By Dean Jobb
“There’s nothing beats a stunning good murder,” proclaimed a newsstand operator in nineteenth-century London. Or a brazen swindle, for that matter. New books revisit the crime-mad Victorian era, from the servant who claimed a work of fiction inspired him to kill a London aristocrat to a swindler dubbed “the Napoleon of finance” and the Scottish murder investigated by the real-life model for Sherlock Holmes.
“This is really too horrid!” Queen Victoria wrote in her diary in May 1840, hours after a British peer was murdered at his posh London home. “It is almost an unparalleled thing,” added the sovereign, who was just three years into her long reign, for someone of such high rank—he counted a duke and a cabinet minister among his nephews—“to be killed like that.”
The victim was Lord William Russell, discovered in his bed with his throat cut and his Mayfair home ransacked. Officers of the Metropolitan Police, founded barely a decade earlier, investigated and quickly determined it was an inside job—his lordship had been attacked and robbed by one of his own servants.
This crime, with its upstairs/downstairs backdrop and the divisions of wealth and privilege it exposed, has been resurrected in Murder by the Book: A Sensational Chapter in Victorian Crime (Viking). Author Claire Harman has written biographies of Charlotte Brontë, Robert Louis Stevenson, and other literary figures, and this interest in literature drew her to a case that, as the title suggests, ignited a debate over how crimes and criminals were depicted in Victorian-era fiction.
The servant convicted of the crime, a young Swiss man named François Courvoisier, claimed he was himself a victim—of the corrupting influence of books and plays that glorified crime. The wildly popular Jack Sheppard, recounting the adventures of an eighteenth-century thief and escape artist, he claimed, had prompted him to kill. “I admired his cunning,” Courvoisier said of the story’s titular character, “instead of being horrified at it.”
Harman uses Courvoisier’s trial and confession to explore this interplay between fact and fiction. A controversy over life-imitating-art engulfed two of the leading authors of the time, Charles Dickens (who was accused of romanticizing crime in Oliver Twist) and William Makepeace Thackeray (who dismissed sympathetic depictions of the criminal classes as “absurd and unreal”).
Murder by the Book is written with confidence and insight. Harman deftly exhumes an almost-forgotten murder case and uses it to explore the line between depicting crime and exploiting it—a dilemma that writers, podcasters, and film and television producers grapple with to this day.
Fact meets fiction in another nineteenth-century murder case—a Scottish mystery worthy of a Sherlock Holmes adventure. Cecil Hambrough, a young aristocrat, died on the remote Ardlamont estate, west of Glasgow, in 1893, the victim of a tragic hunting accident. Hambrough had stumbled and his shotgun had discharged, inflicting a fatal head wound. At least that’s what one of his companions, Alfred Monson, assured the authorities when the death was reported.
British author Daniel Smith recreates what he terms “one of the most notorious cases of the Victorian age” in The Ardlamont Mystery: The Real-Life Story Behind the Creation of Sherlock Holmes (Michael O’Mara Books). It’s well known to die-hard fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Great Detective because Dr. Joseph Bell—Conan Doyle’s former medical-school instructor in Edinburgh and a real-life inspiration for the Holmes character—was instrumental in cracking the case.
Bell’s superhuman ability to glean the backgrounds and occupations of new patients from clothing, a calloused hand, or the way they walked and talked had impressed Conan Doyle and became the model for Holmes’s lightning-fast feats of deduction. But was he the only source of the traits and skills that became the building blocks for the iconic sleuth? Smith, author of the 2012 book How to Think Like Sherlock, argues that renowned Scottish forensic scientist Dr. Henry Littlejohn, Edinburgh’s police surgeon, should share the title of “The Original Sherlock Holmes.”
Bell and Littlejohn joined forces to investigate the Ardlamont case and concluded Hambrough had been shot from behind and at a distance. A self-inflicted wound was impossible and Monson, a suspect with a motive—he was the beneficiary of the victim’s insurance policies—was charged with murder.
The book unfolds as a mystery-within-a-mystery, as Smith weaves the strands of the Monson investigation and trial into his search for evidence supporting that Littlejohn, an expert on poisons and an advocate of careful analysis of crime-scene evidence, is an overlooked model for Holmes.
