19th-century writers and their readers loved crime and some of the greatest writers of the century focused on sensation. Indeed, it is hard to think of a Dickens novel which has no crime element at all. In perhaps the most famous of all murder scenes, the burglar Bill Sikes in Oliver Twist, murdered his mistress, Nancy. The novel was immediately reproduced onstage, as most plays were, and in addition, Dickens, who adapted and read from several of his works to wildly enthusiastic crowds, had one of his greatest successes with his ‘Sikes and Nancy’ reading.
In 1842, Punch Magazine tricked, “We are a trading community – a commercial people. Murder is, doubtless, a very shocking offense; nevertheless, as what is done is not to be undone, let us make our money out of it.” This anecdote resonated because it was true. The murder was one of the great entertainments of the 19th century – not just fictional murder, but real murder.
In 1828, the United Kingdom was electrified by the discovery of a body in a shallow grave in a barn in Polstead, Suffolk. It was that of Maria Marten, the local mole-catcher’s daughter. She had left Polstead to marry a farmer named William Corder, and was never seen again. By the time her body was found, Corder had married a woman he met through a newspaper advertisement and was running a girls’ school. The details only got better: Maria had dressed as a man for her elopement, and her stepmother said she had had a miraculous dream which led the villagers to the grave.
The story was made for entertainment: there were plays written and performed even before the trial, and street peddlers sold broadsides and ballads on cheap printed sheets providing the public with all the gory details. For the more prosperous, Staffordshire pottery figures of Corder and Miss Marten, and even of the barn, were produced. A peepshow, a small box with viewing-holes, had the various locations painted and “pulled up and down by strings.” Marionettes were regular fairground entertainment, and the story of Maria Marten became a touring staple. There was even a novel, ‘The Red Barn’, “founded on fact” which was in reality standard melodrama hokum.
Part of the accessible ways of entertainment were broadsides which were printed sheets that provided members of the public with the topical information of the day, from shipwrecks and royal gossip to riots and murders. Murder broadsides typically included an account of the crime committed, a lurid woodcut illustration of the murder or execution, and often a simple song (sometimes moral, but often lewd, comical or admiring of the criminal) that purchasers could sing with friends or family at home or over a drink in a tavern.
Although these broadsides were affordable to the masses and ordinarily sold well, sales for those depicting the murderer Greenacre were slower. Greenacre was a notorious killer who in 1836 dismembered the body of his fiancée, leaving the torso in one part of London and her head in an East End canal. He was reputed to have taken the head by bus. A street seller interviewed by Henry Mayhew had this explanation for why the Greenacre broadsides did not sell well: “Greenacre didn’t sell so well as might have been expected for such a diabolical out-and-out crime as he committed, but you see he came close after Pegsworth [who murdered a Draper for a £1 debt], and that took the beauty from him. Two murderers together are no good to nobody.” Presumably, the punters had already spent their pennies and were unwilling to part with more money for a second murder.
While two separate murders in close succession may be bad for business, two murderers acting together is a different story. In 1849 Maria and Frederick Manning became one of the greatest crime sensations of the century. Maria Manning was a Swiss lady’s maid married to an unemployed railway worker. She was also friendly with Patrick O’Connor, a customs official who was said to have a sideline as a loan shark, until one night he vanished after dinner at their house.
He was soon found – dead, and under the kitchen floor. At their trial, Mrs. Manning made an un-English spectacle of herself, much enjoyed by the broadsides, shouting, “Shameful!” and “Base England!”
Executions were rare (out of 14,686 guilty verdicts in one district over 25 years, only four people were executed); executions of women were even more rare, and double executions of husband and wife were unimaginable oddities. This created a commercial bonanza, with up to 2.5 million broadsides sold.
Pamphlets also made fortunes: one journalist had been a man all tattered and torn, but so soon as the remains of poor Patrick O’Connor had been identified, the lucky reporter blossomed into a brand-new coat. New plaid pantaloons followed, a glossy silk hat shone upon his head, and Wellington boots adorned his lower extremities, and the bows of a satin necktie floated on his chest. The only thing he lacked was a waistcoat; but alas! The Mannings were hanged ere he had secured that much-coveted vest.
A broadside-seller advertised his sheets with an illustration of Mrs. Manning looking glamorous and firing a pistol at O’Connor, who was washing his hands before the meal: “The people said… ‘Oh, look at him washing himself; he’s a doing it so natural, and ain’t a-thinking he’s a-going to be murdered.'” However, the broadsides themselves used generic images: one picture of O’Connor was William IV; another had a standard anonymous execution scene, with a single body hanging from a gallows, with, next to it, obviously scratched onto the block later, a black blob indicating the second body.
Even in an age when hangings drew thousands of spectators, the interest in the Mannings was exceptional. Householders near the jail sold seats at their windows, and on their roofs, for up to two guineas each. The American novelist Herman Melville recorded in his diary that he and a companion had “paid half a crown each for a stand on the roof of a house adjoining… All in all, a most wonderful, horrible, and unspeakable scene.”
Dickens’s friend John Forster wrote that when she came out to be hanged, Mrs Manning was “beautifully dressed, every part of her noble figure finely and fully expressed by close fitting black satin.” Moreover, more than half a century later, Thomas Hardy, recollecting the execution of Elizabeth Brown, a labourer’s wife, which had been a trigger for the final scene of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, wrote, “I remember what a fine figure she showed, and how the tight black silk gown set off her shape as she wheeled half-round and back.” Mrs Brown was impoverished and unlikely to own a silk gown. Hardy was just nine when the Mannings died, but it sounds as if he had read about them in a broadside or pamphlet.
For the hundreds of thousands who would not have dreamt of going to execution, there was still plenty of Manning entertainment. In Manchester, adverts appeared for waxwork figures of the couple to “amuse, delight and highly instruct,” while Madame Tussaud’s promised reproductions of the Mannings “taken from life at their trials, a cast in plaster of Mr. O’Connor, with a plan of the kitchen where he was murdered…” (Mrs. Manning’s figure remained on display for a record 122 years). As with Maria Marten, Staffordshire figures of the couple appeared, and a racing greyhound was named Maria Manning too.
Moreover, finally, Dickens’ ‘Bleak House’ immortalized Mrs. Manning as Hortense, a lady’s maid and murderer with all of Mrs. Manning’s characteristics: perhaps the ultimate fame.
It is possible that the gruesome tales of England’s murderers and their eventual profitable deads may seem a barbaric habit in current standards. However, we may have seen the rise of said way of entertainment. In the age of instant news, BuzzFeed, Twitter and every cellphone with a camera, it is almost impossible not to find similarities with the broadside and pamphlet era. Perhaps it is deeply seeded in our society core the fascination with the unspeakable actions of the outcasts.