Today’s world is brimming with stories of true crime, forensics, and serial killers, but there was a time when such things simply did not exist, nor did they occupy the public’s attention. Just a mere 150 years ago, the emergence of a new breed of killers began in Victorian England, the type that would begin a trend of visible depravity straight through to the 21st century. These early crimes of heinous intent were some of the first to be recognized as an entirely new variety, committed by genuine psychopaths with no regard for morality or the law. In a time when the lack of science made the burden of proof nearly impossible, these vicious crimes not only shocked prudish Victorians but had police scrambling to develop new methods for handling this unexpected brand of villain. Giving rise to the need for profiling, alienists, and the like, these seemingly zipped-up killers reminded polite society—in no uncertain terms—that people are not always what they seem.
Otherwise known as the Rugeley Poisoner, William Palmer was an English doctor convicted of murder in one of the most notorious criminal cases of the 19th century. In the medical world, he made a profitable living and married a respectable woman named Ann Thorton in 1847. All seemed right in the world—his mother-in-law had recently been widowed and both she and her daughter had received a considerable inheritance, albeit somewhat less than Palmer had expected. But when his wife’s mother turned up dead from an apparent stroke just a few days into her visit, things began to go south.
A year later, another male guest also died unexpectedly in their home. The couple then proceeded to have four children, all of whom died within the first few months of infancy—shocking even for the Victorian age. And lastly, Palmer’s own wife Ann passed away at the young age of 27, precisely around the time the good doctor started shagging the maid. Lingering on the brink of debt, Palmer took out life insurance on his brother Walter, who he then plied with gin and brandy until he died of toxicity. But the insurance company became suspicious and began an investigation into his brother’s sudden death. Palmer’s lover then bore him an illegitimate son, both of whom died of poisoning shortly thereafter. Finally, Palmer was caught when he killed his best friend, John Cook, with a bowl of strychnine-laden soup.
It is a testament to the era that Dr. Palmer was not apprehended sooner, as he had left a literal trail of dead bodies in his wake for years. It was this case that forced authorities to begin the process of exhumation to determine blood toxicity of his past victims, and it was this evidence that led to the conclusion that he was, in fact, a bonafide serial killer. In quaint English fashion, the good doctor was publicly hanged in front of 30,000 people in 1856.
Mary Pearcey was living in North London in the year 1890, hoping she would find herself a high society bachelor to marry. She began an affair with a furniture dealer named Frank Hogg, but much to Mary’s chagrin, he was already married to another woman named Phoebe—a union brought on solely by paternity. True, he did not love his wife, but it was Victorian England, after all, so it had been the only option.
Later that year, the body of a woman was found in the local park, unidentifiable because her head had been almost completely severed. She was lying next to a blood-spattered baby pram, but there was no baby. Grim, to say the least. Of course, the remains were soon discovered to be those of Frank’s wife, Phoebe. Upon receiving the news, Mary’s odd hysterics perked the attention of the authorities and brought her under suspicion. The next day, Phoebe’s 18-month old baby was found a mile from the murder site, apparently suffocated.
Because Frank and Mary had not been discreet with their affair, Mary’s home was immediately searched, and obvious signs of violence and bloodstains were found. Mary claimed the blood was from some rats she had killed, but through newly-developed scientific examination, investigators determined it belonged to a human. Without such science, they would have had no choice but to accept her word. Using this knowledge and the power of eyewitness accounts, police were able to recreate the crime—Mary had killed Phoebe in the house and put the body on top of the baby lying in the stroller, leading to the suffocation. Mary tried to plead insanity, but her lies trapped her; she was hanged in 1890.
There was a period in Victorian England when human corpses were worth a fair amount of money. Used for science and research, cadavers were a rare commodity. Considering Edinburgh, Scotland was a leading center for anatomical study at this time, the law prevented miscreants from abusing the situation by insisting all bodies be procured only from legitimate sources. In other words, the morgue was tightly guarded.
