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Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Strange Crimes of the 19th Century

Strange Crimes of the 19th Century

C. A. Asbrey

'The past is a foreign country. They do thing differently there.' The first line of L. P. Hartley's The Go-Between wistfully distils the difference between received wisdom on the past and the harsh realities which we chose to forget. History provides us not only with continuity, but with a degree of certainty. We already know what happened, so it makes the vicissitudes easier to deal with. It's even simpler to rationalize if you only look at the version you like. The truth is that the past was generally a far more violent, and cruel place, than the present. Rapes were common, but not reported. Child abuse, of every imaginable kind, was routine. Crimes against the person were common if you were poor, abuse of power often went unchecked. Those living in small communities were more insulated against the worst of these, but terrible things went on behind closed doors while presenting a brave face to the world. Many acts we would describe as crimes today - sexual predation or domestic violence, were unprosecuted until well into the 19th century, and in some areas, there's still a fight to get them taken seriously. In the 19th century the sexual exploitation of ballerinas was simply the norm, and taken for granted. The Paris Opera Ballet was treated as an upper class brothel - for both genders, and was infamous throughout Europe. Actresses were considered women who were advertising their wares and fair game. Finding a sugar-daddy was seen as a protection from the rest of the abusers. Lack of opportunities for an alternative life saw people making the best of it, as much as they could. Women saved these ill-gotten-gains to buy a better life for their children, and to move up the social ladder. Bagging a rich man was good, but getting a royal was even better. If you could get pregnant by the right man you could be set for life. Alternatively, get pregnant by the wrong one and it was ruinous.

In small communities some action was taken against transgressors. The community could unite against those who went too far. In England a crowd beating pots and pans would surround a house in an act described as 'rough music'. That crowd would then deliver their own punishment before driving the miscreant out of town. This happened to very violent husbands, as well as those who stole from the community. The USA version of 'tar and feather' is a version of that rough justice, which came from Europe and the UK, but was often more political in nature. If a woman was lucky, her own family would deal with a violent husband - a phenomenon which was more common in the poor than the middle, or upper classes.       
It's not true that crime is worse now. Many are simply better reported. The Georgians barricaded their homes like fortresses, with even moderately wealthy families not trusting that security to the servants. Staff were often locked in at night. They weren't paranoid. It was a necessity, with thieves being recorded as even removing part of the roof to gain access, not to mention bribing servants. Once inside they could be merciless, using torture to get people to reveal the whereabouts of valuables. The old Scottish crimes of 'stouthrief' and 'hamesucken' relate to violence against homeowners and go back many centuries. The Victorian middle class demanded protection, leading to beat policing in cities which afforded protection to a small enclave, while the poorer parts were heaving seedbeds of want and crime.  A leveling of social inequality, and improvements for the poor, led to a reduction in crime, and people with more prospects were less ready to ruin their lives with a few petty thefts. Societal change brought a change in expectations from everyone, in the types of crimes committed, as well as how much protection people could expect from wrongdoers.

From the 18th century the emphasis fell on the victim, and their losses were central to the way courts felt about the act. It has to be remembered that some victims were considered less worthy than others. A poor woman beaten and robbed because she was walking home late, was less likely to be looked at sympathetically than a rich woman. In fact, the poor woman may even have been locked up and accused of prostitution, as in some places, women found out alone after dark were considered to be nothing else. It took a brave court action by a servant called Matilda Wade to challenge that. But the poor woman was more likely to have been stripped of everything she had, so proportionately speaking, it was a more serious crime.         

Actual crime figures are hard to come by, but can be estimated by court records, newspaper reports, and Judicial statistics. It's notable that a crime often wasn't recorded at all, if the two parties could come to terms, and reparation made. The line between civil law and criminal law was murky, to say the least. Violent crime did appear to fall from around the 1880s, partly due to policing changing the emphasis from catching people in the act, to detection, and tracking perpetrators down. It has risen again, but not to anywhere near the dog-eat-dog levels of the past. People can go out after dark in a way Jane Austin would never have dreamed of doing. We can travel in a level of safety which was unimaginable to our ancestors. It may not feel like it, but the world is actually safer for us.

