Sweet Fanny Adams…
The IPN built a massive circulation by feeding the British public tales of butchery and depravity, shown here in their blood-spattered glory
Victorian Murders Jan Bondeson Amberley Publishing Pb, 320pp, illus, bib, ind, £14.99, ISBN 9781445666303
Sometimes, the shock of the old can be as jaw-dropping as any of today’s rolling news atrocities. Taking a tour through the Illustrated Police
News archive from the end of the Victorian era between 1867 and 1900, Jan Bondeson starts in such a place. This august organ, described by the author as “a sensationalist, populist, xenophobic and racist newspaper” gained a massive readership thanks to the wealth of dramatic and macabre engravings that accompanied each of its terrible true life tales, all rendered by artists highly skilled at catching the very moment of death and dismemberment.
Though 151 years and a falsely attributed but persistent vulgarity separates us from her, the death of Sweet Fanny Adams opens this collection on its most horrific and haunting note, containing as it does, all the elements of Grimm fairytale and worst nightmare. While taking a stroll across meadows surrounding the small Hampshire town of Alton, this eight-year-old girl, her younger sister Lizzie and their friend Minnie were approached by a young man called Frederick Baker, a neatly dressed solicitor’s clerk who had always been friendly with the children in the past, giving them pennies for sweets. On the fateful Saturday of 24 August 1867 he dispensed coppers as was his custom, and stood for a while, watching the trio play and pick berries. Then, as Bondeson chillingly reports: “he suddenly and wordlessly picked Fanny Adams up and made off with her”. What he did to that child in the woods beyond the sunlit meadows might even trouble the modern horror movie director to have to depict. The revulsion and rage that followed him to the Winchester county scaffold in the form of a crowd of 6,000 – rendered by the IPN illustrator, in an engraving that resembles an Edward Gorey plate, as a veritable sea of souls stretching far into the horizon – still resonates.
Tales of butchery and depravity involving women and children turn the following monochrome pages red all over. A lot of them contain similar dread elements – a schoolboy set upon and beheaded by a stranger on a quiet country lane in Somerset; pieces of human flesh dispensed across the city of Norwich, its sewers and wastelands; parts of a seven-year-old girl sniffed down from a chimney in Blackburn by a bloodhound. Often, it doesn’t stop with an individual. “What would it take for a German to qualify for the IPN” muses Bondeson, “would he have to murder his entire family? Well – rather!” Timm Thode, who dispatched his parents, four brothers, sister and a servant girl with a 5ft handspoke and a hatchet, pausing to hang a watchdog from a tree before piling their bodies into a barn and setting fire to them, is one of a handful of such ‘family tragedies’ Bondeson considers, noting that they were far from uncommon in the days before family planning and that, “in the absence of firearms or noxious gases for the murderer to make use of, sometimes led to the grossest scenes”. The 1870 Denham Massacre is a particularly chilling and rare example of such a crime being carried out by a stranger, in this case a family of seven beaten to death by a passing, opportunist villain-of-the-road.
Being an equal-opportunities employer, death can of course be administered by female hand too, and Bondeson has collected several notable specimens of twisted sisterhood. Spurned chocolate poisoner Christina Edmunds deployed a certain amount of sly cunning; disgruntled servants Marguerite Dixblanc and Kate Webster sheer brute force; while the unsolved Great Bravo murder of 1876 revolved around two women who were perhaps too wily to be hanged. And are certain streets cursed by the shadow of the scythe? However desirable the locale of Hackney has become in recent years, estate agents looking to sell a little des res on Amhurst Road would be advised not to leave this book lying around.
Of all the themes that run through this tome, though, perhaps the most persistent spectres are those warned of by Dickens in his most celebrated ghost story – ignorance and want. Despite all the scientific, artistic and social progress made in this era, the grinding poverty and class divisions of Victorian society have a hand in almost every crime recorded by the IPN. Fortunately, in Jan Bondeson we have a writer whose forensic eye for detail and formidable dark humour can keep the modern reader’s eye on the page throughout these dark passages in time, while reminding them that we may not have made such progress as we like to think.