Was Monson guilty? And has the little-remembered Littlejohn, hailed in his time as “the leading light of Scottish forensics,” been upstaged by Bell? Thanks to Smith’s engaging storytelling and authoritative grasp of the historical record, readers can sift through the evidence and judge for themselves.
As a young man, humorist Mark Twain joined the hunt for silver in the American West. While many prospectors struck it rich, others made their fortunes by promoting shares in worthless properties and selling dreams, not ore. “To make money, and make it fast,” Twain recalled, “was as easy as it was to eat your dinner.”
One of these promoters was a smooth-talking former clergyman who became one of the wealthiest businessmen in late nineteenth-century Britain. Whitaker Wright, hailed as “the Napoleon of finance,” entertained the likes of the Prince of Wales and numbered the country’s prime minister among his investors. He was also one of history’s great swindlers.
Former Fleet Street journalist Henry Macrory tells Wright’s fraud-to-riches story in Ultimate Folly: The Rises and Falls of Whitaker Wright, the World’s Most Shameless Swindler (Biteback Publishing). He left Britain to escape bankruptcy, then burned hundreds of American investors when his first mining empire collapsed. Back in London by the 1890s, he created a new network of companies that controlled silver properties in the U.S. and gold mines in Canada and Australia.
“Wright was like one of those round-bottomed toys that always flips upright no matter how many times you knock it over,” Macrory notes in a memorable line. He filled his corporate directorships with aristocrats, who gave his operations a veneer of respectability but took little interest in the grubby details of running a business. Wright, meanwhile, cooked the books and built a country estate on a scale fit for royalty, then fled the country when his ventures collapsed in 1900.
Whether Wright can claim the title of “world’s most shameless swindler” is debatable—Bernie Madoff’s name instantly springs to mind—but Macrory retraces his complex frauds and lavish lifestyle in impressive detail. Extradited to Britain, Wright stood trial for fraud in 1904. The outcome will be as surprising to readers of Ultimate Folly as it was to the shocked newspaper readers of the time.
Whitaker Wright’s life of wealth and privilege was built on lies and dreams. It’s fitting, then, that Stephen Carver offers a reality check as he explores a world of poverty, crime and desperation. The 19th Century Underworld: Crime, Controversy & Corruption (Pen & Sword Books) is a work of dark tourism that descends into the seamy side of British society in the Georgian and Victorian eras.
This is familiar territory. Carver is the latest in a parade of commentators—from Charles Dickens to the guides who offer nightly tours of Jack the Ripper’s haunts—to expose the deplorable conditions of London’s slums and the hypocrisy of the upright Victorian “gentlemen” who frequented their brothels and opium dens.
A cultural historian, Carver draws on the literature of the era as inspiration and to sort fact from fiction. Dickens’s masterpiece Oliver Twist, for instance, is an accurate portrayal of the plight of nineteenth-century child orphans—except for the happy ending. “In the real world of the street children of London,” he writes, “Oliver would not have been saved.” And as the biographer of William Harrison Ainsworth, author of the notorious Jack Sheppard book, Carver also touches on the crime-exploitation controversy sparked by the murder of Lord Russell.
Carver assembles the usual suspects—grave robbers, pickpockets, bare-knuckle fighters, gamblers, prostitutes—as he probes the public’s insatiable appetite for details of the lives of these underworld denizens. But their stories, no matter how sordid, could not compete with what the author calls “murder porn.” The Victorians liked their murders brutal and bloody, and no killer delivered the goods quite like the infamous Ripper. The Whitechapel murders of 1888 were a sensation in their time and have become a cultural phenomenon, generating a steady stream of suspects, theories, books, and documentaries that, as Carver dryly notes, “constitutes one of the last thriving British industries.”
What was true more than a century ago remains true today, in a society and culture as obsessed with crime as it was in Victorian times. Nothing, it seems, beats a stunning good murder.
Dean Jobb’s next book tells the shocking story of one of the Victorian era’s most cold-blooded killers—Dr. Thomas Neill Cream, who preyed on women in Canada, the U.S. and England. He teaches nonfiction writing at the University of King’s College in Halifax. Follow him on Twitter: @DeanJobb