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Murder by the Book

The Crime That Shocked Dickens's London

by Claire Harman

Hardcover, 252 pages, Knopf, List Price: $26.95 |


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Murder by the Book
The Crime That Shocked Dickens's London
Claire Harman

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NPR Summary

Traces the lesser-known story of a Victorian-era murder that rocked literary London, revealing how the killer organized his defense by blaming his behavior on a popular crime novel.

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Excerpt: Murder By The Book


Early in the morning of Wednesday 6 May 1840, on an ultra-respectable Mayfair street one block to the east of Park Lane, a footman called Young answered the door to a panic-stricken young woman, Sarah Mancer, the maid of the house opposite. Fetch a surgeon, fetch a constable, she cried; her master, Lord William Russell, was lying in bed with his throat cut.

It was thought at first to be a suicide; that is what the young Queen was told at noon, but later that day when her Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lord John Russell, arrived at the Palace it was with the melancholy news that his uncle had in fact been murdered, his throat cut so deeply that the windpipe was sliced right through and the head almost severed. The motive appeared to be robbery, as the drawing room of Lord William’s house had been turned upside down and a pile of valuables had been discovered near the front door. But the brutality of the crime was what struck the 21-year old monarch: ‘This is really too horrid’ she wrote in her diary; ‘It is almost an unparalleled thing for a person of Ld William’s rank, to be killed like that’. 

Lord William’s rank did indeed make him a notable corpse, however quiet and unobjectionable a live man he had been. Third and youngest son of the Marquess of Tavistock, he had passed the thirty years since the death of his wife mostly in travel and connoisseurship. He was known at Gore House, Holland House, the Royal Academy and at the Palace itself, but his status and means were nothing to those of his nephew Francis, the seventh Duke of Bedford (owner of Woburn Abbey and its priceless art collection), nor of his nephew Lord John Russell, who was one of the most influential politicians in the land. The house in Norfolk Street where he lived alone was modest by Mayfair standards and Lord William kept only three servants, a maid, a cook and a valet.  Two other employees, a coachman and groom, lived off the premises.

Who would want to butcher in his sleep this unobtrusive minor aristocrat, with his afternoons at Brooks’s and his restrained widower habits?  In the newspaper articles that were about to appear, no one could find much to say about Lord William’s ‘placid and benignant’ life and ‘unoffending days’ as a continental traveller and absentee M.P. ‘Aged and respected’ he was called in the Times, like a cheese. 

But as details emerged of the murder and the bungled burglary that seemed to have provoked it, fears grew that they might be symptoms of something more widespread and insidious. If such a person as Lord William was not safe in his bed, who could be? Such was the panic provoked by the crime, one newspaper declared, that ‘many families at the west-end, and more particularly aged persons living as the deceased had done in comparative retirement, entertain, perhaps for the first time, a feeling of insecurity’.

These were indeed nervous times for the ruling classes. London in 1840 was teeming with immigrants, the unemployed and a burgeoning working class who were more literate and organised than ever before. The winter just past had been one of mass rallies by Chartists demanding universal suffrage that in some places had turned into bloody riots and Lord Brougham had warned at the opening of Parliament in January that the country might in fact be on the brink of revolution, so marked was the change taking place in the disposition of the common people towards ‘all men in power’. When over two hundred Chartist demonstrators were arrested and twenty one found guilty of high treason after the uprising in Newport on 4 November 1839, the ancient and barbarous punishment of death by being hung, drawn and quartered seemed suitable to make an example of those convicted.  

Was Lord William Russell’s murder informed by the same ‘spirit of insubordination’, some people wondered? Class boundaries were changing rapidly; had he been chosen as a victim for what he represented as much as what he owned?

The crime soon had all London talking, from the thieves’ dens of Soho to Buckingham Palace itself, and for the first time, perhaps, politicians weren’t the only people being blamed for rousing up a volatile underclass. As the investigation into Lord William Russell’s death proceeded, several of the leading writers of the day were alarmed to find themselves suddenly under fire for having written fictions that were simply too popular and too convincing. Given the chance to mould the taste of a mass audience, many of them were now accused of pandering to the lowest, with books full of violent excitements and vulgarity, that could all too easily lead susceptible readers astray.

But to understand how the gory events in Norfolk Street were linked to this panic about ‘low’ culture, and one bestselling book in particular, we need to go back to the evening of Lord William’s murder and follow his movements on his last day alive.