Victorian Convicted Murderers and the Press Idolatration

Martin J. Wiener

Martin J. Wiener

Victorian convicted murderers in the nineteenth-century (as today) could draw on fewer reserves of public or meant newspapers. In the second half of the century in particular newspapers were growing very rapidly in numbers and especially in circulation, with technological breakthroughs like the steam press and political reforms such as the abolition of paper duty. This press played an increasing role in criminal justice: in publicizing criminal acts, reporting trials and (our focus here) discussing sentencing.

This article examines one aspect of the latter, which has yet to receive much scholarly attention: the growing role of newspapers in the decision whether to hang or reprieve condemned murderers.

This examination will particularly note and explore a gap ever more apparent between the local and national press, and between “popular” and “elite” newspapers, over the disposition of such prisoners. Through the Victorian age, “elite London” papers like The Times were generally severe on murderers, while such offenders evoked more sympathy from their local communities, and from more “popular” London and national papers, like the Daily News and Lloyd’s Weekly News. With technological improvements in printing and the removal of the advertisement duty in 1853, the stamp duty in 1855, and finally the paper excise in 1861, an inexpensive mass-market press was made possible. Thereafter, newspaper readership rapidly expanded, in particular moving down the social scale. As the audience widened, many papers, chiefly local but also the more popular national weeklies, devoted more space to reporting on crime and trials, and in doing so also tended to become more active in seeking mercy for those condemned to die.

Holding more firmly to sterner notions, the elite press maintained a greater hostility to most murderers, who were overwhelmingly from the humbler classes, and continued to usually demand severe punishment. Such newspapers made exceptions, particularly in cases of “gentlemen” finding themselves facing the gallows, but also sometimes for ordinary men and women. There were also times when sympathies for accused murderers crossed social lines, and nearly all newspapers would find themselves urging officials towards mercy.

Through controversies over murder trials, the press became in the course of the Victorian era another venue for contending and coinciding outlooks and ideologies related to class, gender and views on personal guilt, responsibility and punishment. At the same time that it became more of a forum for such issues, the press also became an increasingly important player in its own right in the struggles over whether or not to execute condemned murderers. Home Secretary William George Granville Venables Vernon Harcourt’s interest in local newspaper accounts and opinions would have been scorned by most of his more austere predecessors at the Home Office. However, from his period of tenure onwards, a perusal of local newspapers gradually became part of the official process of review of capital convictions, and by the end of the century newspaper clippings were expected to be sent, along with judge’s reports and other official documentation, to Whitehall.

The easiest convicts to draw sympathy for were women, even though (or perhaps because) juries, bar and bench were all-male. The most common form of female homicide, the killing of one’s own infant or young child, almost invariably drew pity. These defendants were usually either unmarried young women who were facing lives of social disgrace and destitution or married women acting incomprehensibly. Infanticide was first addressed by statute in 1624, but murder convictions of women who killed their newborns were already rare in the early-nineteenth-century; indeed, after 1840 not a single woman was convicted at the Central Criminal Court of England and Wales for the murder of her own new-born child. The last woman to be hanged in England for the murder of her own infant, Rebecca Smith in 1849, only went to the gallows because of the truly exceptional circumstances of her crime: she used the cold-blooded method of arsenic poisoning, and after conviction, she confessed to having similarly poisoned her seven other infants! In this case, the press joined in a chorus of horror, the Globe calling her “the annual and deliberate destroyer of her own offspring.” By 1879, when Emma Wade, an unmarried domestic servant in Stamford Hill, quite clearly deliberately killed her infant and was convicted of murder by a reluctant jury at Lincoln, even the staunchly Tory Lincolnshire Chronicle urged its readers to add their signatures to the mass petition for commutation of her death sentence. Indeed, the newspaper went further and joined others to urge a change in the law to remove the death penalty from killings such as Emma Wade’s. Local efforts, supported by several newspapers, continued after her reprieve and won her release after only one year in prison.

Changing public attitudes led to steadily diminishing punishments for infanticide. By 1895, when the destitute Amy Gregory strangled her six-week-old infant, whom she had left in the workhouse to nurse at six shillings a week, the popular Daily Star dwelled on the “heart-rending agonies” that she must have gone through, and expressed the hope that she would not have to spend very long in prison. This was too much for the conservative weekly The Spectator, which, while approving of her by-now almost automatic reprieve from the sentence of death, chided those clamouring for her total exemption from punishment simply because she was a woman.