I've always said that honesty, for many, is directly related to how likely they are to get caught, but I'm a cynical ex-cop. In my particular interest in historical crime though, it struck me that there are a few crimes which just don't happen anymore. Society has changed and these crimes help to tell us just how much. I thought it might be fun to look at some of the crimes which people in the 19th century lived with, but no longer happen. We should also remember that the crimes which are part-and-parcel for our epoch, such as vehicular crime and cyber crime, are just are uniquely of our time as the crimes we are about to look at now.


The resurrectionists were feared by people who believed their immortal souls were imperiled by the loss of their earthly body. Doctors, on the other hand, desperately needed cadavars to learn on, and despite being allowed the bodies of hanged felons, there just weren't enough to go around. That led to fresh graves being prime targets for those who could sell a human body to medical schools. The price varied on size and condition of the corpse. Obviously, a fresh one was better. One man, Charles Byrne, who had been a giant of eight feet tall, fetched the astronomical sum of £500 when he died in 1783. That equates to almost £76,000 - $93,252 today. A surgeon called John Hunter was obsessed with obtaining his body. Byrne has now been removed from display in the Hunterian Museum, and a campaign has been mounted for the man to be put to rest as he requested on his death bed - in the Irish Sea.

The average corpse in good condition brought in about 9 shillings and 11 pence in 1811. That equates to just less than half an old pound, but roughly £76 /$93.25 in today's money. That was a pretty good income at a time when the average annual wage for a laborer was around £20/$25.

Grave robbers would often pay women to attend funerals as mourners, who would feed back every detail of the burial - especially which end the head was. Their general  modus operandi was not to dig up the whole grave. They'd dig a pit at the head end and smash through the coffin with sharp shovels. The head would be lassoed, and the corpse dragged out of the small hole. Some of the failures were gruesome.

Burke and Hare were the famous murderers who decided to cut out the middle-man and went straight to creating their own corpses for sale. Call me a cynic, but I find it hard to believe they were they only ones to think of this. They sold their bodies for about £8 each - $9.82 - but they were as fresh as could be. Their demise came in Edinburgh being a relatively small town, and medical students started recognising some of the bodies, and raised the alarm.

The 'industry' collapsed when it was decided that the medical students could use unclaimed bodies. There was a ready supply of the poor who couldn't afford a funeral, so the supply and demand problem was sorted. The Anatomy Act allowed the medical schools to claim those bodies for dissection. Similar acts followed throughout the world and the trade in dead bodies ended. It's worth noting that a market for specific body parts thrived for a very long time after that, and that specific organs could be stolen to order by mortuary technicians well into the 20th century. The act made it illegal for organs to be removed and retained, but the demand for them did not diminish.

Fans investigating the murders of Jack the Ripper's victims could do well to remember that we cannot dismiss the possibility that some of The Rippers 'medical removal' of organs may not have been him at all, but might have been the mortuary attendants making a few bob on the side. After all, the first few murders were not initially seen as being particularly unusual, and murdered prostitutes were common, and their bodies generally unclaimed. The bodies were brought in at night, already cut, and the post mortem examination did not take place until the next day. Uteri were in particular demand, and some men even maintained huge collections of them. Not all these men were medically qualified either. Francis Tumblety, an American who is sometimes posited as a ripper suspect was a herbalist and quack doctor. He had an enormous collection of uteri which he liked to show off to visitors.


Skinner was the term for those who would tempt the unwary away from safety, most especially children, and strip them of all their clothes. For most people, their clothes were their most valuable possessions, as many didn't even have a 'Sunday Best'. Many only had what they stood up in - and that could be taken too. Children were not the only victims. Washerwomen could be set upon when carrying bundles of washing back to the owners. Note that in modern times they'd rob her after she'd been paid. In the past she'd be robbed for the laundry, which was far more valuable.

It was not unknown for people of all ages, and genders, to be found naked, or almost naked, after being robbed. It's also worth noting the overlap between this crime and the body snatchers. The bodies were never delivered to the doctors clothed. All grave clothes were removed and sold too.


