Old School Murder and Mayhem
By Dean Jobb
Nasty, brutish and short—Thomas Hobbes’s grim depiction of life without laws is a fitting description of the career prospects of criminals in the days when the justice system was as brutal as the offenders it punished. From Louis XIV’s Paris to England’s busy gallows and onward to Edinburgh and the court of Mary Queen of Scots, these new true crime books roll back the centuries and explore old-fashioned murder, mayhem, and justice.
Nicolas de la Reynie had the toughest job in seventeenth-century France. When he became the first chief of police of Paris, the city was a cesspool of crime and violence. “All day and night they kill here,” lamented one Parisian. “We have arrived at the dregs of all centuries.” His powerful position was created in 1667, and one of his first acts was to install thousands of lanterns to make the streets safer at night, making Paris the first major city in Europe to be illuminated—transforming it, literally, into the City of Light.
Holly Tucker, a professor of French who divides her time between Tennessee and Provence, recounts La Reynie’s story in rich detail and riveting style in City of Light, City of Poison: Murder, Magic, and the First Police Chief of Paris (W.W. Norton). Her focus is the most sensational case in the career of this early sleuth—cracking a ring of poisoners, fortune-tellers, and charlatans who profited from the gullibility and desperation of the nobility. Aristocratic women trapped in bad marriages or relatives in a hurry to claim their inheritances—“men and women who wished to prune their family trees,” as Tucker wryly puts it—found willing accomplices in Paris’s underworld.
La Reynie’s investigation and the arrest of a long list of prominent suspects rocked France and prompted King Louis XIV to establish a special tribunal in 1679 to hear evidence and condemn offenders to torture and gruesome executions. The far-reaching probe soon implicated two of the king’s many mistresses and exposed a suspected plot to kill the Sun King himself, by handing him a letter laced with poison.
This is narrative history at its best, using riveting scenes and sharply drawn characters to unravel a long-ago mystery. La Reynie was at once a “principled hero and a cruel enforcer,” Tucker concludes, who “tried to impose order on a world of desperate passion and greedy access to power.” Her investigative skills and ability to impose order on the web of lies and allegations at the heart of the “Affair of the Poisons” is as impressive as anything her protagonist achieved.
Fast-forward to the English countryside in 1817. Who killed Mary Ashford, a 20-year-old servant, in a village near Birmingham? Colin Dexter’s fictional Detective Morse always suspects the last person to see the victim alive, and had he been on this case he would have trained his sights on Abraham Thornton. A rakish young bricklayer, Thornton had walked Ashford home from a dance and admitted—boasted would be a more apt word—to having sex with her in a farmer’s field. But he denied killing her.
This vintage whodunit has been dusted off and retold in The Murder of Mary Ashford: The Crime that Changed English Legal History (Pen & Sword History). Naomi Clifford, a former journalist who blogs on Georgian-era history, was drawn to the crime because of its odd place in legal history: Thornton invoked the right to defend himself in a trial by battle, an archaic feature of British law that was abolished soon after the case played out in the courts.
The author’s aim was to look beyond the trial-by-battle sideshow to find out what happened that night. Did Ashford, distraught after giving in to Thornton’s advances, commit suicide? Was she raped, as the evidence clearly suggested? There was an abundance of perjured testimony and the jury needed only six minutes to find Thornton not guilty. Did his father bribe witnesses and jurors to save his son from the gallows?
Clifford believes she has solved the mystery, after unearthing a long-forgotten version of a witness statement that was too graphic to be aired in a nineteenth-century courtroom. Her research is thorough and her arguments are convincing. She names the killer, restores Ashford’s sullied reputation, and succeeds in her mission to correct “a missed opportunity for justice.”
Clifford tackles a more ambitious subject in Women and the Gallows 1797–1837: Unfortunate Wretches, also published by South Yorkshire-based Pen & Sword Books. 131 women were executed in England and Wales during this forty-year period, a brutal era when the criminal law, dubbed the “Bloody Code,” contained almost 300 capital offences. Crimes far less serious than murder and treason—even forgery, theft and rustling sheep—could mean a one-way trip to the gallows.
