By the early years of the nineteenth century, the tradition of the murder ballad had evolved into depictions of grisly cases on the stage. The 1817 murder of Mary Ashford in the countryside around Birmingham was a prime example. Mary’s body was dredged from a pond early one spring morning; her assumed assailant Abraham Thornton was acquitted of her murder at trial and the case has never been officially solved. Her death was the subject of inspired several stage plays, all of which leaned heavily towards melodrama. I didn’t have room to include the infamous Red Barn murder in the book, but in a similar vein, this 1827 shooting of Maria Marten in Suffolk inspired a cottage industry of novellas, plays and songs. Like the Ashford case, the brutal killing of a young woman in a rural setting caught the public imagination and plenty of dramatic licence was used to fill in the gaps and translate the story to the stage.
Towards the end of the century, the burgeoning tabloid newspaper industry spotted the draw of crime stories and a new national obsession was born. The Illustrated Police News was the go-to publication for true crime fans and I came across its lurid stories while researching cases from that era. It’s coverage of the Whitechapel Murders in 1888 made it famous and the News’ depictions of Jack the Ripper’s victims are instantly recognisable even today. The paper’s bloodthirsty coverage of the trial of Frederick Baker for the murder of eight year old Fanny Adams was a useful source on the case and a revealing insight into contemporary attitudes to murder and its depiction in the press. In another mingling of fact and fiction, historian Peter Ackroyd quoted apocryphal coverage from the Illustrated Police News in his novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, to add period atmosphere to his story of a string of brutal murders in East London, inspired by the Ripper.
In the twentieth century, our tastes for true crime became a little more nuanced and some controversial cases would cast long shadows, both in society and in pop culture as well. The book looks in some detail at the 1950s murder convictions of Ruth Ellis, Derek Bentley and Timothy Evans; and there was no shortage of material, both factual and dramatic, to plough through on each of these cases. All three were executed for murder with heavy question marks looming over their convictions. Evans was wrongly scapegoated for murders at Rillington Place in London, which were actually the work of serial killer John Christie; Bentley was put to death for the murder of a policeman despite the fact that he had not fired the fatal shot; and Ellis hanged for the shooting of her abusive boyfriend outside a Hampstead pub. The cases were all the subject of films – 10 Rillington Place, Let Him Have It and Dance with a Stranger respectively, each of which is a minor gem of British filmmaking. The contentious executions at the heart of each case meant that hangman Albert Pierrepoint made a cameo appearance in all three of the stories, and I read plenty about the amiable executioner, who ran a pub when he wasn’t presiding over executions. He finally got his own biopic in 2005, when he was played by Timothy Spall in the film Pierrepoint.
With her platinum blonde hair and a Smith & Wesson clutched in her manicured hand, Ellis herself could have sprung from the pages of a noir fiction novel. Indeed, her case caught the attention of American novelist Raymond Chandler, creator of private eye Philip Marlowe, who was in London at the time of her trial. He was sufficiently moved by the death sentence to write to the London Evening Standard to protest at the savagery of the English courts in hanging a woman.
With a topic as big as murder, it’s impossible to fit in every case I came across, even some of the really juicy ones. With regret, I had to bypass the cautionary tale of Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters, the lovers who were both executed for murder in 1923, after Bywaters had fatally stabbed Thompson’s husband. I’d already decided to use the sad story of Derek Bentley to cover the tricky issue of joint enterprise posed by the case. But the glamorous Thompson and her lodger turned lover Bywaters have inspired a wealth of crime fiction – Agatha Christie alluded to the case in a couple of books and Dorothy L. Sayers’ novel The Documents in the Case draws heavily on the murder. More recently, the influence of the story can be seen in Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests.
My book is very much rooted in the factual, exploring the history of the law of homicide and the real-life cases that have shaped it down the centuries. But I found that these fictionalised accounts can tell their own stories about infamous murders and more widely, about our obsession with crime in all its forms. After all, the scariest stories are always the ones that are true.
Murder: The Biography by Kate Morgan (Harper Collins) Out Now
Murder: The Biography is a gruesome and utterly captivating portrait of the legal history of murder. The stories and the people involved in the history of murder are stranger, darker and more compulsive than any crime fiction. There's Richard Parker, the cannibalized cabin boy whose death at the hands of his hungry crewmates led the Victorian courts to decisively outlaw a defence of necessity to murder. Dr Percy Bateman, the incompetent GP whose violent disregard for his patient changed the law on manslaughter. Ruth Ellis, the last woman hanged in England in the 1950s, played a crucial role in changes to the law around provocation in murder cases. And Archibald Kinloch, the deranged Scottish aristocrat whose fratricidal frenzy paved the way for the defence of diminished responsibility. These, and many more, are the people - victims, killers, lawyers and judges, who unwittingly shaped the history of that most grisly and storied of laws.