Even stepmothers, traditionally stereotyped as wicked in legend and fairy tale, began to be viewed more sympathetically by popular newspapers. In 1867, Frances Kidder was convicted of drowning the eleven-year-old bastard daughter she apparently only discovered her new husband had after she married him. Despite much evidence at her trial that she had abused the girl for a long time before finally throwing her in the river, Lloyd’s Weekly News, the largest selling Sunday newspaper in the world, blamed her husband, who, it claimed, treated her cruelly and had exposed her to public shame by claiming her to be the child’s mother. “Some idea,” it went on, “may be formed of the character of the man with whom the poor woman became connected,” it said, “from the fact that he is actually at present cohabiting with the sister of the culprit, a girl seventeen years of age!” Frances Kidder, against whom even her parents testified, nonetheless went to the gallows, becoming the last woman to be executed in public in England; that Lloyd’s Weekly News’ spoke for many, however, can be seen in the fact that on the day of her execution a crowd burned her husband in effigy.

In attempting in 1872 to poison the wife of a man she loved, the middle-class Christiana Edmunds instead poisoned his child. A classic villainess of the “Fatal Attraction” sort, she was execrated in many newspapers and the subject, as “the Lady Poisoner of Brighton”, of one of the last of the classic murder broadside sheets. The Times called her attempt to “scatter death throughout a town in pursuit of a selfish aim” an act of “cold-blooded indifference” typical of “the most vicious and cruel forms of criminality.” As was increasingly happening to women facing the death penalty, she was saved from hanging and committed to an asylum on the dubious grounds of insanity. It was left to the trial judge to sourly observe that while insanity “seldom affected” poor defendants, “it was common to raise a defence of that kind when people of means were charged with the commission of a crime.” Nonetheless, there was still widespread press satisfaction at this outcome. The liberal weekly Pall Mall Gazette confessed its relief at her reprieve, admitting that “we have no better reason than the rest of the world for our satisfaction — namely because she is a woman.”

Even when women were on trial for the murder of their husbands, a crime that had until 1792 been considered “petty treason,” their gender increasingly tended to be a factor in their favour with much of the press and public. Two cases within a year of Rebecca Smith’s illustrate two ways gender operated upon the female murder convict’s public image. Charlotte Harris, at Bath, had poisoned her husband — a method, like Rebecca Smith’s, repelling sympathy. That year especially had already seen several such murders; as The Times editorialized, they had cropped up “almost monthly” and indicated, it suggested, “some signal depravity in the social institutions of the age.” Indeed, her case, it argued, was a specially bad one — she had poisoned her husband in order to marry a rich old man; her crime was “a specimen of murder,” The Times wrote, “which, in its sublimated atrocity, transcends anything we have yet recorded.” Yet, when it turned out that she was with child, her execution was not only postponed (as the law required), it began to be questioned. As petitions for a commutation of her death sentence, many of them from “ladies,” began to circulate in a variety of towns, some newspapers feared her hanging would present an unedifying spectacle. The government eventually concurred with this judgment and allowed her a reprieve.

Another husband-poisoner a few months later in 1850, however, also escaped execution, and in part because of the efforts of popular newspapers. The Londoner Anne Merritt was, unlike Rebbeca Smith or Charlotte Harris, young, slight and good-looking, and had been browbeaten by the police inspector who had first interviewed her; even the judge was outraged by the defence’s evidence that he had tried to entrap her “in a most unmanly and unjustifiable manner.” When, after her conviction, fresh questions were raised about the medical evidence, several popular papers took up her cause. The Daily News urged reconsideration, and the News of the World claimed that “It is like the memorable case of [Elizabeth] Eliza Fenning,” a servant girl thought to have been hanged in error in 1815 for supposedly poisoning the family she worked for. More conservative newspapers, on the other hand, concentrated their attention on the threat posed by the recent “wave” of domestic poisonings. In this case, the “popular” side won; Anne Merritt’s death sentence was commuted to transportation for life.

Priscilla Biggadike, convicted in 1868 of fatally poisoning her husband, did not fare as well as Anne Merritt, for she was charged with being assisted by her lover — a double crime in the public mind, if not in law. She drew decidedly less press support, although the radical weekly Reynolds’s Newspaper made a desperate plea for mercy on class grounds: “The woman,” it declared, “was poor, ignorant, perhaps immoral and had no friends to plead in her behalf.” However, it concluded gloomily (and correctly) that “it is not such as she to whom Home Secretaries extend mercy.”

Foreshadowing the case of Christiana Edmunds three years later, the Reynolds’s Newspaper complained that “had she been the wife of a gentleman, a member of a family of the ruling class, then the scientific evidence would have been forthcoming as to her insanity. […] Poverty makes all the difference. […] There is only law; there are two modes of administering it — one for the rich and one for the poor.” Other national newspapers, however, passed over this issue and focused their accounts on her horrid method, users of which rarely evaded the gallows.

