Magazine | October 19, 2015, Issue

Violence before Victoria

Murder by Candlelight: The Gruesome Slayings behind Our Romance with the Macabre, by Michael Knox Beran (Pegasus, 258 pp., $27.95)

In this era of orange-suited victims beheaded or buried alive en masse by jihadist fanatics, Michael Knox Beran would like to take us back to an earlier era of shocking horrors, the “classical age of murder” that reigned, as he sees it, in England in the quarter century from 1811 to 1837. He calls upon court testimony, contemporary news accounts, and especially the writings of the Romantic prose masters Thomas De Quincey and Thomas Carlyle to reexamine, in all their ghastliness, a series of murders that transfixed, delighted, and terrified the English public of the day.

And what is a “classical murder”? One that is not clinical or bloodless, Beran says — not death by poison, for instance. A classical murder carries with it a strong whiff of “deviltry” and mystery that cannot be explained away by means of forensics or social science. The word “conditions” came into vogue, Beran tells us, in the age of Queen Victoria. Murderers, increasingly accepted as an unfortunate fact of life in the newly crowded metropolises of Europe, were supposedly driven to their deeds by the deplorable conditions in which they lived: inadequate plumbing, poor hygiene and diet, a lack of schooling. (Beran labels this the “Whig theory of crime.”) Experts in various fields could study and remedy these conditions, the theory went. Acts of Parliament could be passed to improve the physical and mental health of the nation’s most vulnerable citizens; thus treated with compassion, potential killers would turn a deaf ear to the demonic whispers that urged them toward depravity.

But prior to this utopian project, the prophets of Romanticism knew enough to give evil its due. Beran offers passing praise to early Gothic creations such as Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (1764), which spurred a legion of similar “shudder novels” that depicted lovely lasses and innocent souls violated in various titillating ways. When the Gothic formula grew stale (Jane Austen mocked it in Northanger Abbey), the Romantic novelists and poets took up the gauntlet, plunging deeper into the heart of human darkness. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, with his demon lovers; Sir Walter Scott, with his witches and gremlins; Lord Byron, founder of the Order of the Skull, whose adherents drank claret out of craniums; Mary Shelley, with her rebel-hero monster in Frankenstein; and Percy Shelley, with his nightmarish visions of dear friends lacerated and dead children reanimated — all sought to penetrate to the depths of human nature. All sought to reach understanding not by way of analysis and logic — the favored tools of the Enlightenment — but by emotion and sympathy. The task, Beran writes, was to evoke the deep feeling that evil “lives in each of us, feeding on the worms that fester in the vitals of our spirit.” The murderer is us.

The true geniuses in this endeavor were not the Romantic poets and novelists, Beran argues, but the “murder historians” such as Carlyle and De Quincey, who struck delicious terror in their readers by anatomizing the mindset of notorious fiends and recounting the grisly details of their handiwork. The first case Beran presents is that of Jack Thurtell, a silk merchant from Norwich who in 1821 sought his fortune in London.

Thurtell had a passion for gambling and soon fell in with a couple of scoundrels. He set his fabric shop on fire to reap the insurance (in the process ruining an adjacent business, which lacked insurance), conspired (and failed) to win the affections of a wealthy young woman whose beau he attempted (and failed) to kill, and finally fell into the debt of one Mr. Weare, a more accomplished huckster than he. Unlike Thurtell, Weare, by dint of cunning and cash, had acquired a patina of respectability among the beau monde of London. Thurtell envied and loathed him and, when Weare refused him a loan of five pounds, swore vengeance. Pretending reconciliation, Thurtell invited Weare to go shooting outside London, with the added lure of “flat-catching” — using trick cards, they would fleece a young, newly propertied gentleman of some portion of his riches. For Weare, the weekend’s leisure activities did not go as planned. His body was fished out of a brook several days later, with his throat slashed and his feet tied together and sticking out of a too-short sack.