William Burke and William Hare, both living in Scotland at the time, viewed this law as less of an obstacle and more as a prime opportunity for profit. But robbing graves was dirty, tiresome, and risky, so rather than trouble themselves, they decided to obtain an even fresher product by just killing people themselves. Quite brilliantly, they had set up a lodging house in town where people checked in but they did not check out. Hence, a 10-month killing spree took place as the two men procured corpses and sold them to anatomy instructors for decent money.
Of course, they were eventually discovered when a body was discovered by a guest, and the police were promptly called. They examined the remains and surmised the woman had been suffocated, but limited forensics could not provide the hard proof they needed. They did not have the means to piece the crime together, so rather than give up pursuit, they developed the keen strategy of rolling one perpetrator over on the other. Since first-hand information was still the only real way to capture a killer, the police offered Hare immunity if he turned king’s evidence on his accomplice. As hoped, Hare provided all the harrowing details of 16 murders, and his friend Mr. Burke was promptly hanged and his corpse dissected and displayed at the Anatomical Museum of Edinburgh Medical School where it remains to this day.
Often referred to as the “female Sweeney Todd,” Kate Webster was hired to work as a housekeeper by an eccentric widow named Julia Thomas, who lived in a small cottage outside of London. She was known to have a bad temper and couldn’t seem to keep a servant for long, so she was quick to hire Webster without much of a background check. If she had, she would have discovered Webster had in fact been a thief, a drunkard, and a miscreant back in Ireland who had already spent time in prison. Naturally, the two women did not get along, and after months of fighting, Webster was fired. Upon receiving the bad news, she proceeded to throw her employer down the stairs and strangle her to death. She then dismembered the body with a saw, boiled it, stuffed it into a wooden box, and placed the head in a black bag. She cleaned the cottage and then threw the bloody box in the Thames.
When the body was finally found, police tried to identify it but couldn’t manage it without the head. Thinking she was in the clear, Webster sold all of Ms. Thomas’s belongings (including her gold teeth) and fed the fat from her dead body to the neighborhood children. A woman across the road noticed the strangeness and reported it to police who then nabbed Webster immediately. Again, this eyewitness account was the only thing that led to her capture, not the material evidence. Although Webster eventually confessed and was hanged, Thomas’ head was never found—that is, until 2010 when a man in the London area found a skull in his backyard with no teeth. Modern carbon dating identified it immediately as belonging to one Miss Julia Martha Thomas.
Otherwise known as the Lambeth Poisoner, Dr. Cream was born in Glasgow, Scotland and studied medicine (particularly the use of chloroform) in London; however, he was raised most of his life in Canada, where he returned after his degree. Having accidentally impregnated a young woman, he was forced to church at gunpoint by her family who insisted they marry. Despite his protestations, the union was arranged. But the marriage did not last long, as Cream fled for England after giving his wife a botched abortion that eventually killed her. In those days, the sheer geographical distance between Cream and his crime was enough to keep him safe—for a while.
Having escaped consequence, Cream took a lover in 1879 who was soon found pregnant and dead from chloroform poisoning in the alley behind his office. Before he could be thoroughly questioned, Cream escaped to the United States where he set up a medical practice in the red-light district of Chicago, offering women illegal abortions. Apparently, he also provided women with strychnine to off their husbands, a crime for which he was convicted in 1881. After serving a 10-year sentence, he was eventually released and returned to England. At that point, he went on to poison and kill four prostitutes and was eventually snared by police, albeit not because of the excessive physical evidence. Instead, the police had put him under 24-hour surveillance—a trick they would rely on heavily in the next few years as the Ripper emerged on the London scene. In keeping with Victorian justice, Cream was labeled a serial killed and hanged quickly thereafter.
On December 29, 1856, Martha Bacon of Lambeth, London, took a butcher’s knife and brutally murdered her two young children, slashing their throats almost to the point of decapitation. After being questioned by police, she claimed that the murders were committed by a crazed intruder. The physical evidence did not back up her claims, and she was found guilty of murder by reason of insanity. She spent the rest of her life in a high-security mental hospital, using her spare time to knit children’s clothes.
