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Victorian crime


Just as disease spread unseen, so the gaslit streets of Victorian cities hid their own dark truths. Crime was commonplace, from pickpocketing (as practised by Fagin’s boys in Oliver Twist) and house-breaking to violent affray and calculated murder. Vice was easily available from child prostitution to opium dens. Drunkenness was widespread.

In an attempt to tackle prostitution in garrison and dockyard towns, the Contagious Diseases Acts (1864-69) licensed prostitutes, imposing medical examinations. The measures were vigourously opposed by reformers such as Josephine Butler, who argued that they put innocent women’s reputations at risk, and the Acts were repealed in 1886.

Reputation meant a great deal to the average Victorian. Double-standards of morality, though not unique to their age, appeared stark when private promiscuities took place behind a curtain of prim public rectitude. Officially, sex was confined to the marital bed, and until 1857 divorce was obtainable only through a Church court and Act of Parliament. On marriage, a wife’s property became that of her husband until the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882 at last gave women control of what was their own.

While countrymen waged war on poachers, townspeople bolted doors and windows against urban crime. Sir Robert Peel’s police force, instituted in London in 1829, became a model for other forces in the country. Harsh punishments faced wrongdoers; forced labour, flogging, the treadmill, transportation, hanging for a range of crimes – though seldom, in practice, for any crime but murder after 1837 (the last public hanging took place on 1868). These had little effect on simmering backstreet violence, or, if fiction is to be believed, on criminal activity behind seemingly respectable household doors. 

Murder was the ultimate crime. Its means were many and various – poisoning was a favourite method, and thwarted love, or a tempting legacy, two common motives. Victorians invented the detective story, reflecting their interest in criminal creativity and in the new ‘scientific’ methods of forensic investigation, as used by the greatest of all fictional sleuths, Sherlock Holmes, who made his first appearance in 1887 in Conan Doyle’s story A Study in Scarlet. They also relished the gory contrivances of such melodramas as Sweeney Todd,  the ‘Demon Barber’ who turned his victims into meat pies and the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Jack the Ripper

The most notorious Victorian murders were bloody slayings in the backstreets of London’s Whitechapel, ascribed to Jack the Ripper. These attacks typically involved female prostitutes who lived and worked in the slums of the East End of London, whose throats were cut prior to abdominal mutilations. The removal of internal organs from at least three of the victims led to proposals that their killer had some anatomical or surgical knowledge. Rumours that the murders were connected intensified in September and October 1888, and letters were received by media outlets and Scotland Yard from a writer or writers purporting to be the murderer. The ‘From Hell’ letter received by George Lusk of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee included half of a preserved human kidney, purportedly taken from one of the victims. The public came increasingly to believe in a single serial killer known as ‘Jack the Ripper’, mainly because of the extraordinarily brutal character of the murders, and because of media treatment of the events.

Extensive newspaper coverage bestowed widespread and enduring international notoriety on the Ripper, and his legend solidified. A police investigation into a series of eleven brutal killings in Whitechapel up to 1891 was unable to connect all the killings conclusively to the murders of 1888. Five victims – Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly – are known as the ‘canonical five’, and their murders between 31 August and 9 November 1888 are often considered the most likely to be linked. The murders were never solved, and the legends surrounding them became a combination of genuine historical research, folklore, and pseudohistory. The term ‘ripperology’ was coined to describe the study and analysis of the Ripper cases. There are now over one hundred theories about the Ripper’s identity, and the murders have inspired many works of fiction.

Unquestionably the most infamous serial killer of all time, Jack the Ripper holds a special place in British history. His identity has been the subject of endless debate, and his victims have long been profiled in the press and in books. The suspects, the murders and the motives have also long been scrutinised. Was Jack a member of the royal family, a butcher, a Freemason, a Polish emigrant, or someone else entirely?

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