All of London was riveted by the trial. Carlyle found in the person of Weare a symbol of the shallow pretensions of his contemporaries. A witness averred that Weare was a “respectable” fellow, the proof being that he rode about in a horse-drawn carriage: “He kept a gig.” Carlyle seized upon this image and henceforth delighted in skewering vulgar up-and-comers by exclaiming “the gig of respectability again!” Sir Walter Scott also followed Thurtell’s trial, to the point of obsession. He collected news clippings, chapbooks, and doggerel about the murder, had them bound into a special edition, and ruminated over them “as a recipe for low spirits.”

Beran goes on to recount other high-profile murders of 19th-century London, including that of Hannah Brown, whose fiancé dismembered her on Christmas Eve, apparently in a fit of rage after learning she lacked the 300 pounds he needed to start a new life in America with another woman; that of Lord William Russell, whose valet (first stripping completely nude to avoid getting blood on his clothes) nearly decapitated him as he lay in his four-poster bed; and the never-solved Wapping murders of 1811, when two entire households (including a three-month-old baby, an apprentice, and a servingwoman) were savagely murdered twelve days apart in East London.

One of the many pleasures of Beran’s book, in addition to his luscious prose, is that he paces the narration of each famous murder as adroitly as a mystery writer. Short chapters with piquant titles — “The Body in the Brook,” “Wolf’s Paw” — lead the reader along as each crime narrative unfolds. As with detective novels, we learn to keep an eye out for the revelatory detail: The red shawl Jack Thurtell first used to disguise himself in his botched attempt to kill a romantic rival shows up later, filled with stones and wrapped around Weare’s waterlogged corpse.

Beran doesn’t let us get too comfortable in puzzle-solving mode, though. He decries the devolution of murder-writing into the mere whodunit in which the killer’s identity is at last revealed, after much logical analysis, and we learn — thank goodness — that he is not a person like you or me. Intent on instruction (of a spiritual nature, one senses) as much as on entertainment, Beran splices meditative interludes into his account. These time-outs are sometimes challenging, often illuminating, and always original.

For instance, he offers De Quincey, most famous for his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821), as the “indispensable guide to the malefactions of Thurtell” — especially in De Quincey’s essay “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth.” And yet this essay, coincidentally published the very month that Thurtell murdered Weare, doesn’t mention Thurtell at all. Beran interprets De Quincey interpreting Macbeth to help us interpret the crime story of Thurtell and its grip on the English public. The layers of allusion and cross-reference across eras are at first bewildering, but the insight Beran uncovers is worth the journey. After Thurtell sliced Weare’s throat, he retired with his accomplices to the parlor of a nearby country home, where they drank brandy and dined on pork; Thurtell even placed a watch chain, ripped from Weare a short while before, around the neck of the lady of the house. It is this sudden restoration of ordinary life — what De Quincey sees in the porter’s knock at the gate at the end of Macbeth — that truly reveals the depth of evil that came before. Beran notes that the public was shocked as much by the “weird levity” of Thurtell and his chums, partying in the parlor, as by the murder itself. This is also why, one might add, a Planned Parenthood technician’s cheerful quip of “Another boy!” while identifying tattered baby parts in a pie dish shocks the conscience almost as much as the abortion itself does.

The underlying question Murder by Candlelight provokes is: Why? Why does Beran, like De Quincey and Carlyle and Scott, wish to delve into the “secret springs of wickedness”? Why is he disappointed with himself when, by his own estimation, he on occasion fails to “worm [his] way into the evil spirit” of a murder scene? Does he have murder somewhere in his heart? The answer, I think, is twofold, and it is what makes his book more soul food than cabinet of curiosities. First: Yes, he does — as indeed each of us does. This is what the Romantics sought to teach: Evil is a permanent element of the soul (the Tory theory of crime). Knowing that we cannot easily look this in the face, Beran takes us back to a time safely distant, to reawaken us to this truth. Second, he wishes us to put God in the picture: “He who believes that his redeemer liveth can contemplate even the spider sucking the life-juices out of its victim without feeling that the universe is morally sick.” If we are to understand and resist evil, we must start from a belief in compensating goodness. With Beran as our tutor, we will be a little better prepared the next time we see a man in an orange jumpsuit kneeling beneath a blade, or the tiny, dissevered remains in a pie plate of a boy who didn’t live long enough to be born.

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