The past is a different place: sometimes, this does not seem to be the case when analysing crime coverage in the newspapers of the 19th century or early 20th century.
The human instinct is to be drawn to tales of murder and mayhem; to find ourselves gripped by some horrible case, and to carry on reading about victims’ deaths – the manner of it, the weapons used, even the fear catalogued in offenders’ testimony about their offences, or implied in defence wounds, and so on.
We may not ever desire to commit a crime ourselves, and we may not have an ounce of sympathy towards the offender, but there is certainly something present in human psychology that makes us want to know, to understand, the nature of crime and why humans do things that our criminal and legal systems have declared to be offences.
If this interest in crime is part of our psychology, then it is no wonder that it transcends time, and why reading, say, coverage of the Whitechapel Murders in the Illustrated Police News during late 1888 feels familiar to those of us who would otherwise be reading stories of other cases in today’s tabloids (and, of course, today’s papers continue to write about the crimes of the past, most notably those same Whitechapel Murders – just one example being this Sun piece from earlier this year).
The basic tenets of crime reporting have not changed that much, although the law might have changed in some respects (I recently researched a post-World War 2 story for a local paper, for example, where the victim of an attempted rape was not only named, but her address and other details happily reported, both prior to her attacker’s identification and apprehension, and following his trial).
The fundamentals are the same: setting the scene, detailing the shocking crime, giving information that the police want made public in order to locate and arrest an alleged perpetrator.
In this way, crime reportage is like a crime novel – both are written to draw the reader in and to keep them reading. In the 19th century, just as now, we fear the unknown, and in particular the unknown attacker. We scare ourselves by reading these stories that transcend time and place, and it makes little difference to us where a crime took place.
I’ve been reading about the Karla Homolka case this week; it may be a Canadian case, but it still raises issues about the ‘faces’ presented by a violent, possibly psychopathic woman, and whether she managed to dupe the predominantly male authorities, that are pertinent in a wider context (and if you want to send me a copy of this new book about Homolka, Routledge, I wouldn’t object!).
But one way in which some crime coverage of the past appears to differ from today is in the implied respect for class and title that some newspapers employed. Of course, Victorian society was always preoccupied with social position, and title was a way of presenting one’s social position, or of signifying respect for an individual.
This, though, presents some interesting reading. Take, as the most obvious case, that of Hawley Harvey Crippen.
Even today, he is more commonly referred to as Dr Crippen, despite his US homeopathic qualifications not being sufficient for him to practise as a doctor in his adopted country of England. This differs from, say, the more recent murders committed by GP Harold Shipman – we tend to refer to him as ‘Harold Shipman’ rather than ‘Dr Shipman’.
Crippen married his second wife, Cora, in 1894, but murdered her in 1910, having started an affair with typist Ethel Le Neve. As the police closed in on him and his made-up stories about what had happened to Cora, Crippen and Le Neve fled, making their way across the Atlantic.
They were arrested thanks to recognition by the ship’s captain, a wireless telegram, and a chief inspector – Walter Dew – who travelled on a ship that was quicker than Crippen’s, enabling him to capture the couple when their ship approached port in Canada.
The murder, and the exciting chase across the Atlantic, was obviously a major story, and eagerly covered by the press – both at the time, and long after.
The Illustrated Police News, known for its over-excited coverage of crime, and its gory illustrations, duly engaged in columns of newsprint to detail the case.
At the time of the inquest into Cora’s death, through the attempt to flee, the arrests, and the subsequent trial, the parties were largely referred to by their titles: Dr, Mrs, Miss.
Yet even a quarter century later, the Illustrated Police News still obeyed the conventions by how it referred to the parties (in a page looking at ‘notable crimes of the past’ – IPN, 30 January 1936, p.5).
When it recounted Crippen and Le Neve being arrested, the story not only referred to ‘Mrs Crippen’, the victim, but referred to the accused as ‘Dr Crippen’ and ‘his typist, Miss Le Neve’. There were, admittedly, some mentions simply of ‘Crippen’, but these were vastly outnumbered by ‘Dr Crippen’, otherwise referred to as ‘the doctor’.
There is, though, another reason why their titles were so important. Crime was associated with the lower classes: they were seen to be rather lawless, immoral, prone to drinking and to violence. If Cora’s murder had been by a labouring man, it may have been seen as less of an interesting case.
This murder, though, was committed by a doctor. He had a title, he was middle class. His occupation and his title made the crime even more newsworthy than it would otherwise have been.
The women’s titles had also got significance. Miss Le Neve – the unmarried woman having an affair with the husband of Mrs Crippen, the married woman. Their titles implied not respect so much as a stressing of their roles in Crippen’s life and their roles in this drama. It was a shorthand for what had been going on, highlighting the relationships between the parties whilst.
Therefore, although on the surface, the use of titles appears to be a remnant of a past that was very focused on respect for class, and for titles, underneath, there are other reasons to highlight people’s positions, and they add to, rather than distract from, the crime story in question.Tweet