Posing as an heir isn't just a literary trope. It was something which actually happened in the past. In the days before DNA, and other forensics, it was easier to pose as someone else. Some did it for a fresh start. The rest did it as a criminal venture. The best known incidence is the Tichbourne case.When Lady Titchbourne lost her son at sea, she put out documents all over the world looking for him. One Arthur Orton, a butcher's son, replied from Australia. He asked her to send money. which she did. She also asked him to come home. He thought he'd give it a go. The bereaved mother welcomed him with open arms despite being more than double her son's weight (see above), having only a basic education in comparison to the lost man's classical education, a working class accent, and looking nothing like the dead man whatsoever. The poor woman was obviously deluding herself to assuage her own grief. Other family members took the case to court. Lady Titchbourne died just before the case was heard, but he'd memorised a huge amount of detail around the dead man's life, and convinced 100 people to vouch for his identity. The case lasted 1,025 days. In 1874 he was convicted and sentenced to fourteen years hard labour. During his prison years, he insisted on being addressed as Lord Tichborne, and would not respond to the name Orton. 

It's worth noting that as a footnote, one of the most famous impersonations in modern times was solved when a gastric obstruction was stored, following an operation in 1979, from the woman claiming to be the missing Russian Princess Anastasia Romanov. The woman had been cremated, and this was the only tissue remaining. She had fooled many people throughout her life, but was rejected by even more. The DNA result was conclusive. She was not related to the Romanovs in any way.

Baby Farming 
Amelia Dyer

In the days before formal adoption, birth control, welfare, and child protection, baby farming was common. Not all of it was bad, but most of it was. Women who could not keep a child, but who had to work, had to do something. For many the answer was sending the child to a baby farmer. There were different kinds. Some would be paid regularly, and the child would be visited. Rich people used them for inconvenient children, such as a woman remarrying a man who didn't want to take on stepchildren. Others got a lump sum, and never expected to see the child again. In far too many cases nobody ever saw the child again. Some just allowed the child to wither and die, others took matters into their own hands and murdered the babies. Amelia Dyer (Right) was the most infamous, killing at least 400 children, although only few are legally attributed to her. She strangled the children with dressmaker's edging tape. When asked how the authorities could identify her victims, she said, "You’ll know mine by the tape around their necks."

She was not the only one by far.  Margaret Waters (executed 1870), Amelia Sach and Annie Walters (executed 1903). Despite baby farming being regulated in 1872 in the UK,  The last baby farmer to be executed in Britain was Rhoda Willis, who was hanged in 1907. It took longer in the USA, taking until the 1930s for informal adoptions to be ended. However, various charities took control by answering the adverts for babies to identify and prosecute where possible.

The carnage was ended by a mixture of an end to informal adoptions, and serious activism on the part of some very caring people.

Conspiring to have family members committed to an asylum or accused of witchcraft

Fans of Wilkie Collins', A Woman in White, published in 1859, will already be familiar with this trope. It's one I use myself in Innocent Minds, but it was all too common in the past. A good many people were committed to asylums for the sole crime of being inconvenient to the people around them. With no consensus as to what constituted insanity, and with diagnostic systems either in their infancy, or chaotic, people were committed who were not insane at all. Once inside, they had little hope of every getting out again.
William Stoughton

It was a good way to get control of their money, or to just dispose of a wife you no longer wanted. The previous method, accusing someone of witchcraft, did the same job, but had long lost its teeth for the purposes it had been previously used for. That was another crime which was out of fashion, and consigned to the past.  In almost all cases of witchcraft there had either been a history of animosity between the parties, or someone benefited from their wealth. The Salem witch trials are fascinating not just for the psychology of power, but also for the way a small group of men benefited financially by treading a careful line between English law and Massachusetts law - and not really following either, but by interpreting the bits which suited them. Scholars in the 18th century refer to papers no longer available to us, and make it clear that those running the trials were not as legally inexperienced, or inept, as conventional wisdom has told us. Chief Justice William Stoughton sat on the court which discharged the sheriff who seized lands from men not convicted. He was an expert, along with Joseph Dudley, at judicially clearing lands. Once seized by the crown for witchcraft, land would be sold. Stoughton and Dudley bought a lot of it. He also became one of the major landowners in the area, and became part of a partnership which eventually owned over a million acres. They eventually reached the highest levels of powers in New England. It's worth nothing that Dudley was infamous for his involvement in intrigues, attempts to overturn wills, and was accused of withholding customs money. Dudley negotiated multiple treaties and knew his way around both English law and the law of the province. While not sitting in the court, he was certainly connected to those intimately involved in it. Historian John Palfrey wrote that Dudley "united rich intellectual attributes with a groveling soul".

