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Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Dying for a Craze

Dying for a Craze

C. A. Asbrey

Cartoon from Punch's Almanack, ‘The Trial-for-Murder Mania’, satirising the public’s appetite for crime and execution as a form of entertainment, 1850.

From the early 19th century broadsheets and periodicals became much more affordable, and a cheap form of entertainment was born. These publications gave the public topical informal, royal gossip, shipwrecks, disasters, and trials. Anything gruesome or salacious sold, so the various publications vied with one another to get the scoop on the latest crime, often with lurid pictures to drive home to the readers that theirs was the one to buy. That meant pushing murders to the front page, not only creating a craze for the genre, but it spawned a number of crazes on their own. One of the first to get this kind of treatment was the murder of Maria Martin (pronounced the old English way - Mar-eye-a, not the Spanish way). Maria was a molecatcher's daughter who eloped, dressed as a boy, to marry farmer William Corder after giving birth to an illegitimate child. She disappeared, and the killer tried to convince her family she was fine in a series of letters. Her stepmother had a dream in which the ghost of Maria told her where to look for the body, and led locals to Maria's grave in the red barn. Maria had been shot. By the time the body was found, Corder was married to someone else and had moved to London. Corder was tracked down, and brought back to Suffolk, tried, and hanged in Bury St. Edmunds in 1828. The child died, and there are suggestions that the child was murdered too. 

The story had everything, murder, sex, cross-dressing, supernatural guidance, pregnancy outside of wedlock, lust, and love ending tragedy, so it's no surprise that it produced more than just a newspaper story. A melodramatic play was written, which was even turned into a movie in 1936, but at the time there were plays, puppet-shows, songs, and even a range of pottery featuring the barn and the main players. The Barn itself became a tourist attraction, so much so that the barn was stripped by souvenir hunters and no longer stands.

An intriguing post-script to the murder suggested that Maria's stepmother, who was only a year older than her stepdaughter, was able to lead people to the burial spot as she was implicated in the murder. She was alleged to have been having an affair with Corder, and only came up with the 'dream' when he married someone else, and she became jealous.      

The mania for murder and public execution became so pronounced that the satirical magazine Punch ridiculed the trend in 1850. 

Franz Muller

Another craze which came from a public obsession with murder was the fashion for men to cut down their hats in 1864. When banker's clerk Thomas Briggs had the dubious distinction of being the first man murdered on British railways, the clue left behind by the murderer was a cut-down hat. Muller had cut down the original hat to make it fit better, and then pasted the felt back on, making a much shorter version. 

This hat was published in the newspapers, and the version caught the public imagination. Before long, milliners were turning out versions of the hat, which sold in their thousands. This new hat was called a 'Muller Hat', and people talked about their hats being 'Mullered'. Before long 'being mullered' became a slang term for being murdered. It wasn't long before it was adapted to being drunk, as 'being slaughtered' was another slang term for being inebriated. To this day in the UK 'being mullered' still means being drunk. 

It also left us with something else. The cut-down version of the hat became more popular than the original version. In the UK the hat was always called a bowler hat. In the USA it is called a Derby. 50,000 people attended Muller's execution.

The original version of the Bowler Hat, also known as a Derby in the USA. 

An example of a craze being brought to an end by a murder case relates to Maria Manning. Maria and her husband, Frederick, were convicted of murdering her former lover, Patrick O'Connor. She was a Swiss former-ladies' maid with delusions of grandeur. Always fashionable, and impeccably turned-out, she saw herself as the equal to any of the ladies she worked for. The newspapers paid a lot of attention to describing everything she wore throughout the trial. The haughty woman seemed to reflect the glamour of a character in a book, more than real life, as female criminals tended to come from the more down-trodden sections of society. They rarely had looks any woman would aspire to, but Maria Manning was different. The salacious details of the murders also satisfied the public desire to live vicariously, whilst living with buttoned-down respectability of Victorian life.  

Dickens actually based the character of Mademoiselle Hortense, the bad-tempered, spiteful maid in Bleak House on Maria Manning. Wilkie Collins also referred to her in The Woman in White, but the fashion for being fuller-figured had changed by that time (eleven years later). It no longer represented affluence, and was something which had more negative connotations. Referring to Count Bosco a character says, "Mr. Murderer and Mrs. Murderess Manning were not both unusually stout people?"  

When Maria Manning was hanged on 13th November 1849, she chose to ascend the scaffold black satin, drawing many comments in the press as to how beautiful she looked. One quote said, “beautifully dressed, every part of her noble figure finely and fully expressed by close fitting black satin” Popularity for the fabric plunged at that point, but there's no truth in the myth that women refused to wear it at all.

A new study, conducted by researchers at Queen’s University Belfast was published in the Journal of Economic History, which shows a fascinating connection between a Victorian craze, and the rise of organized crime. In the 18th century James Lind discovered that vitamin c was a cure for scurvy. That started a demand for the fruit which only grew as time went by. The Victorians made drinks with it, baked with it, used it as a beauty treatment, and even cleaned with it. Although sour, the tumbling price of sugar made it more palatable, and suddenly it was everywhere. Lemonade, lemon bars, lemon cake, and the new lemon meringue pie are just some of the things which suddenly became more commonplace.

And Italy was the main source for lemons.

In 19th century, and early 20th century, the US Italian families held a virtual monopoly on the citrus growing industry, as fruit grown in California and Florida was seen as inferior to the Sicilian fruit. The US market share for the fruit was only a few percent in the 1880s, had reached eighteen percent in 1900, but took until 1920 for them to hold seventy-five percent of the market share. In the 19th century, that meant that most of the world demanded a product produced in the south of Italy. Bourbon-era land reforms meant that land ownership was broken up into fragmented sections, and the greater the demand for a product in the hands of many small land-owners, meant a greater need for private protection for all those small farmers.  

