’Orrible Murder: Victorian Crime and Passion, by Leonard de Vries (ed.)

Orrible Murder cvr

Before there was Jan Bondeson’s column ‘Strange and Sensational Stories from The Illustrated Police News’ (the ‘worst newspaper in England’), which ran for five years in Fortean Times, followed by his book Strange Victoriana (2016), there was Leonard de Vries’s 1974 compilation drawn from that extremely popular penny newspaper.  Here we have a glimpse of what our Victorian forebears read when they had their feet up: an indiscriminate mix of information (of a sort) and entertainment, with the emphasis firmly on the latter, which can be seen as ancestor to today’s tabloids.

The IPN’s editors would have fully subscribed to Lord Northcliffe’s famous maxim ‘Get Me A Murder A Day!’, supplemented by ‘and a generous helping of mayhem and weirdness!’  Murder and other crimes naturally were prominent, but the paper covered a broad variety of themes: suicide, with or without accompanying murder, especially if bizarrely done, for example by self-administered guillotine; domestic abuse, of which there was unfortunately a great deal, child neglect and ill-treatment; executions and corporal punishment; accidents, particularly if involving falls; skeletons, often of people whose corpses were found in forgotten locations many years after they died; and animal cruelty, frequently arising as a result of inebriation.

Animal encounters were not all one-way, and there were examples of animals attacking humans, particularly children: one was killed by a pig, while others were victims of an eagle and a monkey, fortunately escaping injury in each case.  Stories reflected the anxieties of the age, for example women’s powerlessness in domestic arrangements, fears of lawlessness and poverty, a sense of helplessness in the face of insanity’s loss of reason, the ‘uncertainty of human life’ as one article put it, and the constant proximity of death in a world before health and safety.  The paper’s focus was primarily on England, but de Vries includes a sprinkling of foreign items.

The selection here covers only the period 1867-87 (the paper ran between 1864 and 1938), so for some reason the IPN’s extensive coverage of Jack the Ripper has been excluded.  Clearly some of the stories are far-fetched and are to be taken with a large pinch of salt, yet despite the melodramatic subject matter the journalists did have certain standards of accuracy when reporting crime.  The illustrations though often have less to do with reality than does the text (the sea monsters are particularly risible) as they generally sprang purely from the artist’s imagination.

’Orrible Murder’s short articles and news items, illustrated with the original wood engravings, are an enjoyable read despite their macabre nature.  But apart from giving the date of publication there is no further information by the compiler on the stories or the paper itself.  For information on the IPN, and further samples of its brand of Victorian sensation with commentary, the interested reader should refer to Bondeson’s book.  Alternatively one can peruse digitised issues of the original in the British Newspaper Archive.

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