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

Fortean Times - - Reviews / Books - Cathi Unsworth

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.

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