I was in London yesterday, firstly to do some research at the London Metropolitan Archives (my visit there being slightly later than originally intended, both due to an impromptu lunch with a friend in Chelsea, and due to the lovely autumnal weather meaning I made the perhaps rash decision to walk from Chelsea to Clerkenwell rather than getting the tube, which would have been quicker).
However, I had also booked to listen to Anne-Marie Kilday give a talk on a female criminal ‘celebrity’ later at the Guildhall Library. Anne-Marie, who is professor of criminal history at Oxford Brookes University, has been conducting some fascinating research into the ‘cult of the criminal’, using criminology professor Yvonne Jewkes‘ research into contemporary cases to see if this ‘cult’ is really a modern phenomenon, or whether Jewkes’ categorisation of what makes a case ‘newsworthy’ can be equally applied to 19th century cases.
Kilday has been focusing on one particular historic case, that of Kate Webster, the ‘Richmond murderer’ who killed her female employer in 1879, to assess why she received so many column inches compared to other contemporaneous cases.
Although I won’t spoil her research by detailing it too much here – if you want to read more about it, get Law, Crime and Deviance since 1700, edited by both Kilday and David Nash, as it contains a chapter about the case (which is a great read) – it’s clear that the Webster case had several elements that made it particularly attractive for the press, and an attention-grabber for the rather gory-minded Victorian public.
It involved both a female perpetrator and a female victim, and a level of violence that was unusual in a woman (or certainly perceived as being unusual). As Kilday noted last night, there was little press focus on the victim, Julia Martha Thomas – she was a widow, there was a hint that she may not have been a particularly great employer, but otherwise, she was sidelined in favour of hundred of articles focusing on Webster’s past and present.
And so this focus on Webster created an image of her as a (somewhat warped) kind of celebrity. It helped that she was an outsider in more than one way – she was an Irish immigrant during a time of significant anti-Irish sentiment; she was a woman; she was working-class. She was a complex individual – in some ways, something of a mystery, with a disputed backstory.
After she was hanged for murder, souvenir editions of newspapers relating to the case, and to her, were published, full of illustrations showing her in various parts of her own story. She even became a Madame Tussaud’s waxwork.
In researching Kate Webster’s case so thoroughly, Anne-Marie has convincingly shown that the cult of the criminal – the turning of such a criminal into a celebrity – is not a modern phenomenon. From gaol-breaker Jack Sheppard, whose exploits were lapped up in the early 18th century, and who continues to be written about today, we have always been grimly fascinated by those who transgress (in relation to studies of 18th century ‘criminal celebrities’, look at the work of Bob Shoemaker and Heather Shore in this area).
The difference by late Victorian times was that there was an expanding press with more and more pages to fill, a rise in sensationalism (from sensation novels and penny dreadfuls, to an increasingly tabloid-style of reporting in the press), and a love of the Gothic. These factors helped create the modern criminal celebrity, of which Kate Webster was an enduring example.