The mutilated, dead body of an 8-year-old boy was found in a London outhouse in December 1888. Considering this was right around the time of Jack the Ripper, many feared the young boy was just another of his victims. The boy was identified as John Gill, who had been seen the evening before sliding on the ice with some of his friends. His remains, found the following morning, illustrated a most brutal murder. The young boy’s arms and legs had been chopped off in a rough manner and tied to his body; his ears were cut off, he was stabbed twice in the chest, and his heart and entrails had been torn out. Because the grisly specifics of the crime were so unfamiliar to investigators, every bit of evidence gathered had been compromised in some way. Although suspicion moved from the milkman to The Ripper to an occult group in the area, the perpetrator was never found.
Madeleine Smith was a 19th-century Glasgow socialite who was the defendant in a sensational Scottish murder trial in 1857. Breaking all Victorian conventions, Smith began a secret affair with Pierre Emile L’Angelier, a gardener from the Channel Islands. Although Smith lost her virginity to L’Angelier and seemed to care for him, she was ordered by her parents, who were unaware of the situation, to marry a suitable upper-middle-class man named William Minnoch. L’Angelier was furious and threatened to expose Smith’s secret if she did not marry him instead.
Not too long thereafter, Smith was observed ordering arsenic from the druggist, about one month before the death of L’Angelier. After his body was found, police found love letters in his home from Smith, upon which police arrested and charged her with murder. Because no physical DNA or material could actually tie her to the death scene, the evidence was considered “circumstantial,” and Smith was declared innocent.
Probably the most famous of all serial killers, Jack the Ripper began his spree before forensics or advanced police work were even considered vital in solving crimes. His bloody business would soon teach them otherwise. Conducting his grisly murders around the Whitechapel district of London in 1888, he hunted about 11 different female prostitutes in the city’s slums and slit their throats before mutilating them beyond recognition. “The Ripper” name was assigned because the killer removed abdominal organs in a gnarly fashion, and although the identity of the killer could not be established, his hideous work was a fascination for both Victorian society and the media. Despite the considerable physical evidence left behind by the killer such as DNA, blood, hairs, and footprints, the forensic science was simply not sophisticated enough to catch him.
Born the daughter of poor parents in 1792, Elizabeth Fenning worked as a domestic servant in various situations. In 1815, at the age of 20, she began service for the Turner family of London who had two children. One afternoon, Fenning’s mistress discovered her half dressed in another servant’s room and severely reprimanded her, an act which Fenning greatly resented.
That evening, the family was served some very strange yeast dumplings that proceeded to make them all quite ill. By analyzing the contents of the food, investigators were able to find arsenic in the dough and brought charges against Fenning for attempted murder. However, it was not clear who had put it there, and considering Fenning had eaten the tainted food as well, many believed her to be innocent. Regardless, the evidence seemed damning, and Fenning was hanged, after which 10,000 people followed her coffin to the graveyard in support of the injustice.
And the rest is history.
5 Comments Add yours
Great piece! This is such a fascinating period of history, because nobody seems to understand what prompted so many incidents of spectacular brutality in Western society. If you want to dig deeper into some of this stuff, I’ve got a couple of recommendations:
John Landis made a great comedy about Burke & Hare in 2010 starring Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis as the titular characters. I highly recommend it. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1320239/
Also, check out the novel “The Alienist” by Caleb Carr. It’s about two psychologists contracted by NYPD in 1896 to solve the case of America’s first serial killer. Carr does a fantastic job of describing the budding science of forensics while simultaneously taking the reader on a seriously epic romp across 19th century New York City. https://www.amazon.com/Alienist-Caleb-Carr/dp/0812976142
Yes! You’re right on the money—”The Alienist” is one of my personal faves and the inspiration for the article. I agree, it was a crazy “uptick” in crime that warrants examination. Definitely, one of the human evolutions I don’t fully understand. I will check out that movie tonight. Thanks for reading!
Hey was reading through past comments and saw this again. Did you know “The Alienist” will soon be a TV show? So excited!