“True Crime” in the Regency: why the Romantics would have been addicted to Law and Order

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).

De Quincey gestures to the heart of our attraction to murder mysteries. Clearly (at least, hopefully), he isn’t saying that we study real dead bodies in the streets for artistic pleasure. Still, his claim has a grain of truth in it: once we take murder and place it in a narrative—like an hour-long episode involving a good-hearted victim, a hard-working cop, and a dark-minded villain—we can also become deeply engrossed in its aesthetics (the grittiness of True Detective or the imaginative elements in The X-Files). This type of narrative is particularly compelling for the masses: there’s a reason NCIS had 21 million viewers in 2012. As the surrounding press about the Ratcliff Murders shows, this intrigue—and the structural form that seems to allow it—also has been around for a long time. [Karen Halttunen, in Murder Most Foul (1998) credits this kind of newspaper reporting as forming what we now refer to as the “murder-mystery.”]

And now, the first episode of Law and Order: The London Streets.

My (personal) disclaimer: These subheadings are to demarcate how what The Examiner writes aligns with a 21st-century cop show’s formula. The flow of events is kept intact. (In other words, unlike in Law & Order, these names and events have not been changed, and this is not a fictional account.)

Opening Scene: On December 7, 1811, at No. 29 Ratcliff Highway, shopkeeper Mr. Marr sends his servant to buy some oysters for his family’s dinner. When she returns, she and the neighbor, Mr. Parker, find the family slaughtered in their home, their skulls smashed in with a mallet.  [While I’m summarizing The Examiner, I want to point out that The Times uses the same copy text.] Upstairs, Mr. Parker finds their four-month-old child in a similar state.

[Cue title music. Investigators arrive on the scene.]

Murder Weapon: “A ship-wright’s large mallet, its head weighing from two to three pounds, and its handle about three feet long,” “a ripping chisel [. . .] about eighteen inches long, made of iron,” “and a wooden mallet about four inches square, with a handle of about eighteen inches” (808). [Snap your picture for forensic evidence.]

Motive: Unknown, but it wasn’t robbery. Mr. Marr had money in his pockets and a drawer upstairs held over 150 pounds.

“On Tuesday an Inquest was held on the bodies,i.e., Witness Statements: Margaret Jewell (the maid), John Murray (a neighbor), and George Olley (a watchman) all give accounts of what they saw that night. The Examiner quotes Jewell’s and Murray’s statements at length, and both name people who could verify their alibis.

Medical Examiner’s Report: William Saller (surgeon) presents his findings on each of the bodies, describing the length, depth, and severity of the fatal wounds on all four victims. [I’ll spare you the details, it’s pretty gory.] Authorities affirm this is, in fact, a murder.

Police Investigate: Following leads on the murder weapon, police apprehend two men four days after the Marrs were attacked. However, they don’t have enough evidence to hold the witness, so they’re released. Another man—Luke Fency—is charged for having knowledge of the murder but failing to come forward [obstruction of justice]. To try to speed things along, the Price Regent offers a reward of 100 pounds to anyone who can come forward with information about the crime leading to the capture of the killer.

The Killer Strikes Again: On Dec. 19th, at No. 81 New Gravellane (only a few minutes from the Marrs’ home), the Williamsons and their servant girl are all murdered, this time with their throats cut. John Turner, a tenant of the Williamsons, discovers the bodies. In his panic, he flees the apartment by climbing down a chain of bed sheets from an upstairs window, screaming “Murder!” the whole way down.

The narrative pattern reappears: Turner gives his statement, as does George Fox, the neighbor. Again, Saller gives his medical findings. We learn that a watch was stolen, and authorities put out a notice that any pawnbrokers who see it should contact the police immediately [they put a BOLO alert on it]. This time, the newspaper mentions a potential suspect and includes a description: that he wore a “rough great coat” (826). [Not much for our sketch artist to go on.] The investigation eventually leads police to John Williams: he has no alibi for the murders, he held a grudge against Marr, his washerwoman reports that he had sent her a bloody shirt to be cleaned the Thursday after the first murder, and the chisel from the first murder is traced to one of Williams’s neighbors. Police connect Williams to the Williamson murders because of Turner’s claim that the man fleeing the scene had a mustache (when police caught Williams, he had since shaved) [clearly, a reliable witness statement]. These accounts lead, finally, to his arrest.

Legal proceedings: The Examiner includes the transcript from an initial court hearing, providing dialogue from Williams, the Magistrate, and various witnesses. The (largely anecdotal) evidence against Williams appears overwhelming, and he is remanded to the House of Correction in Clerkenwell. Williams proclaims his innocence until his suicide shortly after Christmas (again, we have many witness accounts in The Examiner about finding his body). Despite his death, a formal trial is still held, and he’s found guilty on all counts, providing legal and emotional closure for the people of London.

Putting aside all the questions we might have about these proceedings today—did Williams actually commit both murders? What about the fact that the two families were killed with completely different MOs?—the sensationalist saga of these murders is still compelling. The dramatic potential of horrible crimes like these, especially when fitted into a consumable narrative that follows a predictable format, would likely have lent itself to commercial gain for the writers and to tantalizing gossip among the public. And, for all de Quincey’s tongue-in-cheek criticisms, there is certainly more to be said—maybe with a media-studies tinted lens—about how criminal actions might be interpreted as texts we can study. The closeness of the reporters’ language to that in gothic novels also sparks interesting possibilities for study. But if nothing else, if the Romantics were fans of police drama, I certainly can feel less guilty about my own attraction to crime shows.

The Examiner: 1811, vol. 4 (London: Pickering, 1996), 804-842.

Thomas de Quincey, On Murder, as Considered as One of the Fine Arts, etc., vol. 2, ed. W. H. Bennett (London: 1889), GoogleBooks, 1-65.