7 Strange Murder Cases That Made History In 19th Century England

I have what is probably a not-very-healthy fascination with 19th century crime. In addition to what are generally regarded as the first serial murders (the Whitechapel killings of 1888), the century saw a rash of strange cases, involving body-snatching and poison, brought on by rage and greed; some appear to be brutal crimes of passion, and others, methodically planned offenses. In England, this era was also a transformative stage in criminology and law enforcement that included the rise of modern forensics and the birth of a nationwide police force. British people in the 19th century exhibited an intense public fascination with crime—and murder specifically—which was manifested in both the rise of the detective story and an explosion of news coverage of real crimes, sensational enough to rival any melodramatic crime novel. These contemporary accounts of murders and their subsequent trials tell us much, not only about actual crimes of the period, but about how people in the 19th century thought about violence, class, gender, science, and a host of other subjects. The way people understood these social aberrations were reflections of their society's own broad anxieties and desires.

Keep reading for 7 strange, significant murder cases that made waves in England in the 19th century. One of my primary sources for this list is Judith Flanders’s excellent book, The Invention of Murder . If you’re interested in Victorian culture, crime, and the rise of modern forensics (which you must be because you clicked on this post), it’s definitely worth a read.

Burke and Hare

In early 19th-century England, being executed as a criminal meant that your body could also be given to a medical school for dissection. These executed criminals were the only source of cadavers available for this research, and there weren’t enough of them to keep up with the demand of scientists and medical students. An underground market of “resurrectionists” developed, wherein people would dig up recently buried bodies and sell them to medical schools. Even then, however, the need for fresh bodies was high, so in 1828, William Burke and William Hare began to take advantage of it by selling the bodies of people they’d murdered.

Their “business” began when a tenant of Hare died of natural causes, still owing him rent. They sold the body to a doctor for over seven pounds, which at that time was equivalent to six month’s wages for an unskilled worker. Not willing to let the opportunity pass, they began luring people into their lodgings, murdering them (usually by getting them drunk and then suffocating them), and selling the bodies. All of the bodies went to the same doctor, Dr. Knox, who seemed remarkably unconcerned about where these corpses were coming from. One of the victims, a teenager named “Daft Jamie” was well known in town and clearly recognizable, so Knox and his students dissected all the faster to mask his identity. Burke and Hare murdered at least five people (probably more). When they were finally caught, Hare was granted immunity for giving evidence on Burke to the prosecution. Burke was hanged and, with a bit of poetic justice, publicly dissected. Hare eventually disappeared.

Eleanor Pearcey

Eleanor Pearcey brutally murdered her lover’s wife and child in 1890. She had been having an affair with Frank Hogg for a number of years; after he married his wife, Phoebe, Pearcey became a friend of the family, even as she continued the affair with Frank. On October 24, 1890, Mrs. Hogg visited Pearcey with her infant daughter. Later that night, Pearcey was seen wheeling a pram around the streets. It would eventually be revealed that she was disposing of the bodies of Mrs. Hogg and her daughter. When the police went to Pearcey’s home to question her, they found splashes of blood everywhere—the floor, window, even the ceiling, as well as on knives and a poker. Mrs. Pearcey’s explanation was that she had had a nosebleed, and that she had been killing mice. Unsurprisingly, the police did not believe her.

Dr. Thomas Neill Cream

Born in Scotland and raised in Canada, Dr. Thomas Neill Cream killed multiple people by poison in Canada and the U.S. before fleeing to England. From October 1891 to April 1892, Cream killed four female prostitutes via poisoning. The motivation for the killings isn’t clear. When he murdered his last two victims, he didn’t even wait to see them die; he simply poisoned their drinks and left before the strychnine he’d added took effect. His eventual downfall was his seeming inability to shut up about the murders. He wrote anonymous letters to the police accusing other people of committing the crimes, and even gave a visiting American policeman a tour of where the mysterious killer’s victims had died. He was caught and hanged. There are unconfirmed stories that, just before being executed, he confessed to being Jack the Ripper, but given the fact that he was in the U.S. when the Ripper murders occurred, his being the mysterious Ripper seems fairly impossible.

