Our an­ces­tors may have been con­victed of a range of of­fences – but Nell Darby asks why the press fo­cused on par­tic­u­larly grue­some or bizarre crimes

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The Vic­to­rian press fo­cused on the most bizarre or shock­ing crime sto­ries – but what made a story news­wor­thy?

His house was called Sun­ny­side, but in it, a dark mur­der had taken place

Many of us will have had an­ces­tors who were the black sheep of their fam­i­lies – those who stole from their em­ploy­ers, or who beat their part­ners up, or even com­mit­ted mur­der. But although a lot of crimes war­ranted merely a few lines in the lo­cal pa­per, sug­gest­ing that the of­fences were fairly com­mon and thus not very news­wor­thy, oth­ers at­tracted far more at­ten­tion.

The Vic­to­rian and Ed­war­dian press was par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in bizarre or grue­some crimes. One case that oc­curred in 1904 was de­scribed in the Dundee Courier as ‘a sen­sa­tional crime’, a ‘grue­some and hor­ri­ble crime’ and, twice, as a ‘bizarre crime’. This was when Ge­orge Al­bert Cross­man, a ‘short, dark, neatly- dressed man of around 32’, em­ployed a car­man to re­move a tin trunk from his home at 43 Lady­smith Road in Ken­sal Rise, London. This trunk was seen as sus­pi­cious, so the car­man called the po­lice – at which point, Cross­man fled. By the time the po­lice caught up with him, he had cut his throat, and died. The trunk was opened, and in it was hu­man re­mains, em­bed­ded in ce­ment, to­gether with some women’s un­der­wear.

This tale had all the mark­ings of a great crime story. Cross­man was known to the po­lice and had been in prison be­fore; his house was called Sun­ny­side, but in it, a dark mur­der had taken place (blood stains were found on the floor of the back draw­ing-room, sug­gest­ing that this was the mur­der lo­ca­tion). Cross­man had let out some of the rooms in the house, and the ten­ants had no­ticed a ‘very un­pleas­ant’ smell com­ing from the box, which was in a cup­board. One ten­ant had, in fact, said to his land­lord, “What on earth are you do­ing there, old man? Have you got a dead body in there?” and in­sisted on Cross­man re­mov­ing the foulsmelling box from the house.

It emerged that Cross­man had been mar­ried, but his wife had died ten years earlier. The body, how­ever, was es­ti­mated to have only been in the box around two months. Cross­man had, since be­ing wid­owed, been ad­ver­tis­ing in the pa­pers for a new part­ner – and a letter was found from a woman an­swer­ing one of his ad­verts. A pre­vi­ous­ly­mar­ried woman – pos­si­bly, although not nec­es­sar­ily this same per­son – had come to live with Cross­man, but had since dis­ap­peared. Even­tu­ally, it was de­ter­mined that this mur­der vic­tim was one of Cross­man’s seven wives – he was a se­rial bigamist as well as mur­derer. Ellen Samp­son had mar­ried him in 1903, and been mur­dered the day af­ter the wed­ding. An in­ter­est­ing fol­low-up came in July 1904, when Cross­man’s fourth wife, Edith Caro­line, sued his sev­enth wife, An­nie Welsh, for the re­turn of fur­ni­ture and bed­ding, and won.

In a sim­i­lar case in 1894, the story was made even more bizarre in the press’s eyes by the fact that the al­leged killer was a woman. Aus­trian na­tional Marie Her­mann, the alias of Marie Stock­hausen, was found to have killed an el­derly man named Charles

An­thony Stephens, and to have again locked the body in a trunk – this time one stored in a locked spare room in her house cen­tral London. 43-yearold Marie had killed the man with a poker fol­low­ing an ar­gu­ment over money – she claimed it was self- de­fence. How­ever, the po­lice held that it would have taken two peo­ple to have got the body into the trunk, and that Marie must have had an ac­com­plice. Marie was de­scribed as a re­spectable woman who had paid her rent reg­u­larly – how­ever, the po­lice be­lieved that she had a ‘dis­rep­utable av­o­ca­tion’.

In 1897, English­man Arthur Blatch was ar­rested in New Zealand in con­nec­tion with another ‘grue­some’ crime, fol­low­ing the death by beat­ing of cloth­ier Al­fred Welch in Colch­ester. Blatch had been Webb’s porter, and had burned his for­mer em­ployer’s house down af­ter mur­der­ing him. The in­ter­est in this case arose both from the vi­o­lence Blatch had sub­jected Welch to – stran­gling him, slic­ing his jugu­lar vein open, and frac­tur­ing his skull, be­fore drag­ging him by a rope to an up­stairs room and burn­ing him – and be­cause of the mys­tery sur­round­ing Blatch him­self. He had sup­pos­edly been pen­ni­less, but had stayed un­der­cover in Bri­tain for some weeks be­fore man­ag­ing to get out of the coun­try and dis­ap­pear­ing for three years. His story caught the imag­i­na­tion of the pub­lic to the ex­tent that any men­tion of him in the news­pa­pers was termed ‘Blatchana’; the story rum­bled on un­til 1901, when Blatch was fi­nally brought over from New Zealand to face Bri­tish jus­tice – it was then found that there wasn’t enough ev­i­dence to con­vict him, and he was set free. The man brought to court al­ways in­sisted that he was ac­tu­ally named Charles Lil­ly­white, and that he was sub­ject to a misiden­ti­fi­ca­tion. This con­fu­sion over his real iden­tity in­creased the in­ter­est in his case.

Why did these par­tic­u­lar mur­ders get de­scribed as par­tic­u­larly grue­some or bizarre, and merit such breath­less cov­er­age in the press? Press and pub­lic alike were gripped by cer­tain things. A woman be­ing ac­cused of a vi­o­lent crime was news­wor­thy, so Marie’s of­fence got at­ten­tion. A bit of mys­tery never went amiss, and so Arthur Blatch’s long dis­ap­pear­ance, and sub­se­quent ar­rest on the other side of the world, made peo­ple sit up. Cross­man’s of­fence, like Marie’s, in­volved a body be­ing hid­den in a trunk, like a magic trick gone wrong – but his chutz­pah at be­ing queried about the smell com­ing from that trunk again made press and pub­lic take no­tice. In an era when penny dread­fuls ap­pealed to all ages for their de­pic­tions of a dif­fer­ent world – an ex­cit­ing one where all sorts of strange things hap­pened, well away from the mun­dan­ity of ev­ery­day life – such ex­tra­or­di­nary mur­ders rep­re­sented this same thrill of ex­cite­ment, the sug­ges­tion be­ing that the or­di­nary neigh­bour next door could ac­tu­ally be some das­tardly killer.

The pub­lic was given am­ple op­por­tu­nity to read about these bizarre crimes, not just through reg­u­lar news­pa­pers such as the Il­lus­trated Po­lice News (founded in 1843) and the Il­lus­trated Po­lice Bud­get (1893), but also through spinoffs such as Fa­mous Crimes Past and Present, which started in 1903. If you wanted to read all about it – and many peo­ple did – you could eas­ily do so… in sen­sa­tional de­tail.

Charles Lil­ly­white de­nied be­ing Arthur Blatch, and his £600 com­pen­sa­tion from the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment sug­gests he was telling the truth

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