I'm sure you can see where this is going, but the study analyzed data from a parliamentary inquiry in 1881-1886 on Sicilian towns. It looked at the causes of crimes in 143 towns, and found that a mafia presence was strongly related to the production of oranges and lemons.

Those providing that protection, soon found out that it helped to show these small famers that they couldn't do without their tender mercies, and a protection racket was born. It didn't take long for the successful criminals to begin knocking off their rivals, and venturing into other areas. Very soon they were acting as middle-men between producers and exporters. They also immigrated to the new world, often using their legitimate business as a cover for all kinds of criminal enterprises. The mafia was born, and prohibition really turbo-charged their growth.

So the next time you tuck into your favourite lemon treat, just remember how something so sweet it helped bring us the Mafia.



“She hasn’t got the combination to the safe,” said the manager. “You can scare her as much as you want. We all know you’re not gonna use that gun on us.”

Rebecca’s breath halted as she felt a careless arm drape around her shoulder.

“I don’t need a gun to hurt someone. Give us the combination.” The manager remained mute and turned his face away. “Your call, sir.” He pulled Rebecca around to face him as she gasped in alarm. “Just remember who you’ve got to thank for this, ma’am.”

He pointed over at the manager, who refused to meet her eyes. “That man right there.”

“Anything that happens to her is down to you. Not me,” said the manager.

Rebecca felt herself dragged from the room by one arm. She was pulled into the office next door and pushed against the wall. The man walked over and pulled down the blind before returning to her. Her breath came in ragged pants of fear. “Please, no. Don’t.”

He leaned on the wall, a hand on either side of her head, and pressed his face close. “You were gonna hold this place up. Are you some kind of idiot?”

She blinked in confusion. “Huh?”

The man pulled down his mask, revealing the face of the fair man who had walked into her office looking for Fernsby. “Don’t lie to me, honey. You had the same idea as we did— look at Meagher’s bank account to see where he gets his money. We’ve watched you march up and down outside this place all day, like you were on sentry duty, while you built up your courage. You even got in the way of us doin’ it. What the hell is goin’ on in your head? How dumb can a woman get?”

“You? Here?” She couldn’t quite decide whether to stop being scared or not.

“Yeah. Me.” He indicated with his head. “Now, Nat’s in there, and he needs the combination of the safe. It’s too new and sophisticated for him to crack the combination. You and me need to put on a bit of a show to make sure the manager gives it up.”

“You’re not robbing the bank?”

Jake huffed in irritation. “Try to keep up, Becky. I need you to scream for help so the manager gives Nat the combination to the vault. We want Meagher’s records too.”

She shook her head. “Me? I can’t scream.”

“What do you mean you can’t scream? All women can scream.”

“I can’t. I’m just not made that way.”

He frowned. “Look, Becky. If you won’t scream, I’m gonna have to make you. Let’s do this the easy way, huh?”

“Please, help! Noooo.”

Jake frowned. “You call that screamin’? That’s useless.”

“I told you. I can’t.”

Jake flicked up an eyebrow. “Last chance, Becky.”


“Nope.” A gloved hand reached up to her hat as his eyes glittered with mischief. “Don’t say you weren’t warned, sweetheart.” 



  1. This is fabulous. I'm especially fascinated by the hat craze --"hey, this murderer had a really cool hat, I want one too!" I feel like I've heard the term "mullered" for drunk, probably from the Brit around the house -- I wonder if M even knows where the term came from.

    Bleak House and The Woman in White -- two of my favorites. All of these stories are fascinating, but I'm now picturing Mlle. Hortense and glad to know the background!

    1. Thanks. It was discovering the 'hat' bit which made me research this stuff further. I had no idea those hats used to be like rounded top hats before that murder. I love happening across things like that.

  2. nice piece, your exerpt sounds awesome too!

    1. Thanks!, I had loads of fun researching this one.

  3. Christine, you always research and post such interesting subjects--this one is no exception. I couldn't help thinking times don't change....we still have our yellow journalism with lurid headlines and photos. I've always said human nature doesn't change, only the window dressing changes. I look forward to your next blog.

    1. Thank you. I so agree. My mother always used to say, "People never change, only times change." Once I understood that we have always had the same drivers, and passions, but now were more open about them. It was a great mindset for writing historical fiction. And I so agree, people have always loved scandal and sensationalism. And as long as people can make money from it, they will.

  4. What a fun post! I like the pottery inspired by the Red Barn Murders. I had to look up images of the figurines. It's fascinating what things catch people's fancy, like the hats. It reminds me of the ladies fashion statement of wearing red ribbons around their necks as a nod to guillotined noble women. In many ways we do not change! The interest in the dark side and those who stray from the path. Thanks again for another interesting post.

    1. Thank you. I'm glad you enjoyed it as I had loads of fun researching it. Oh, the red ribbons are ghoulish, aren't they? Thanks for reading and commenting.

  5. Love the tension between the characters in your excerpt, Christine. Very crisp and sizzling.
    Really interesting about bowlers and lemons and the Red Barn.
    Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks so much, Lindsay. I stumbled on the bit about the hat in research, and thought that these crazes would make a fun post.

  6. I really enjoy these posts. Your eye for detail and connections are what make them so fun for me to read. Thank you. Doris

    1. Thanks, Doris. I'm glad you enjoyed them. I had fun researching them!

  7. Wonderful article. I really enjoyed this. Thanks. Great excerpt too.

    1. Thanks so much. I'm glad you enjoyed it. I love researching these things.

  8. Wow! Such fascinating connections. The hats, the pottery, the fruit - I'll never think of these in the same way again. Thanks.

    1. Thank you! I'm glad you enjoyed it. I honestly didn't know the hats had a taller, older version before I researched this.