Huzzah! Dr Worsley has a new documentary on the British fascination with gory murders and the culture in which the fascination flourished. She gives us three real murder cases from the first half of the 19th century. The first are the 1811 Ratcliff Highway Murders in Wapping, London, with seven victims. Then in 1827, the Red Barn Murder in Polstead, Suffolk, where Maria Marten was foully done to death by her lover. Finally, in 1849, the splendidly named Bermondsey Horror, in which Maria Manning murdered her wealthy lover, double-crossed her complicit husband, and ran off with the stolen loot.
Other television presenters orate while striding across iconic landscapes, or strike thoughtful academic attitudes against the sky. You know they’re posing and it looks silly. Not Lucy Worsley. She dives into the material and gets involved in the nitty-gritty. And how. She visits the crime scenes, handles the artefacts (the skin off the back of a murderer’s head), investigates exactly how the murderers were executed, and makes you feel like a privileged fly on the wall of a morgue.
In this episode she also took the part of Maria Marten in a recreation of a contemporary melodrama, operated and voiced her killer in the marionette theatre version, sang a folk song about the dreadful crime, and acted out the trial of Maria Manning as the lawyers, judge, and of course, Maria Manning herself. Yes, all of them.
If that was all, it would be brilliant entertainment, but there’s much more. She explores the social context of the murders and the shock they created. In 1810 there were only 15 murder convictions, and no real police force. Public anger at the ineffectiveness of the authorities led to reform, so that by 1849 there were uniformed police and a handful of detectives. The police used the new-fangled telegraph to send descriptions of the Mannings to Edinburgh and Jersey, which led to their arrest.
But main story is the development of murder as a gripping morality tale for the edification and entertainment of an increasingly literate population. Thomas De Quincey was the first respectable observer (opium, indeed all drugs, were legal then) to notice the phenomenom and its effects. Villagers in Grasmere, where he lived at Dove Cottage, went to extraordinary lengths to safeguard their homes after hearing about the slaughter of the Marr family in Wapping. Despite the fact that it’s 300 miles away. De Quincey wrote a satire on the public’s fascination, On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts, in 1827.
Apart from De Quincey, ballads and broadsides, puppet shows and melodramas, carried the news to avid ears, creating huge public interest in the trials and executions of the murderers. John Williams, suspect in the Ratcliff Highway murders, hanged himself in jail. Thwarted of a spectacle, the authorities carried his body by cart to the Marr’s house, where someone wrenched his head around so it was looking at the scene of his putative crime.
The executions of William Corder (Maria Marten’s killer) and the Mannings were both public, as was usual for the time. But they really pushed out the boat for the Mannings, carrying out the execution on the roof of the jail, so everyone could see. Charles Dickens booked a room with a view and held a party, while still lecturing the hoi polloi for their gloating enthusiasm.
The delicious frisson that earned the Mannings their 5 star execution may well have been due to Maria’s demonstration that a woman could be every bit as ruthless and devious as a man.
This episode was the groundwork, so to speak. The next one looks at how crime, science, and detection affected the culture of homicide in the Victorian Age. This is classic Worsley, and I am in Seventh Heaven.