The author provides a brief synopsis of the crimes and executions of each woman. Many were convicted of infanticide and five were hanged for arson. But the heart of the book is more than a dozen case studies of better-known or representative cases. Eliza Fenning, a London kitchen maid convicted in 1815 of attempting to murder her employers with arsenic, was likely innocent. Prison reformer Elizabeth Fry was unable to halt the execution in 1818 of Harriet Skelton—her maiden name, ironically, was Goodluck—for passing a forged one-pound note in an attempt to help her brother avoid a stint in debtor’s prison.
While women were relegated to second-class status in society, the justice system was remarkably egalitarian in its treatment of offenders. Women were about as likely as men to have a death sentence commuted to imprisonment or transportation, and those unable to cheat the hangman were executed alongside male offenders, amid the shouts and jeers of unruly mobs.
“Whatever their crimes,” Clifford writes, “the facts of their deaths and the manner of their dispatch—in haste, in pain, in public—should be remembered.”
Britain’s justice system circa 1800 looks enlightened and lenient compared to the punishments meted out a couple of hundred years earlier. Exhibit A is Crimes and Criminals of 17th Century Britain (Pen & Sword History) by Daniel J Codd, a writer who specializes in crime and folklore. “Anyone wishing to understand what life was like during a particular era,” he notes, “would benefit from studying the great criminal cases of the age.”
And the crimes of seventeenth-century Britain have plenty to say about the politics, beliefs, and violent culture of the time. Witchcraft, making libelous statements, refusing the oath of allegiance, and publishing banned books were crimes. This was the century of the Gunpowder Plot and the beheading of the king. The Powers That Were used trumped-up charges and executions to eliminate threats and rivals, while the rich and well-connected could break the law with the assurance that their money and status would protect them from punishment. “Those less privileged generally paid with their necks,” Codd notes. It was “a truly hazardous time to be a British citizen.”
The police officers of the day tended to be “poorly-paid, corrupt, superstitious men,” aided by informers and professional “thief-takers” eager to help catch criminals and pocket rewards. Offenders were sentenced to death on the word of a single witness. Punishments for less serious crimes included whippings and confinement in foul, crowded prisons.
Codd has done his homework and displays an eye for detail and a passion for finding lost stories. The book is arranged by type of offence, from early serial killers to war crimes, highway robbery, riots, and gentlemen who squared off in duels, giving this the feel of a reference work. The onslaught of names, dates, and gruesome crimes can be overwhelming but is certain to make readers grateful for constitutional rights and the rule of law.
A half-century earlier, in 1567, a mansion exploded in Edinburgh, killing Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, the husband of Mary Queen of Scots. His death was convenient for Mary, freeing her of the lazy, dissolute spouse she despised. It was just as convenient for her cousin and rival, England’s Queen Elizabeth, and for the Earl of Bothwell, a ruthless Scottish noble who became Mary’s third husband barely three months after the murder.
Who killed Darnley? Edinburgh had no Nicolas de la Reynie to investigate and the question has confounded and divided historians ever since. But Robert Stedall sheds new light on Darnley’s life and death in Mary Queen of Scots’ Downfall: The Life and Murder of Henry, Lord Darnley (Pen & Sword History). A retired accountant and author of a recent two-volume biography of the Scottish queen and her son, James VI, Stedall deftly navigates the power grabs and shifting alliances within the Scottish court in search of the answer.
It’s clear Bothwell was the instigator of the plot. He had the most to gain and confessed his role in planning the explosion. “The king’s death is devised,” he allegedly told one of his associates two days before the deed was done. “If I put him not down . . . he will be my destruction!” Darnley, however, escaped moments before the house exploded and his body was found in the garden. He had been suffocated by one of Bothwell’s henchmen, who were stationed on the grounds to ensure no one emerged alive.
Was Mary among the conspirators, or did the queen at least know that plans were afoot to eliminate her husband? Stedall has sifted through a mass of contradictory and self-serving contemporary accounts—including statements extracted under torture—in a bid to put this and many other 450-year-old questions to rest. One fact is not in dispute. Darnley was only 21 when he died, proving that these were times when life could be short and death nasty and brutish, even for the consort of a queen.
Dean Jobb’s book on the crimes of Victorian-era serial killer Dr. Thomas Neill Cream will be published by Algonquin Books in the U.S. and by HarperCollins Canada. He teaches nonfiction writing at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Follow him on Twitter: @DeanJobb.