

Harman has exhaustively researched her subject, that much is apparent. She gives us great detail on the time period and the literary background leading up to the "Newgate novels" as those stories which featured the criminal class in a more pleasing light were called. She also provides all of the material she could uncover relating to the murder of Lord Russell, the subsequent investigation, and trial of Courvoisier. What the book fails to do is make any substantial connection between the novel Jack Sheppard and Courvoisier's crime or between Dickens & Thackeray and the crime. Dickens and Thackeray seem to have been brought into the narrative to bulk up the literary tone, but they certainly don't have much relevance to the contention that there is a connection between this type of novel and crimes committed. 

To be honest, it appears that there is much more evidence that seeing the plays had more influence on young people than the book ever did. Petty thieves who were caught would cite having gone to see a production of Jack Sheppard and while Courvoisier did mention the book, he placed more emphasis on the production he had seen as an influence. In all fairness to William Harrison Ainsworth, author of Jack Sheppard who was shamed in the newspapers for having written such a novel, most of the productions bore scant resemblance to his work and made Jack into an even bigger hero than he had intended. It seems to me that the fingers in the 1840s should have been pointing at those who were packing them in at the theaters.

Overall, an interesting look at true crime in the early Victorian period made slightly more interesting by the literary connection, though I would say that the reality of the book does not quite live up expectation of a large literary influence upon crime. It would have been more impactful if Courvoisier had claimed from the beginning that Jack Sheppard made him go on his murderous rampage. But when he produces several confessions and only brings in Jack Sheppard in the last one--and gives the book a weak reference at that--it doesn't give great credence to the thesis that such novels had any effect on morals. 

First line: Early in the morning of Wednesday, 6 May 1840, on an ultra-respectable Mayfair street one block to the east of Park Lane, a footman called Daniel Young answered the door to a panic-stricken young woman, Sarah Mancer, the maid of the house opposite.

Last line: Jack Sheppard did its evil work of popularity and has now gone to its cradle in the cross-roads of literature.


Deaths = 6 (two throat cut; one pushed down a well; one crushed to death; two hanged)

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