In December of 1811, Leigh Hunt’s Examiner featured the gruesome news of two families murdered near Ratcliff Highway, in London’s East End. These murders attracted prolonged public attention: The Examiner and The London Times, for example, both followed the “Horrid Murders” from December 8th through January of the following year and invoked them over the next decade as a standard against which all other horrific crimes were measured. The murders also inspired a satiric essay by Thomas de Quincey, first published in 1827 in Blackwood’s Magazine, entitled “On Murder, Considered as One of the Fine Arts.” In it, he describes murder as an art form and the Ratcliff murders as the pièce de résistance. The Regency’s public interest in this crime has an uncanny cousin in our modern-day fascination with police procedural TV shows, and I’d like to suggest that we can see the newspapers’ representation of this moment—particularly because of de Quincey’s essay—as an early exploration of a “True Crime” genre that, narratively, features the same foundations as the serial television shows many are drawn to today.
First, a note about De Quincey’s essay. It features a transcribed lecture presented by a member of the fictional Society of Connoisseurs in Murder—I’ll refer to him as SCM here. These members “profess to be curious in homicide; amateurs and dilettanti in the various modes of bloodshed” and “criticise [murders] as they would a picture, statue, or other work of art” (1, 2). After the murder is “over and done,” SCM—quoting anecdotes from Coleridge and Wordsworth for support—claims that we can “make the best of a bad matter” and “treat it aesthetically” (12). An aesthetic treatment of murder involves examining its “design, [. . .] grouping, light and shade, poetry, sentiment” (5), and SCM has elaborate rules for the characterization of the murder’s victim, place, and time. He calls the early nineteenth century the “Augustan age of murder” (40), and he lionizes Williams—the man accused of committing the Ratcliff murders—as the Milton or Michelangelo of murder, claiming that his crimes are “the sublimest and most entire in their excellence that ever were committed” (54).