Murder! Victorian Crime Firsts

The Victorians really would’ve loved all the crime channels we have nowadays. It was in this era that the thirst for all things crime really took off, and newspaper companies noticed this in their sales. Papers would see spikes in sales when reporting high profile crimes, which was bolstered by people’s belief in the Criminal Class, a group of people who were predisposed to committing crimes due to their social standing. As well as being some of the first people in the country to truly love their real-life crime thrillers, there were plenty of other firsts for crime in the Victorian era.[1]

The First Railway Murder

“This train will be stopping at Fenchurch, MURDER and Chalk Farm…”

People became much more suspicious of trains as the century progressed, with some women so fearful of them that they put pins in their mouths to halt unwanted advances. I’ve never seen a woman do that on the Met line. People went truly nuts over the murder of 69-year-old Thomas Briggs, the first man to be killed on a train. He was found on the 9th of July 1864, on the embankment next to the train lines. Briggs died several hours later of his injuries. Suspicions fell on German born Franz Muller, after he was caught trying to flog Briggs’ watch and chain. After stealing them from Briggs, Muller had thrown him out of the compartment. The authorities chased Muller to New York, and for the crime he was hanged on the 14th of November, in front of 50,000 people. He protested his innocence until his last moment, saying on the scaffold: ‘I did it.’ The public reaction resulted in the creation of the communication cord on trains, which was a hotline from the passengers to the railway crew. This was required by the Regulation of Railways Act 1868. Railway carriages with side corridors followed, which allowed passengers to move from their compartments while the train was moving.

Britain’s Most Prolific Serial Killer? A Baby Farmer

At aged 33 Amelia Dyer took to baby farming to support herself. She took illegitimate and unwanted children into her care, for a small fee. At first, she let them die of natural causes, but later she began to murder them, usually by strangulation. She did this for about 30 years, taking on new children under different names, ensuring she got paid in full before the children died. Creepily, she later stated that she ‘used to like to watch them with the tape around their neck, but it was soon all over with them.’ What a psycho. The discovery of the corpse of six-year-old Doris Marmon, found in a box in the Thames, led the police to Amelia’s door. She was arrested in 1896, 27 years after she became a baby farmer. She was hanged on the 10th of June for the murder of 200 to 400 children, six of which were confirmed. This makes her one of Britain’s most prolific serial killers, and one that shocked nation. She was known as the ‘Ogress of Reading’… which I think is deserved. Some even speculated that she was Jack the Ripper… but that guy deserves his own post.

The Brides in the Bath Murders – Forensic Fastidiousness

This hellish set of events takes us from the Victorian to the Edwardian era. George Joseph Smith was a serial bigamist and had seven bigamous marriages under several names between 1908 and 1914 as he was constantly short on funds. He killed six of his wives in total, all of which had died in especially strange circumstances. They had allegedly had a fit and drowned in the bath. Several coincidences about the circumstances of the deaths caught the attention of forensic pathologist Bernard Spilsbury. A lot if Spilsbury’s case rested on Bessie Mundy’s unusual grip on a bar of soap, which she maintained even in death. He also noted the goose bumps on her legs, a sure sign of drowning. He took the measurements of the recent victims and the bath they drowned in and used medical knowledge about epilepsy to try and suss out the case. When looking at another victim, Bessie Williams, Spilsbury concluded that the stiffening of the body, caused by a fit, would’ve pushed Williams’ head above water. Spilsbury brought in several female divers to test the theory, which confirmed that the tub was too small for the victims to drown in in this way. Spilsbury conducted his own experiment, and without warning, grabbed one of the divers’ legs and pulled her under water. It took half an hour to revive her, and when she awoke, all she could remember was a cold rush of water. That was Spilbury’s theory confirmed. George Joseph Smith himself had brought the bath as a wedding present for each wife, then promptly returned it after he had murdered said wife in it. It was probably the first time that police detection in a case of multiple murders and forensic investigation had come together to secure a conviction. After this, people hailed Spilsbury as the real Sherlock Holmes.[2]

Luckily horror stories like this didn’t last too much longer, as Robert Peel’s police force, formed in 1829, became more efficient and disciplined. Society itself became less violent, and even though crime did decrease in the latter half of the century, the Victorians themselves still loved and lapped up the drama.[3]

Thanks for reading!

[1] All information taken from BBC History Magazine:

R. Crone, ‘Was Victorian Life Really So Grim?’ The Story of the Victorians, 2019.

[2] All information taken from BBC History Magazine:

C. Bloom, ‘Crime Scandals,’ The Story of the Victorians, 2019.

[3] All information taken from BBC History Magazine:

R. Crone, ‘Was Victorian Life Really So Grim?’ The Story of the Victorians, 2019.

Published by harpalkhambay

I am an English Literature and History graduate, and wanted a space to explore topics within those fields that interest me.

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