John Hodgeson
The girls who started that witch hysteria later admitted that they made it up, and repented. It was a way to get back at people they didn't like - strong independent women, the unusual, the eccentric, and their rivals in love. It would appear that opportunistic men then leaped on board too. Much the same happened with asylums. They were a convenient dumping ground for willful or disobedient women, the inconveniently pregnant, the unconventional, the unwanted, and the old who were taking too long to die.     

A young lady by the name of Edith Lanchaster from Roehampton had a very lucky escape when her father had her committed for daring to live with her lover out of wedlock in 1895. Her father had declared her action a 'social suicide' for the family. The asylum was inspected only two days after her committal, and she was found to be totally sane and released. Had it taken longer she would probably have been driven mad by circumstance. Many of these patients became so institutionalised it was impossible to release them, some who had been committed as young people were still in the system right up to the 1980s as very old people. 

Abuse, restraint, and drugging were commonplace. In 1869, John Hodgson, an attendant at the Lancaster Lunatic Asylum, along with another attendant killed a patient in their care who had only been admitted three days prior to his death. Both attendants swore they used no violence towards him but one patient witnessed the brutal beating and was able to give testimony that convicted both men of manslaughter. 
Forced feeding at an asylum


A wobble on the mattress jolted Sewell out of the arms of his dream-woman. He grunted and shifted under the covers, moving onto his other side. He suddenly felt a dead weight on top of him, an immobilizing, ponderous pressure which left him paralyzed and unable to move. Sewell gasped, sucking in a breath of a sweet, sickly miasma which filled his lungs as he took short pants of fear. His eyelids opened snapped open as the horror of his immobility climbed. He was pinned beneath his bedclothes, unable to move a limb, except for the feet which flailed and floundered beneath the tangling sheets.

He tried to cry out but found his impotent screams lost in the fabric jamming his mouth. He lay, pinned to the bed, rigid and immobilized as his eyes became accustomed to the darkness and a figure loomed into view. Sewell’s heart stilled at the sight of a hideous crone looming over him, her wild white hair standing straight out from her head in a tangled mass in every direction. Her lips curled back in disdain around a mouth which appeared to be laughing, but not a sound was to be heard. The hag’s eyes were in shadow, lending her the appearance of a screaming skull floating above him. She sat on his chest, rendering him unable to scream, or even move as the smell filled his nostrils. It felt like powerful arms and legs kept him pinned down. What kind of nightmare was this?

The gorgon pressed close, so close he could feel the heat of her breath on his face. All he could do was blink and tremble, too stupefied to move. It seemed like the longest time before the blackness crept in, and his eyelids dropped closed once more. The nightmare didn’t leave, it took him; engulfing him entirely until he felt nothing.

Dawn crept in by inches, the dark transitioning from black to gray, until the low morning sunshine added a warming brightness to the scene. The shadows were as long as the sunbeams were cleansing, chasing down the retreating darkness to a mere frown until the morning smiled on another new day. The sun’s confidence grew, climbing higher in the sky, proud of the majestic light which gave life and succor to the whole planet—well, not all of it. Sewell Josephson never saw another day. That day saw him though, swinging gently by the creaking rope fixed to the newel post at the turn of the staircase on the top landing. The ligature bit into the neck below the engorged face from which a purple tongue protruded from his dead gaping mouth.

The only life in the house stared at the figure with unblinking black eyes and a twitching tail. The cat turned her head at the sound of a key in the back door. A human at last. Maybe the cook would know what do to?

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  1. While the strange outmoded crimes are fascinating, I was particularly struck by the first part of the essay. People like to say that things are getting worse -- but that's very much not the case.

    1. Thanks. It really isn't. People even had to cope with pandemics and epidemics in the past too, with less understanding of the causes. There are many times I've been glad to live in the present, despite writing about the past.

  2. Well-written, interesting, and well-researched piece. Fascinating details albeit a bit morbid!

    1. Thanks. It's hard to cover the dark side without going there though. Perhaps my past career desensitizes me from those aspects.

  3. Having worked in the corrections field for twenty years, I found this post fascinating. Some I knew, some I'd not known. Thank you for the research and information. Also, great excerpt. Doris

    1. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment, Doris.