Tales of the Curious, the Weird and the Uncanny from Our Victorian Ancestors
Amberley Publishing 2016
Hb, 352pp, illus, refs, ind, £20, ISBN: 9781445658858
When The Illustrated Police News (IPN) first appeared in 1864 as a weekly chronicle of crime, ghosts and the good old-fashioned blood-and-gore which the public wanted, the self-appointed Lord Levesons of the day were united in their condemnation of what was dubbed ‘The Worst Newspaper in England’. Indeed, the IPN was libelled in some quarters as being a kind of cheap ‘Murderer’s Handbook’, with evil-doers having only to pay their penny to gain a copy of a handy ‘How-To’ guide for chopping a child’s head off, stabbing an old lady or slicing up the nearest prostitute. According to one 1881 assessment, the IPN’s many detailed (nonphotographic) illustrations “minister to the morbid cravings of the uneducated for the horrible and the repulsive, and its advertisements [often of a dubious sexual nature] call for the intervention of the police.” If so, then I must share such “morbid cravings” myself, because I found this collection of stories from the IPN, compiled and retold by Jan Bondeson, to be highly entertaining. Within, you will find all manner of Victorian tabloid freaks and oddities, from dogfaced men to conjoined twins, to some of the fattest Scotsmen on record. An alleged ‘human monkey’ (re: small hairy foreigner) vies for space with baby-eating pigs and the French midget who was allegedly devoured by performing cats, all accompanied by images whose violence may once have seemed shocking but which now often comes across as being simply comic. Maybe I’m just sick, but I thought the reproduced 1889 depiction of an elephant being run over by a train, or the 1880 drawing of a monkey smashing rats’ skulls in with a hammer, were highly amusing. The only good word anyone had to say about such pictures at the time, however, came from the reported-upon murderers themselves, several of whom wrote in to the editor, complimenting him upon the accuracy with which his artists had captured the likenesses of themselves slaying their victims!
In his accounts of the IPN’s stories, Bondeson draws out the similarities and differences between the paper and the tabloids of today. As befits the age of Dickens, Bondeson finds that the Victorian rag had a well-mined seam of soppy sentimentalism about it, depicting murderers’ poor old mothers weeping before their wayward sons went to the gallows, whereas the Suns and Mails of today are more likely to offer bracingly harsh commentaries of the ‘hang the bastard!’ type – in an era when, ironically, such an option is no longer available. Some once common story-types have now largely disappeared from the pages of our press, meanwhile, such as the former abundance of Spring-heeled Jacks who used to dress up in white sheets and Scooby Doo-style costumes to frighten late-night travellers along lonely country lanes. Perhaps the modern-day equivalents are the fools who dress up as Killer Clowns for similar kicks. Bondeson actually unearths an 1875 instance of a clown-impersonator accidentally startling his wife to the point that “her life was despaired of” – the first in a long line of phony Pennywises? There are also some stories which resemble the Victorian equivalent of ‘fake news’, given that they apparently didn’t actually occur; did a lonely old eccentric really believe that her entire family had been reincarnated in cat-form, for instance, or the sinister Dr Beauregard really freeze cholera bacilli then serve them up to dinner-guests as iced-treats in a series of bizarre experiments? (If some of these stories sound familiar, by the way, it is because around half the book consists of pieces which have appeared in these pages over the past five or so years in the recently concluded ‘Strange and Sensational Stories from the
Illustrated Police News’ column – although that also means around half haven’t, so will be new to FT readers).
As time went on, changes in ownership and fashion made the IPN seem a shadow of its former self. Gradually, more and more sporting news made its way into the once-mighty organ’s pages, leading to its renaming in 1938 as The Sporting Record. In modified
form, as The Greyhound and Sporting Record, the publication limped on until as late as 1980, having, as Bondeson explains, “degenerated into a worthless newspaper for pointless old men hanging around in bookmakers’ shops.” A sad fate indeed for a one-time bestseller. As this book admirably shows, the IPN in no way deserved its unwanted reputation as ‘The Worst Newspaper in England’, due to the simple fact that its contents (or those contents reproduced within, in any case) were often highly readable; as is Bondeson’s book.