Last week Judith Flanders’ The Invention of Murder was Radio 4’s book of the week. It mines quite a bit of the same territory that I cover in Damn His Blood and, as such, is worth a mention on here.
The five-part series begins with a glance back at the Ratcliffe Highway murders of 1811. Unexplained and ferociously executed, these rate among the most shocking of their time as, over the course of 12 nights in the poor Wapping/Shadwell district of east London, two households were slayed by an unknown hand.
The time of year and bleak windswept surroundings lent an extra degree of menace to the case. Ratcliffe Highway was a throbbing waterside artery conducting travellers between rural Kent and the City of London and for many years it had endured a mean reputation in the area.
Nestled against London’s bustling port, the highway was a transient place: a temporary haven for sailors, merchants and servicemen on leave, and a more permanent one for jostling inn-keepers, fishermen, small-businessmen and their families. It was lightly policed, if at all – and the first of Radio 4’s snapshots of Flanders’ book briefly recounts the vicious attacks of December 1811 which sent a tremor right through society that reached as high as the prime minister.
Flanders is ploughing a relatively familiar furrow here. The Ratcliffe Highway Murders have been visited before by PD James and TA Critchley in The Maul and the Pear Tree and, I recently read, they are shortly to form the beginning for a historical novel. Subsequently, though, she veers away into less well-known affairs.
There is the story of John Peacock Wood, an amiable drunk who was, seemingly, bashed about the head by an unknown policeman in 1833. The angry reaction which followed his death was typical of those who distrusted Robert Peel’s nascent police force.
Following this is the Red Barn Murder of 1827, when a poor woman was seduced into marriage by a man who quickly disposed of her, burying the remains in a farm building. Once again, the crime itself is far less interesting than the reaction that followed, with ballads, plays and a coterie of newspaper articles dredging the minutiae of the case and reproducing it in sensational form for an enchanted public to consume.
History always shines brightly through the prism of a murder case. Like a flash of lightning lighting a dark sky for a split-second you can clearly see into the past. Because a magistrate wrote it down or because a witness mentioned it in evidence, you become familiar with the beautiful little details that would otherwise have been lost in time: where the washer-woman was and who she was speaking to, who the parson was visiting or the precise spot where the oyster stall stood.
On top of this, an assiduous witness might make mention of his tools (perhaps he had a maul, a mattock or an adze, all curious objects): he might recall his thoughts and even – if you are especially lucky (though this might be an English thing) – mention the weather. A rather generalised maxim would suggest that the more horrid the case, the more numerous the witnesses and the greater the history.
Image Credit: E01