Murder in the Midlands: Notable Trials of the Nineteenth Century, by J. P. Lethbridge

Murder midlands cvr

J. P. Lethbridge’s 1989 compendium describes eight murder trials which took place in the English midlands between 1810 and 1886, though his accounts are not evenly spread through the century (1810s – 3; 1820s – 1; 1860s – 3; 1880s – 1).  He has drawn them from a region with Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire to the north and Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire to the south, encompassing both rural and urban areas.  Each incident’s background, and the resulting trial, is concisely described, mostly from reports in contemporary local newspapers, noting where there are discrepancies, and there is a summary by the author examining the verdict.  The book concludes with a comparison of the places mentioned then and now, plus a bibliography and index.

Murder is demonstrated in a variety of facets, including, in the author’s words, ‘two domestic murders [one a parricide], one infanticide, one murder in the course of a robbery, and one rape murder.’  There is also one resulting from a poaching affray, and another by a servant of her mistress.  They were committed by a number of methods: ‘stabbings, shootings, a strangling, a beating to death, a murder by drowning and, perhaps the cruellest of all, a murder by starvation.’

As well as insights into the murders and why they were committed, the various cases throw light on relationships between spouses and between masters and servants; sexual exploitation; the stigma of illegitimacy; and the lack of sentimentality towards children when work was involved.  As might be expected, financial gain and sex were common motives.  The class system can be seen in action through the composition of juries, for example the double standard which meant that a factory owner responsible for the death by starvation of a 13-year old apprentice was cleared of murder, though sentenced to two years with hard labour for ill-treating her, whereas the servant girl who stabbed her mistress was hanged.

The various ways murder was approached by the judiciary show the evolving nature of the criminal system during a period of enormous social, political and economic change.  Lethbridge’s introduction sketches how murder was dealt with in the Georgian period compared to later in the century, not least as an official police force was introduced and became more adept at dealing with lawbreaking generally.  Transportation ceased and the range of crimes for which the death penalty could be used narrowed (in 1800 there were 223 capital offences on the statue books in England, though in practice execution only happened for the most serious of them).

The increasing numbers of criminal cases, both from improved detection and a growing population, necessitated improvements to the court system in order to deal with the volume of work.  Remarkably it was not until 1836 that defence counsel were allowed to make speeches on behalf of their clients, reducing wrongful convictions.  Insanity pleas became more common, further lowering the incidence of the death penalty.

Where the ultimate sanction was given, one development was the increase in the interval between sentence and death, from a couple of days to several weeks.  A significant transformation was the abolition of public executions in 1868.  Another was the abandonment of the practice of handing over bodies for dissection, instead interring them within the precincts of the prison in which they were last confined.  It is surprising to learn that trial by combat was only abolished in 1819 (though it had long fallen into disuse), as a result of one of the cases described in this book, when such a challenge was issued.

Then as now, murder was most likely to occur between people who knew each other.  Lethbridge notes that of the 13 accused in his collection, four were close relatives of the person they were alleged to have murdered, three others lived or worked in the same house, and the other six were members of the same community.  Killers and victims were all ordinary people: these were not celebrated murderers, but were typical participants of many such sordid acts, and they tell us more about the society that produced them because of it.

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