Eliza Fenning

Eliza Fenning is remarkable, not because of the horrible crimes she committed, but because of the fact that she was convicted of attempted murder with no evidence and no victims. In 1815, Fenning worked as a cook for a family named “Turner.” She prepared dumplings for the family’s supper one night, and after eating them, five people—including Eliza Fenning—became ill. Everyone recovered quickly, but the next day a doctor conducted a series of tests on the leftover dumplings that, according to him, confirmed that there was arsenic in them. (In 1815, no definitive tests existed to identify small quantities of arsenic. Flanders remarks that a forensic pathologist she consulted “doubts very much that any of [these] tests would indicate the presence of arsenic.") On this non-existent evidence, Fenning was accused and convicted of attempted murder. She was hanged. Flanders suggests that class played a major role in the conviction; because Fenning was a servant, her defense didn’t matter. A middle class family accused her, and that was all the evidence needed.

Madeleine Smith

Flanders points out that middle and upper class people experienced very different treatment from the courts than their lower class brethren. A good example of this is Madeleine Smith. Smith was the upper-middle classed, teenaged daughter of an architect in Glasgow. She had an extended, secret affair with a clerk, Emile L’Angelier. In the mid-1850s, hundreds of letters passed between the couple, and they became lovers by 1856. In 1857, Smith was set by her parents to marry another, wealthier man, and suddenly her exciting, secret affair became a burden. When Smith tried to break things off, L’Angelier threatened to tell her father about their relationship.

A few weeks later, L’Angelier died shortly after a meeting with Smith. The police discovered her letters to him and learned the she had purchased arsenic before his death. According to Flanders, the press had a hard time believing that this gently bred, educated young woman could be a murderer, and were much less aggressive in reporting this crime than Eliza Fenning’s alleged attempted murders. They also placed blame on L’Angelier, who was, after all, of “French extraction” and therefore a foreigner. The trial was a jumbled mess, and resulted in a verdict of “not proven.”

William Palmer

Dr. William Palmer appears to have been a thoroughly terrible person. Quite a few people in his life died in suspicious circumstances before anyone took notice: His mother-in-law died two weeks after coming to live with Palmer and his wife; He later took out a pricey life insurance policy on his wife, only to have her die shortly after; He also took out an insurance policy on his brother, who also died shortly thereafter. Furthermore, he had four children all die in infancy (not something that was terribly uncommon on the 19th century, but it certainly looks suspicious given the rest of his activities).

People finally took notice of his murderous tendencies when he killed John Cook, a friend Palmer knew through horse racing. In 1855, Cook won a substantial amount of money on the racecourse. That night, Cook and Palmer had a drink together, after which Cook complained of being ill. A few days later, Cook and Palmer hung out again, with Cook becoming ill again. A few days after that, Palmer fed Cook once again, and Cook finally died of poisoning. Suspicion fell on Palmer when Cook’s father came for his son and discovered that his betting book and money had all gone missing.

Strangely, Palmer was allowed to attend the post-mortem, and the scene sounds like a dark comedy: Palmer created a mess by knocking the contents of the stomach on the floor, while the assistant to the medical student performing the examination was allegedly drunk. Palmer also tried to bribe multiple people to destroy evidence and get rid of reports. Thousands of people watched him hang in 1856.

Jack the Ripper

Jack the Ripper is an exception on this list, because he is the only criminal among these 7 who was never identified. Jack the Ripper is famous as the original serial killer, brutally murdering (at least) five prostitutes in the East End of London throughout the autumn of 1888. Whereas previous murders, like the others described here, occurred within certain understood parameters—motivated by greed, jealously, and so on—the Whitechapel murders were inexplicable. Although the “serial killer” is now an established criminal type, people in 1888 simply didn’t have a framework for someone who killed people with incredible violence, just for the "fun" of it. With almost no evidence, and no trial to cover, the news reports reflected the public’s general sense of bafflement:

In the Whitechapel murders we have not … one single clue, or even fragment of a clue - … we are thus left to weave the merest figments of fancy, and to form unpleasant visions of roving lunatics distraught with homicidal mania or bloodthirsty lust; of abandoned desperadoes wreaking their thirst for slaughter on forlorn and hopeless women, the wretchedest and most pitiable of their sex, to satisfy some inscrutably foul and crapulous vendetta; or, finally, we may dream of monsters, or ogres, and chimeras … (The Daily Telegraph, Oct. 2, 1888)

The Ripper continues to be England’s most famous criminal, spawning countless books and theories, as well as a London tourist industry. (I have taken a Jack the Ripper walking tour of the East End, and I have to say, it’s mostly parking lots these days.)

Images: Kim Traynor, Cussi Cussi, Ras67, mervyn, Wellcome Library, London, Grenavitar/Wikimedia