Advertisements

Tag Archive: 19th century history


Review by Elizabeth C. Bunce

In the small-but-crowded field of Victorian true crime, Paul Thomas Murphy′s 2016 release Pretty Jane and the Viper of Kidbrooke Lane: A True Story of Victorian Law and Disorder presents a notable installment in the genre.  Covering a lesser-known crime that was the sensation of its day, Pretty Jane and the Viper of Kidbrooke Lane details the brutal murder of Jane Clouson, a sixteen-year-old London maid-of-all-work, and the legal fiasco that followed, including—but hardly limited to—the murder trial of suspect Edmund Pook.  Murphy begins his account like a thriller, a police procedural of a bygone era of evolving law enforcement and burgeoning forensics.  His heroes are the detectives, witnesses, and doctors who come forward to uncover the truth of Clouson’s attack—and the identity of her attacker.  Pretty Jane and the Viper of Kidbrooke Lane is available now in a paperback edition.

In his riveting step-by-step analysis of the investigation, Murphy paints a vivid picture of 1870s London—its law enforcement, its residents, and the neighborhoods torn apart by the culture clash of young Clouson’s murder.  This section of the book really shines, offering both an excellent overview of period forensic science and police procedure, as well as enticing tidbits like the cost of a photograph or the unexpectedly fascinating workings of a ironmonger’s shop from the era.

The second part of Murphy’s tale, leading readers through the labyrinth of the 19th century English justice system, loses a bit of momentum, although that’s as much the challenge of presenting the welter of material about the case (four separate steps to the murder trial and all the attendant solicitors, barristers, judges, and witnesses) as the challenge of making the mystifying Victorian trial process understandable.  That said, it’s unclear who the audience for the book is meant to be—American readers wholly unfamiliar with the byzantine and confusing steps of a Victorian murder trial; or English readers who will find the basics—if not the details (which have changed substantially in the intervening 145 years)—relatable.  Readers brand-new to the subject will likely find themselves lost and confused by references to the Treasury Department (which handled many public prosecutions until the 1980s) and similar trappings, and may struggle to stick with the book through the legal morass.  It is not a spoiler to note that Pook was acquitted of the murder, but the legal battles surrounding him were far from over.  Murphy offers up a cast of characters who, beyond mere professional adversaries, become almost mortal enemies as the many facets of the case churn on.

Continue reading

Advertisements

Review by C.J. Bunce

Arsenic and Old Lace?  Truth is often stranger, darker, and more insidious than fiction.  Where the classic horror comedy dramaticized the historic use of arsenic as poison via elderberry wine, a routine use of the substance killed an incalculable number of people, probably at least in the tens of thousands, over the course of a little more than a century.  Imagine everything around you right now that is printed in the color green is printed with an ink which, if you brush against it, inhale it, touch it, or ingest even a minute amount of it, would kill you violently?  A recent scholarly account weaves together a tale of 18th-19th century science and psychology, beauty, style, and design, products liability and corporate greed, political cartoonists and iconic leaders of art history, and a scholarly account of an artform and staple of the arts and crafts movement in the most unlikely of collisions with day-to-day life.  Lucinda Dickens Hawksley’s Bitten By Witch Fever: Wallpaper & Arsenic in the Victorian Home is a book about wallpaper.  And it could be the most surprising and intriguing book you read this year.

At one level Bitten by Witch Fever could be a useful tool–included in its pages are facsimiles, and thankfully only facsimiles, of 275 color wallpapers from the 19th century.  It’s almost unprecedented and an ideal sourcebook for the period, for local or commercial set decorators, or for any artists and designers attempting to recreate in any medium the average household of the day or the most opulent business setting.  Yet each of the papers represented was tested by current scientists to include arsenic.  Predominantly tied to greens of a century of wallpaper style and taste, ultimately arsenic would be worked by designers into a broad spectrum of the color palette.  But mankind has known the harm of arsenic going back to ancient times, right?  It’s the complexity of the “Why?” that art and social historian (and Charles Dickens’ great-great-great granddaughter) Hawksley wrestles with in revisiting the use of arsenic in all its forms: as domestic poison, as health tonic, as pigment enhancer, and as murder weapon, and its rise in production with the rise of fashion of decorative wallpaper.  But why “witch fever”?  That reference in the title was from a comment by apologist William Morris–the arts and crafts movement innovator artiste–who also inherited from his father one of the few mines that produced arsenic.  To brush off arsenic safety scaremongers, he had responded, “As to the arsenic scare a greater folly it is hardly possible to imagine: the doctors were bitten as people were bitten by the witch fever.”  In part, the realities were fuzzy: many people lived with wallpaper with no ill effects, and yet others sleeping in a closed room with wall-to-wall arsenic coated papers would become violently ill.  Hawksley identifies cases of alleged crimes, court cases, alleged murders, and attempts to halt arsenic use.  Throughout the 19th century political cartoonists drew cartoons mocking the public’s continuing use of the poison in daily life.  Many of these cartoons are also included in the book.

The horrors were real:  young siblings die after pulling wallpaper off their walls and licking off the strange flavor.  From an ancient Greek physician using arsenic as an antiseptic to Nero using arsenic to murder Britannicus, to Napoleon rumored to have died in exile from arsenic poisoning, to the death of a Swedish king and the Borgias, the history of the substance crosses borders and social strata.  A few countries were quick to ban its commercial use, while factories where it was used were slow to address safety issues for workers.  In 1775 chemist Carl Scheele’s new green was so vibrant that the real fever was very much public fascination with new, beautiful colors.  It was used on walls, but also in flypaper, flocked papers, rodent and insect poison, asthma and eczema cream, as a Victorian aphrodisiac, face creams and soaps, artificial decorative fruits and vegetables, dress fabrics, mail labels, playing cards, all sorts of product packaging, and (gulp) cake icing coloring, candy, and lickable postage stamps.

Continue reading