Another type of killing sometimes carried out by women was that exemplified by Elizabeth Fenning by a servant of her employer. In 1872, the reading public was stirred by the case of Marguerite Diblanc, a Belgian charged with strangling her mistress, a wealthy French women. The “Park Lane murder,” as it was dubbed, was, unlike the foregoing, one of impulse: informed that she was to be dismissed without a reference, Marguerite Diblanc objected passionately, an altercation which ended in a murder. Citing her Latin temperament and the indignities she had had to put up with from her apparently sharp-tongued mistress, the Daily News and the Daily Telegraph portrayed her as a pathetic sight in the Old Bailey dock, the Illustrated Police News similarly in her prison cell, as the first two urged mercy. On the other hand, the conservative Saturday Review complained to its more select audience of a “growing disinclination to inflict capital punishment, especially on women,” while The Times warned against England slipping towards the regrettable French mode of excusing crimes of passion. Despite their warnings, Marguerite Diblanc indeed received a commutation to life imprisonment.

The 1889 conviction of an affluent and adulterous Liverpool wife of murdering her husband by gradually feeding him arsenic provided a long-running sensation for the press. Florence Elizabeth Maybrick, the North American wife of a prosperous businessman, was, on the one hand, an admitted adulterer, whose denunciation for this moral offence by her judge, the eminent James Fitzjames Stephen, was thought to have ensured her conviction in the face of scientific doubts about the evidence. On the other hand, she was a young and beautiful lady, who had been badly treated for years by her much older and inveterately philandering husband — all of which garnered her much sympathy. Consequently, both national and local press divided.

Some, like the Liverpool Courier, declared that her death sentence was “a warning to women who have severed themselves from women’s attributes that they cannot henceforth hope to enjoy immunity from the just consequences.” Others, like the Liverpool Post, trained their denunciation upon the men in the case — chiefly her paramour but also her husband, who had been the first to break the marital vows. “Popular feeling,” observed the Liverpool Post, “is incensed against the man who seduced Mrs [Florence Elizabeth] Maybrick from the path of duty and rectitude and honour, and dragged her down to a position of degradation and shame […] the public conscience revolts against [such men] going scot-free while their victims have to bear the full burden of their guilt and sin.” After the sentence, the press increasingly swung in her favour, as the immoral life of her husband was excavated and recounted, and as the image of the noble and beautiful lady facing the gallows stirred chivalrous sentiments. A correspondent to the St. James’s Gazette saw the public outcry as less about her guilt than a revulsion against the hanging of a “young lady like the one just condemned.” The Times agreed while disapproving of this public sentimentality. Florence Elizabeth Maybrick was reprieved and served fifteen years in prison.

Florence Elizabeth Maybrick’s example ensured close attention to the treatment of future female poisoners but did not necessarily assure their reprieve. Ten years later, in the last year of the century, the case of Mary Ann Ansell, found guilty of poisoning her sister in order to collect on an insurance policy she had taken out on her, became another cause célèbre. Many newspapers called for her reprieve. She was, it was widely believed, if not technically insane then at least weak-minded, and should not be considered fully responsible for her act, however deliberate it seemed. The Daily Mail, for example, under the heading “A One-Sided Investigation,” complained that the Home Office had not really tried to ascertain the character of her mind. “Whereas a penniless maidservant, without influence or good looks, loses her life for want of a fair inquiry into her sanity, a gentle lady of fortune and beauty, as was Mrs [Florence Elizabeth] Maybrick, is accorded a reprieve after a trial in which some thousands of pounds were spent on her defence.” “We have,” it continued two days later, “no particular sympathy with Mary [Ann] Ansell herself — we are as convinced of her guilt as was her judge; but we feel that, apart altogether from the moral guilt of the wealthy insurance company whose agent tempted her feeble intelligence, she has not had the fair play due to her family history [of mental weakness] and her sex.”

However, after a re-examination the Home Office doctors found her to be fully sane. Still concerned at the furore, Home Secretary Matthew White Ridley had his clerks compile a list of all women poisoners sentenced to death over the previous fifty years, and another list of all female murderers over the past decade. They concluded that women had become ever less liable to execution, except when employing poison. The head of the Criminal Department granted that “women have as a rule less power of self-control than men, and often act hastily under the influence of feelings and emotions to which men are comparatively or perhaps altogether strangers,” but that in cases of poisoning, premeditation was clear, and the capital sentence had generally been carried out. After speaking with the doctors, the Home Secretary agreed: “This was,” he concluded, “a most cold-blooded and premeditated murder committed for the sake of the insurance money […] the report of the doctors leaves no ground for holding the prisoner insane or irresponsible for her acts. As to age, there is no precedent or reason for holding the comparatively youthful age of twenty-two a sufficient reason for respite. There remains only the sex. Had a similar murder been committed by a man of twenty-two, there would have been no doubt that the law should take its course. I think that sex alone should make no difference in such a case, and that to hold otherwise will practically be setting a precedent for the abolition of capital punishment in the case of women.”

The law in Mary Ann Ansell’s case did, therefore “take its course,” although the efforts of the press, this time unsupported as they had been in Florence Elizabeth Maybrick’s case by expensive lawyers, had forced the Home Office to take more careful and lengthy deliberation than was usual.

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