Magsmen, Macers, Gonophs, Footpads and Pimps

Victorian Studies in Scarlet

by Richard D. Altick
Norton, 336 pp., $7.95

The Anti-Society: An Account of the Victorian Underworld

by Kellow Chesney
Gambit, 398 pp., $8.95

The Edwardians

by J.B. Priestley
Harper & Row, 302 pp., $15.00

There is nothing like a description of a good murder to put one in a happy and receptive state of mind at Christmas, and Professor Altick, who has taken time off from higher things at Ohio State, certainly whisks us through the most famous of the nineteenth-century murders in England from Maria Marten in the Red Barn through Burke and Hare, Courvoisier, William Palmer, Pritchard and Peace to Florence Maybrick and Madelaine Smith. No one can complain at the number of murder cases he is offered. Of course some people will never be satisfied. I remember coming out of one of those prewar custard-pie movies, in which every thirty seconds, so it seemed, a missile whizzed across the screen, and hearing a dissatisfied member of the audience complain, “It was all right but there wasn’t enough of it.” Altick gives us enough murder cases. But mere numbers are not what we want. What we want are the horrifying details.

There are four climaxes to any murder story. The discovery of the corpse; the detection of clues and the unraveling of the circumstances leading to the murderer’s arrest; the trial; and the execution. None of the cases in this book is particularly interesting as an example of detection. So leave aside the background information, which can be fascinating, about the social circumstances of the victim and the murderer and, unless the most is made of the remaining three climaxes, horror will decline to come and sit in the reader’s mind. Part of the pleasure in recapturing the atmosphere of a murder case lies in the analysis by the Home Office pathologist of the morbid anatomy of the condition of the corpse. Yet in this book there is hardly ever a description of the putrefying body or an estimate of the exact degree of the decomposition of its vital organs.

Then the trial requires to be described to bring out the remorseless march of the forces of law and order in such a way as to splinter the sympathies of the reader and make him begin to side with the hunted and cornered animal, the murderer; or alternatively to harden his mind against him. But in this book the descriptions of the trials are so short that the brutal handling of witnesses under cross-examination by those domineering, hectoring bullies, the Victorian barristers, like Trollope’s Mr. Chaffanbrass, scarcely ever has time to develop. When a witness protested that he would have come forward to give evidence on behalf of the prosecution whether or not there had been a reward of £500 and added: “If it had been a shilling I should have done my duty the same,” defending counsel shut him up with: “I do not ask you to compliment yourself.” There are too few examples of such spirited repartee by the bewigged defenders of law and order.

What is worse, there are scarcely any descriptions of executions. We are fobbed off with a few extracts from street ballads and an odd…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.