Serial Murder Stories In Nineteenth-Century London

Rosalind Crone
Rosalind Crone

This article traces the changes and continuities in fictional stories of serial murder in London from the late-seventeenth-century to the mid-nineteenth-century. In particular, it shows how changes in the primary audience for metropolitan popular culture necessitated dramatic shifts in the tale of serial killing and narratives of violence. Thus, by the nineteenth-century, as the lower classes had become the leading supporters of both traditional and new genres of entertainment in popular culture, their experience of and fears and anxieties about urban change became intertwined with myths about serial killing and reflected in a new character of the public nightmare, Sweeney Todd, the barber of Fleet Street, who set out to efficiently depopulate the capital with his ghastly murder machine.

During the mid-1840s, a popular serial described in great detail the strange and abominable odour that filled old Saint Dunstan’s Church in Fleet Street and had begun to disturb the pious frequenters of that sacred edifice. While the organ blower and organ player were “both nearly stifled as the odour seemed to ascend to the upper part of the church, […] those in the pit by no means escaped it, […] the stench preventing congregations from sleeping through the sermon.” Indeed, “so bad was it,” the author continued, that some were forced to leave, and have been seen to slink into Bell-yard, where Lovett’s pie shop was situated, and then and there solace themselves with a pork or veal pie in order that their mouths and noses should be full of a delightful and agreeable flavour instead of one most peculiarly and decidedly the reverse.

Terrific anguish and intense debate erupted in the parish over the cause of the dreadful smell, officials and laymen eventually agreeing that its source must be located in the grave, subterranean passages that ran underneath the church, connecting a row of shops in Fleet Street with another in Bell-yard. However, no one was prepared for the truly shocking discoveries which would subsequently be uncovered in those vaults and implicated two seemingly respectable citizens in the most horrendous, bloodthirsty and unimaginable crime: serial murder.

The recent focus on narratives of violence in English society has been instructive, particularly their use as a window into popular beliefs and preoccupations on a range of social issues. Serial killing, such a specialised form of violence, has not been ignored in this trend, despite or even perhaps because of its relative rarity. For example, in Murder in Shakespeare’s England (2004), Vanessa McMahon demonstrated how tales of serial killing that circulated in the early-modern period confirmed popular notions of criminality about the potential depravity of everyman. In essence, serial killers were perceived as no different from ordinary murderers, in fact, this category of crime did not even exist, a system of belief that continued until the Ripper murders of autumn 1888 when more attention began to focus on the psychological motivations of multiple murders.

Vanessa McMahon is, in many respects, correct. The terms serial killing/killer or murder/murderer are modern inventions and were not popularly used even in the late-nineteenth-century. However, despite the lack of a sophisticated language to discuss these crimes, and the absence of any attention on the psyche of the murderer, stories about serial killing still held a prominent place in popular consciousness from the late-seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth-century. Their extremity compared with more standard tales of murder meant that they stood out and were imbued with a unique quality that attracted the attention of large audiences. Moreover, this is particularly evident in the case of two fictional serial murderers who achieved celebrity status in pre-industrial and early Victorian popular culture respectively: Sawney Beane and Sweeney Todd.

These disturbing and violent figures have attracted little serious attention from scholars, instead of being the subject of detailed antiquarian histories which tend to characterise them as rather quaint. This they certainly were not. Sally Powell’s work forms an exception to this trend. She has linked the tale of Sweeney Todd, as told in the 1850 penny blood, to other stories about trade in corpses, finding in them shared concerns about the corporeal actuality of sights and smells in the Victorian urban experience and an articulation of the threat posed by city commercialism to the sanctity and survival of the working-class individual. In particular, she identifies in the narrative of Sweeney Todd a reflection of fears about the vulnerability of urban foodstuffs, human contamination and the detrimental effects of the production line. The tale of Sweeney Todd was undoubtedly about life in the mid-nineteenth-century city, but it is not enough merely to recognise the features of the urban environment which the story reflects or on which it provides a commentary. Attention to its evolution, for example, its roots in tales from the early-modern period, and its manifestation in a range of genres, including serial fiction and accessible theatre, makes clear its actual function in metropolitan society and culture.

As this article shows, fictional narratives of serial killing that circulated in metropolitan popular culture from the late-seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth-century offered ordinary people a way of seeing, describing and understanding the environment in which they lived by playing upon particular sets of anxieties about everyday life. The lead character of the serial murderer was archetypal. His uniqueness and extremity gave him an appeal to audiences that was timeless and in the right circumstances could cut across categories of class, gender and age. The setting in which he was placed was very much time-bound and audience-specific and thus changed in significant ways at the turn of the nineteenth-century. As the primary paying audience for these tales shifted downwards, the threat posed by the serial killer shifted from the isolated rural setting to the crowded metropolitan street.

By drawing upon a range of themes in working-class life including changing work patterns, food adulteration, neighbourhood dislocation and urban mortality, the story of Sweeney Todd does provide a useful window onto the fears of the urban masses, something that the current urban historiography has mostly failed to illuminate. However, the method of presentation used to tell this story, namely melodrama, meant that the overriding tone was profoundly conservative. Like other genres in the culture from which it emerged, its interest was not in promoting social reform but in protecting and asserting the position of popular culture in the face of competition from a potentially hegemonic respectable culture.

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